Umphrey’s McGee’s spirited fans scurried about the sprawling North Carolina Music Factory district, trying (and failing to a great degree) to dodge scattered thunderstorms near showtime at The Fillmore in Charlotte. A deluge of rain soaked a few hundred late-arriving fans as openers J. Roddy Walston and The Business finished their set, and none of the 2000 attendees were able to escape the downpour of rock that filled the Fillmore when Umphrey’s took the stage.
Umphrey’s sound person Chris Mitchell worked his 500th show with the band on this night. In celebration, he was chosen to write the setlist. Mitchell’s song selection was devoid of the oldest UM songs and any aching ballads, strongly favoring more recent, heavier material. Snarling opener “Hindsight” set the tone for a first set that included the somewhat rarely performed instrumental “#5” and the shifting, diverse prog-metal moods of “Room to Breathe”. The band had a clear plan for “In the Kitchen”, quickly moving into a brisk improvisation with all lines of communication open, while “Room to Breathe” meandered in a pleasant way before landing in a dramatic, driving space. A pair of intense lyrical tunes, “White Man’s Moccasins” and “Puppet String”, ended the first set with thought-provoking fervor.
After the break, the band found the gas pedal immediately, diving into a lengthy and relentless jam after opening with “Higgins”. It eventually petered out into a bit of noodling while the band figured a way into a cover of ELO’s “Showdown”, which featured an appropriate chorus for the still-damp crowd to sing: “It’s raining all over the world”. Frantic, virtuostic guitar work by Jake Cinninger was the dominant theme of the night, thanks in no small part to the song selection, and he ended “Higgins” with furious soloing that seemed unearthly. The musical crunch continued unabated for quite some time. The subject matter of “Believe the Lie” lent emotional gravity to the ensuing jam, and things got really scary with the thrash metal overload of “Wizard Burial Ground”.
When the delicate interlude of “Wizard Burial Ground” came around, keyboardist Joel Cummins led the band not into the song’s next section, but into the deep, delicious chords of “Night Nurse”. This lush instrumental gave birth to the night’s first real dance party moment, and the groove of the show shifted a bit from the hard prog-rock madness that had reigned all evening. The lights and music simultaneously urged the crowd into greater fits of exultation, and pronounced air of rowdiness pervaded the venue. It was getting late, and as the band brilliantly wound their way into “Bridgeless”, it seemed the Fillmore might overflow with brain matter, beer, and haze. The “Bridgeless” set closer was gigantic, the most indulgent jam of the night, and – even after a night of stupefying musical moments – the defining moment of the show.
The band nixed their soundman’s first encore, offering the more upbeat “Bright Lights” instead of the comparatively languid “Booth Love”. In the interest of time, they kept it fairly succinct, but did wind things up for another funk-laden exploration before eventually, triumphantly, finding their way back to the exhilarating finish of “Wizard Burial Ground”. It was the musical equivalent of fireworks going off at close range, which is a useful way to describe most Umphrey’s McGee shows. They won’t be coming back to North Carolina in 2015, but this magnificent show will satiate their fans, if only for a few months.