I knew I wasn't at a typical progressive rock or metal show when a tall and lanky mop-haired kid slithered up next to me inside Madison, Wisconsin's sold-out Barrymore Theatre and started hippie dancing - his elbows constantly jabbing me as he kept pulling up his baggy pants. He was gone after the first set by Umphrey's McGee, technically referred to as a six-man Chicago jamband and a group that has erupted all over the United States on the strength of its stunningly diverse and impressively mature fourth album, Anchor Drops. Other groove-centric kids who may or may not have picked up on the overwhelming connection between Umphrey's McGee, classic prog and heavy metal would later join me periodically throughout the rest of the Feb. 18th festivities.
About midway through the band's nearly three-hour performance, I realized that I was perhaps witnessing the future of progressive music - a healthy amalgam of styles and attitudes that's as intriguing as it is intricately confounding. How else do you describe a band that relies heavily on improvisation and vast tempo changes while making music that dares both your body and soul not to dance, flitting in and out of songs, arrangements and genres? In addition to the sounds of vintage progressive and metal music, Umphrey's McGee flirts with jazz-fusion and even a bit o' the blues. This goes way beyond typical jamband territory.
The whole mish-mash resulted in two sets and an encore that gradually became little more than one single, extended free-flowing song. In fact, nobody posting his or her opinions about the gig on the fan site Umphreaks.com can even seem agree on the exact set list.
Not that the band's musical version of attention-deficit disorder doesn't have its drawbacks. Just as quickly as guitarist Jake Cinninger would break into a neoclassical metal riff with the rest of the band backing him up with a surprisingly low bottom end, he would start noodling around again, and when the entire band got hot and heavy during King Crimson-like passages set against dramatic lighting full of shades and hues, it quickly reverted back to its more comfortable groove machine. Umphrey's McGee onstage is definitely more self-indulgent than Umphrey's McGee on record - the three-disc instant CD sets the band sells for $18 after each show prove that point. But through it all, these guys never stopped smiling, making goofy faces and pleasing the crowd with their acute sense of overall melody, technical finesse and songwriting craft. And they can sing, too, with no fewer than four of the six members handling lead or backing vocals.
Cinninger and fellow guitarist Brendan Bayliss are clearly the leaders of the band, and the duo likes to trade licks and lyrics, with Bayliss' voice the best of the bunch - although drummer Kris Meyers paid admirable homage to David Lee Roth when he took the mic for a rousing rendition of Van Halen's "Panama." A second cover, "I Ran" by A Flock of Seagulls, believe it or not, came late in the second set. (Although unaired this night, Umphrey's McGee has also been known to dive into Metallica's "And Justice for All," Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" and Nate Dogg and Warren G's "Regulators.")
Even though Umphrey's McGee ditched a potential second Barrymore show the following night in favor of a higher-profile gig in Columbus, Ohio, with blues-rocker Robert Randolph, the band's relentless touring habits will no doubt bring them back to Madison again - and probably your town, too - later this year. When that happens, it will almost be a "must-see" show for prog fans.
Words by Michael Popke
Images by Scott Maurer