Review: Umphrey’s McGee at the Nokia

For those who haven’t been to the Nokia, it is is a swanky – if slightly “corporate” – theater in Times Square. I have seen Umphrey’s each of the nine times they’ve played the Nokia since February 2006 and think that Thursday’s concert was my favorite Nokia show to date. The band took the stage after a rocking set by opener Chapter 2 (Eric Krasno’s project that is incredibly impressive for their chops and musicianship). Walking on stage to “The Fletch Theme” being played over the PA, Umphrey’s showed the crowd that they were there to reward those who were able to make the show despite the blizzard pounding New York at the time.

They opened with All In Time, one of their signature jam vehicles and most popular songs among old and new fans alike. A really nice Lyrical Stewart flowed from the first AIT segment. For those who are unfamiliar, a Lyrical Stewart is an improvised piece of music (click here to learn more about UM’s Jimmy Stewart phenomenon) that the band creates in the moment and lead vocalist Brendan Bayliss adds impromptu lyrics to. Brendan’s poignant lyrics really ring true with me on this effort (given the freestyle nature of lyrical stewarts, sometimes I am left scratching my head).

The jam continued with some great guitar interplay between Jake and Brendan and wound its way into Get In The Van – a Zappa-esque instrumental that really had me excited as I was able to make it to New York City by “getting in the train.” GITV segued back into the second half of All In Time and the crowd was treated to some of the most soulful and blistering playing found in the UM catalog. In a night full of highlights, the opening AIT>Lyrical Stew>GITV>AIT certainly was one of them.

Next up was the only “breather” of the set, a new song called Conduit. Conduit is brief and poppy but possesses UM’s signature prog/funk sound and equally signature lyrical offerings from Bayliss. After the abrupt culmination of Conduit, the band launched into a monstrous Hurt Bird Bath > Tribute To The Spinal Shaft > Hurt Bird Bath. For diehard UM fans: yes, that sandwich was every bit as good as it looks. For non-fans, the type of musical exploration and creativity expressed in that two song “sandwich” is what UM fans specifically and fans of the jam/improvised music scene in general crave. Big, complex and danceable pieces of music coupled with tremendous improvisational skill, honed chops and a willingness by the band to take chances lead to moments like the HBB>Tribute>HBB.

After seamlessly executing the aforementioned sandwich the band closed the set with Turn and Dub, a reggae remix of their original Turn and Run from last year’s Mantis. I thought the reggae vibe was an appropriate contrast to the bitter weather New York was enduring outside. Turn and Dub closed out a high energy opening set highlighted by the big All In Time and Hurt Bird Bath sandwiches.

UM took the stage for their second set and seemed intent on building on the tremendous foundation they laid with their first set. They opened with one of my personal favorite jam vehicles JaJunk. This JaJunk jam was remarkable for its “dance party” middle section and was really well received by the crowd. Speaking of crowd reception, the next song in the set, Nemo’s Fat Bottomed Good Times, elicited as strong a crowd reaction as I can remember at an Umphrey’s show. Literally 2/3 of the crowd was singing along as the band led us through their clever mashup of Fat Bottomed Girls, Good Time Bad Times and their own crowd pleaser Nemo.

August proved to be another example of just how much UM had their improvisational legs under them as this version was top notch. The band locked into an infectious and mellow groove highlighted by bassist Ryan Stasik’s playing and a general cohesion between band members. After flawlessly returning to the composed ending of August, Bayliss proved to me yet again why I find him to be one of the more under-rated players in the scene today. His soulful solo at the culmination of August is one of the many reasons I find to proudly claim that I am an Umphrey’s fan. Truly gripping stuff.

After August I reasoned with myself that surely we were in for a “bathroom break” type of song choice, I couldn’t have been more wrong. UM launched into yet another of their monster jam vehicles by playing the opening notes of Resolution. I love this song for it’s quirky lyrics (complete with vocal distortion that would make plenty of metal bands proud), catchy composed sections and tremendous potential to springboard the band into some of their more thoughtful improvisation. This version delivered on all fronts.

During the first improv section, the band slyly weaved through a jam section of their original Push The Pig – which would be played in full the following evening in Boston – before a high energy return to the second verse. Jake and Brendan were in full “rock star” mode as they shredded with each other before dropping into verse two. I can’t say enough about the Nokia Resolution, truly jaw dropping playing that should be sought out by any fan of the band or curious stranger. The second improv section of the song featured funky and precise keyboard work by Joel Cummins (elder statesmen of team UM) that showcased yet another aspect of UM’s repertoire. After the funk jam wrapped itself up, UM hit the NYC crowd with another surprise.

Fans were treated to a first time cover of the Phoenix tune Lisztomania. I was vaguely familiar with Phoenix and this song before but knew enough to appreciate the effort by UM to offer something unique to fans. I thought Bayliss did a great job with the tricky vocals and the song itself was nailed as UM tends to do with their cover choices. I will certainly be checking out more Phoenix in the coming days as this cover made me fan.

The night was coming to an end, but not before UM showed off their distinctly metal influences by dusting off a version of Wizard Burial Ground (an aptly named title that evokes the “evil” I associate with this metal rocker). Wizard was not to be executed as it traditionally is however as it found its way into my favorite of the post-Mantis Umphreys songs Booth Love. The new funky original would serve as the meat in the final musical sandwich of the evening.

Booth Love is a song that paints a bright road ahead for UM in terms of their songwriting. It starts off with a patient and melodic groove that is almost eery before landing deep in the funk. Rife with funk grooves and titillating lyrics that almost seem like the walked themselves off of a Curtis Mayfield album, Booth Love really rings true with me. BL went back into Wizard Burial Ground which culminated the set with a musical assault that metal heads of the late ’80s would approve of.

The band was pressed for time in the encore as they were running up against the venue’s hard 12:30am curfew so they switched the Ringo they had intended to play for the encore with a quick version of rocker Mulche’s Odyssey. Some may have preferred to hear Ringo but this switch was totally understandable given the time constraints. So ended another tremendous night of musical revelry with Umphrey’s McGee in Manhattan.

This show was one that will be remembered for a long time thanks to the superb playing, tremendous improvisation, well-crafted setlist and less than optimal circumstances getting to and from the show. Umphrey’s took notice of the weather and rewarded the folks who were able to attend by delivering an inspired effort that brought a lot of smiles and high fives to the crowd. The Nokia show is yet another testament as to why they are gaining success and deserve mention as one of the most consistently jaw dropping acts on the live touring circuit.

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3 Responses

  1. These guys are fucking killing it in 2010!!! Kudos for a great review of an absolute monster of a band!

  2. Great review… although I didn’t catch the show @ the Nokia I saw them a few nights later in Philly and agree- they are sounding hotter in 2010 than I’ve ever seen them (over the past 3 yrs).

  3. great review of a show that i was at. i agree it was tough to get there in the snow but definitely worth it

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