Umphrey's McGee at Red Rocks, 6/7/13
It didn't take long for Umphrey's McGee to show off its chops. The dense solos, the dizzying melodic runs and the complicated rhythms came almost immediately after the sextet took the stage, and it was a good twenty minutes before the band took a breather for their first song break. But the heroes of the modern prog-rock and jam band scene didn't exhaust themselves with that immediate show of skill. It was only a taste of the frenetic, mathematical and virtuosic show to come, a performance that spanned more than three hours. Though the band's long-form improvs had the occasional rambling feel, the music never lacked energy and the audience never lacked patience.
The dynamic between the audience and the band played a big role in this performance, the group's seventh appearance at Red Rocks according to guitarist and vocalist Jake Cinninger. Umphrey's McGee seemed to draw inspiration from the collective energy of the thousands who had milled in the parking lots before the show. The audience never thinned, even by the third hour of the dense and largely instrumental set. Folks sang along to the rare vocal pieces like "In the Kitchen" and cheered on Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss' most abstract solo flights on the guitar.
That kind of audience support seemed to have an impact on the band's performance from the first stretch of tunes. The sextet emerged as an Edvard Grieg classical composition played and as images of faraway downtown Denver beamed on the amphitheater's giant screen. Mere minutes later, the guitarists exchanged impossibly speedy licks on guitar, and the drummer and percussionist swapped rapid solos while the bassist took some impressive solos of his own.
It was a powerful opening statement, one that set the tone for the two hour-plus sets to come. Sure, there were some stretches of surreal and silly lyrics, but the real emphasis was on pure musicianship. "The Floor" featured seemingly impossible solos from Cinninger based on guitar harmonics; "40s Theme" progressed from words about burning chili to soaring, compelling instrumental flights from the keyboardist, and the augmented chords and layered solos on "In the Kitchen" had the feel of a master jazz class.
Even the group's take on a familiar set of cover tunes didn't shy away from showcasing the band's skills as virtuoso players. Before taking a twenty-minute break, the band broke into a hybrid version of White Zombie's "Thunderkiss '65," Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" and Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar." The musical mash-up of the three songs made perfect sense; it was as if a DJ had spliced all three songs together on a turntable.
The musical fireworks found a complement in high-tech stage effects. During the last song of the first set, four gas lines emitted pillars of fire, and a spate of low-budget fireworks punctuated the final lines. Following a brief break, the second half of the show took a less frenzied approach, with long-form solos and danceable jams. The lyrics of tunes like "1348" ("So satisfy my fragile mind") and "Morning Song (Mourning Song)" offered a more introspective mood, and some of the improvisations spanned more than five minutes.
The audience kept dancing, and the hoots and cheers continued until the band finally took its final bow at 1 a.m. For Umphrey's, the crowd had built up over a period of several hours during the opening sets. When Delta Spirit played its first tune at 7 p.m., the stands were a little more than 30 percent full.
Playing for a smaller crowd, however, didn't derail the quintet's energy. The California-based ensemble offered some heartfelt and memorable moments on tracks like "People C'mon," which was downright inspirational, and the group's rendition of "Strange Vine" inspired sing-alongs by its loyal fans who showed up early.
When Dr. Dog went on at 8:15 p.m., the venue was starting to fill up in earnest. The Pennsylvania-based sextet was an apt complement to Umphrey's McGee, with its amorphous song structures, lengthy guitar jams and extensive percussion accompaniment. Tracks like "Jackie Wants a Black Eye," "Do the Trick" and the slide guitar-infused "Lonesome" set an appropriate tone for the main act.
While some stretches of Dr. Dog's set felt a bit self-indulgent and aimless, the band was remarkably coordinated. From the exact accompaniment from percussionist Dimitri Manos to the well-crafted harmonies of guitarists Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken, it was clear the band had spent a lot of time refining their sound.
Personal Bias: I'm all for creative dancing, but all of the elbows and kicks got a little exhausting by the end of the show. At least four people spilled beer on me while in the throes of their choreography.
By The Way: Delta Spirit's Matthew Vasquez dedicated the band's performance of "Empty House" to Nathaniel Rateliff.
Random Detail: During the break between Umphrey McGee's two sets, one of the tech crew brought his toddler on stage to help tidy up the stage. It was adorable.
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