Umphrey’s McGee – Stubb’s Austin, TX 4/19/14 (Show Review)

A fellow music writer once described Eric Clapton as all technique and no soul. Where I differed from this writer was in my view that being highly talented but lacking soul is not necessarily a bad thing. The same can be said for Umphrey’s McGee. Not that Umphrey’s and Clapton are even in the same realm, but both acts share the fact that their musicianship is what impresses and draws in audiences, as opposed to their magnetic charisma or dance moves. On Saturday the Chicago jam band made their annual 4/20 weekend visit to Stubb’s in Austin, and the technical prowess of the band was on full display.

Greeting the fans warmly, Umphrey’s McGee wasted little time in getting down to business as they opened with a “Le Blitz” that quickly segued into a “40’s Theme” oozing with 80’s hair metal intensity and funky bravado. On “Out of Order” bassist Ryan Stasik took the reins and led the song with a deep bass line. Through “Much Obliged” and “Final Word” the band demonstrated their ability to shred thoroughly while staying precisely harmonic and never losing control. Closing the first set was a trance jam-driven “Bright Lights” that left the audience eagerly awaiting the band’s return to stage for the second set.

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Umphrey’s returned swinging for a second set that kicked off with a rollicking “Nothing Too Fancy” that was in fact quite fancy. While this song is a fan favorite, it also demonstrates one key flaw in the Umphrey’s McGee sound, which is their tendency to build songs that seemingly only consist of introductory bursts or finales with an occasional climax, yet fail to deliver one consistent melodious groove. Oh well, fans of the band don’t seem to mind. “Deeper” saw Umphrey’s slowing down the tempo and sliding into trippiness before high gearing into a soaring metal jam only to abruptly segue into the anthemic, catchy fan favorite “All In Time.” With a mild drum solo sandwiched in the middle of the song, the band concluded with a bang when they referenced mockumentary metal band Spinal Tap and busted out their own rocking take on Luigi Boccherini’s “Minuet from String Quintet in E major, G.275,” making for one of the show’s highlights. The set came to a major close with the guest appearance of percussionist extraordinaire Mike Dillon and trombone-playing wild girl Carly Meyers on “It’s About That Time,’ who upped the ante and gave Umphrey’s the push they needed to end on a high note.

The Umphrey’s show at Stubb’s was enjoyable in the way it’s enjoyable watching any group of skilled craftsmen work their magic. It’s nearly impossible to watch this group of musicians and not be impressed on some level at their precision and flawless execution of not just their own material, but basically any cover tune they take on. However, going back to the all technique and no soul argument, their show this time around only confirmed that theory. Perhaps it is the fact that throughout their career they have yet to make that one song that connects to an audience beyond the jam band world – one that is catchy, hook-driven, and relatable to even larger groups of people. On that same wavelength, it could be that the band has no discernible front man to really pull you in and give the band that magnetic persona. There is no debating that the musicians in Umphrey’s McGee are not insanely talented and dedicated, passionate musicians, not to mention consummate professionals. That part of the band is what left me somewhat in awe of their instrumental performance at Stubb’s, but, as is consistent with every Umphrey’s McGee show I’ve ever seen, I left the venue without that transcendent musical charge you get from a band with a natural, instinctive charisma and charm – otherwise known as soul.

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Setlist

Set I: Le Blitz > 40’s Theme, Out of Order, Much Obliged > Final Word > 2×2, Bright Lights
Set II: Nothing Too Fancy, Deeper > All in Time, August, The Floor, It’s About That Time*
Enc: Heart and Soul, Bad Friday
Notes: *with Mike Dillon and Carly Meyers

photos by Arthur VanRooy

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One Response

  1. If a writer can be so lazy as to showcase a piece with lines like “On “Out of Order” bassist Ryan Stasik took the reins and led the song with a deep bass line”, I’m not sure the audience at large can trust the depth of his investigation. And if said writer wants to continue to grasp a tired argument that Umphreys McGee has no soul, he is clearly missing the majority of the point. And most certainly must have been daydreaming during Final Word and August, at the least.

    Every review does not have to be a love affair. But it cant stand up with integrity when it doesn’t get to the heart of what it is examining.

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