Umphrey's McGee Offers Clumsy Lyrics and World-Class Improvisation

Umphrey's McGee at the Fillmore in Denver on Friday, December 27.
Umphrey's McGee at the Fillmore in Denver on Friday, December 27. Brandon Johnson (@BJohnsonxAR)
Umphrey’s McGee has been a household name for a good fifteen years now, and the band — originally from the Chicago area — headlines Red Rocks on a yearly basis. But ask the average music geek what Umphrey’s McGee sounds like, or what any of the band's songs are, and you’ll be met with the words “jam band” and a shrug.

Before seeing the group at the Fillmore Auditorium on Friday night for the first of its four-show New Year’s run, “jam band” and a shrug was my take, too. My only exposure to the group was back in 2004, when an old project of mine opened for “UM,” as fans call it, in San Francisco. None of the band’s songs — which, at their best, fall somewhere between King Crimson riffery and the lovable plastic funk of Speaking -n Tongues-era Talking Heads — stuck with me. Still, I could tell lead guitarist Jake Cinninger and drummer Kris Myers were world-class musicians, and the quintet’s takes on Metallica’s “…And Justice for All” and Toto’s “Africa” were both awesome and hilarious.

Fifteen years later, at the Fillmore show, Umphrey’s seemed generally the same. The band still played the Caucasian prog-funk jams its forefathers in Phish mastered long ago. But Umphrey's distinguished itself with heavier metal guitars and adolescent faux-Buddhist lyrics.

To begin the first set, the bandmates walked on stage and started jamming along to the house music, eventually transitioning into “Flamethrower,” a sprightly, brief prog-funk instrumental they hadn't performed in almost 150 shows. The creative and gifted Cinninger — who can shred like Kirk Hammett, get beautifully weird like Adrian Belew or wank in the traditional jam-band style of Trey Anastasio — lit up the crowd with his athletic guitar work on “Flamethrower,” which seamlessly made its way to “Attachments,” from Umphrey’s 2018 album It’s You.

“You're only here for a moment, and you know that it won't last,” singer-guitarist Brendan Bayliss sang with his nasal nonchalance before Cinninger and Myers brought “Attachments” to a boil with big, technical explosions. “Another day is given back to you/Don't be so ungrateful if you know you'll never use it at all.”

Not unlike Phish, since the jam-band giants started out playing sober Dad rock instead of silly, sprawling and ambitious suites like “Guyute” and “You Enjoy Myself,” Umphrey’s has a penchant for swinging and missing with lyrically clumsy songs and then ending them with gigantic group improvisations or just Cinninger’s monumental soloing. It’s enjoyable if you can appreciate world-class musicianship for its own sake, but the “We’ll show you this is actually a good song” feel of those finales can come off as forced.

Once “Attachments” ended and Umphrey’s went into a free-form group improvisation led by Cinninger, the appeal of the band made more sense to me. The volcanic jam sounded like Metallica and Phish juxtaposed, and I wanted to hear more of that rather than another Umphrey’s song with lyrics.

“Denver, we wanna hear ya!” Bayliss said to the packed but not sold out Fillmore crowd, stepping away from the usual jam-band tradition of remaining behind the fourth wall and not playing to the crowd. But some lightheartedness was needed. After thirty minutes of music, Umphrey’s had only played three songs, one of which was a three-minute instrumental. The most exciting moments had been the between-song improvisations, and the instrumental intro to the fan-favorite “Puppet String,” during which Bayliss again tried his hand at a hippie koan, offering angsty poetry on weightlessness and impermanence.

Bayliss sang, “Could somebody tell me, where does the time go?/I've got a bigger pile of questions than I could ever need/There's no explaining these to me,” and it dawned on me that along with Phish, King Crimson and Adrian Belew-era Talking Heads, Umphrey’s McGee — both in its songwriting and Bayliss’s vocals — is kin to the pop-y nü-metal band Incubus.

The long funk jams Umphrey’s undertakes can become incredibly boring, so it brought a huge smile to my face when, at one point, everyone in the band except Cinninger and Myers stopped playing and the two (seemingly) spontaneously broke into “Cowboys From Hell,” by Pantera. They proceeded to go back and forth from the metal classic to an old-timey swing-jazz jam, and I couldn’t help but laugh, enjoying the hell out of the sequence while the rest of Umphrey’s looked on in awe.

click to enlarge Umphrey's McGee bringing volcanic prog-funk jams to the Fillmore on Friday. - BRANDON JOHNSON (@BJOHNSONXAR)
Umphrey's McGee bringing volcanic prog-funk jams to the Fillmore on Friday.
Brandon Johnson (@BJohnsonxAR)

That a band drawing thousands of concert-goers per night across the country can break into such ridiculously fun and creative spontaneity is remarkable. Umphrey's cares about its fans. On Saturday, the group even played a set in which the audience voted by text during the show to choose the set list as it unfolded.

The second set included a blazing cover of Van Halen’s “Unchained” — what’s more fun and ridiculous than David Lee Roth saying “That suit is you!” at Van Halen’s peak? — and a show-closing take on the Who’s immortal “Baba O’Riley.” When most jam bands try their hands at hard rock, it often sounds meek and out of place. But Umphrey’s McGee nails the hard stuff, and when the Battles-esque intro to the Umphrey’s original “”Search 4” followed “Unchained,” it made perfect sense.

Like Phish, Umphrey’s McGee has not followed in the Grateful Dead’s jam-band footsteps by writing songs that are part of the relevant tapestry of American music. But what Umphrey's really does as a band — taking massive musical risks on stage that are both ambitious and fun — is impressive.

A group of great musicians does not automatically equal a great band, let alone great songwriting. But at the Fillmore on Friday, I saw how Umphrey’s has grown as individuals and as a band, having more and more fun as each musician has become, almost impossibly, more skillful.
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Pittsburgh native Adam Perry is a cyclist, drummer and University of Pittsburgh and Naropa University alum. He lives in Boulder and has written for Westword since 2008.
Contact: Adam Perry