At this point in its career, Umphrey’s McGee is like a spinning top of rock – just drop it on stage and watch in awe as it spins with power and unpredictability. The band returned to North Carolina’s capital city to kick off their fall tour at the oversized Raleigh Amphitheater, which highlighted the band’s unique situation in the market. Umphrey’s production and crowd have become too large for Triangle standbys like The Lincoln Theater and Cat’s Cradle, and the area is sorely lacking rock-friendly rooms in the 1200-capacity range. It’s not that the enthusiastic crowd didn’t enjoy having free run of a 5500 capacity outdoor venue, but thousands of empty seats make for a strange ambience and the sound was far from perfect. Luckily, the band seemed unaffected by the vastness and delivered a show with energy equal to a more intimate setting.
As the sun set on a typical weekday in Raleigh, opener Toubab Krewe provided sublime instrumental accompaniment as fans made their way to the venue amidst the rush-hour frenzy. Umphrey’s McGee took the stage to rapidly cooling temperatures and a gorgeous sunset, the latter of which was neatly embellished by Jeff Waful’s hypnotizing light show. Striking a balance between their compelling songs and fearless improvisations, the band offered plenty of setlist magic and unabated exploration in the first set. The two elements often combined for truly memorable moments. Show opener “Slacker” and set closer “Intentions Clear” both featured lengthy, dizzyingly diverse jams, while the band offered a rare tune by way of the instrumental “Sweetness” and cooked up a nifty combo using “Turn and Run,” “The Fuzz,” and Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock” as components. The vocal-heavy set found the band locked into a collaborative space of group interplay that allowed plenty of room for soloing without an abundance of meandering. Drum maniac Kris Myers and ever-improving bassist Ryan Stasik handled their tasks beautifully, maintaining a firm foundation upon which guitarist Jake Cinninger ran free. While the band still dabbles in the 4/4 dance-metal pulse that has become one of their trademarks over the past few years, the Raleigh show didn’t feature as much of that sound, and it was refreshing to hear the band deliberately leading their jams in new, more interesting directions. Alternately funky, joyful, snarling, and psychedelic, the improvisations proved incredibly entertaining.
Set two was noticeably short but thoroughly intense, highlighted by a mammoth “Utopian Fir” that featured The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” in the middle. The set’s stupendous climax included the newish song “Hourglass” and a blistering “Tribute to the Spinal Shaft” that transitioned magnificently into one of founding member Brendan Bayliss’ finest songs, “The Bottom Half.” The scintillating outro of “The Bottom Half” served as a perfect set-closing moment and the huge standalone “Der Bluten Kat” encore was a fine way to send everyone into the night. There is perhaps no Umphrey’s song more explosive and unpredictable. It’s the aural embodiment of the band – mysterious but meaningful lyrics, wild time signatures, wide open spaces designed for spontaneous creativity, and thundering composed sections. If the first show of the tour is any indication, Umphrey’s McGee are back at the top of their game, inspired by a wealth of new material and making their music more appealing than ever.