Fresh off a boisterous 15th birthday celebration in New York, Umphrey’s McGee headed south for a run through North Carolina. The Old North State has always been one of the band’s southern strongholds, but the demise of the original Ziggy’s venue contributed to keeping the band out of Winston-Salem for nearly a decade – plus, the audience would have outgrown the old club long ago. The legendary Ziggy’s name now adorns a new, larger space on the outskirts of downtown, and fans flocked to see the first Umphrey’s show in the Camel City since April of 2003. It also happened to be the 10th anniversary of the band’s first show with drummer Kris Myers, so a celebratory vibe prevailed even during the band’s birthday hangover.
The band didn’t disappoint the many first-timers or the large contingent of UM veterans. Playing with a relaxed demeanor even during the most intense moments of the show, Umphrey’s presented a nearly flawless song selection and great hunks of improvisation. The band’s best shows are often characterized not only by a balance of songs and jams, but an equal amount of loose and tight playing, and this night featured just such delicate interplay. As soon as the show began, there was a little bit of everything. A brief, rage-inducing “Phil’s Farm” opener was used as a launching pad, and the band soon dropped into a fine version of “The Bottom Half”. “Red Tape” was the first real journey of the night, featuring a fast-paced jam that saw keyboadist Joel Cummins start an “Eleanor Rigby” tease that the rest of the band gradually accepted, and it prevailed until the song’s end.
The rest of the set was a masterful mix of fan favorites. After “Loose Ends” bled into the growling groove of “Space Funk Booty”, “2nd Self” emerged joyously from the murk, marking a turning point in the show. The warm-up was over. Guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss seemed to come alive during “2nd Self”, perhaps gearing up for the next half hour, which featured a stunning sequence starting with the west-coast flavor of “Mantis Ghetts”. Then, the twisting prog-rock excursion of “Mantis” finally appeared, or at least the first bit; much like the “Phil’s Farm” opener, it was truncated and gave way to another song, in this case the smoky, tuneful dub version of “Turn and Run”, which quickly moved from mellow to menacing and back again.
After finishing “Phil’s” to end the first set with gusto, the band stretched out more in set two, but never to the detriment of the considerable energy level. One of their defining songs, “Divisions”, burst out of the setbreak haze as if set on fire by Jefferson Waful’s mesmerizing lights. “Divisions” would ultimately end the set, but only after another bunch of amazing moments. Typically inspiring improvisation out of “Divisions” built a high-altitude bridge to more dub – this time the band’s popular revision of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe”. In a segment that summarizes the awesome power of those 6 guys on stage, “Breathe” was allowed to drift into irie luxury, whipped into a frightening techno improvisation, then back into serenity before merging gorgeously into the aching second act of “Mantis.”
The closing run of the show was reminiscent of the first time the band visited Winston-Salem, way back in 2002. “Push the Pig” appeared late in the second set on that night as well, and Umphrey’s kept the nostalgic vibe afloat with more old-school selections. The dreamy slow-build of “Thin Air” featured a magnificent piano solo from Cummins as the song enveloped the room like a fog, and the gliding jam out of “Resolution” eventually led us all back to the end of a neatly divided “Divisions”. The crowd experience a collective case of goose bumps as Bayliss sang the song’s misty-eyed coda. Another ghost from the first Ziggy’s show, and another perennial favorite to grace this setlist – “Pay the Snucka” – closed out the night in thunderous fashion. It probably won’t be another decade before Umphrey’s McGee returns to Winston-Salem, but after this show, however long it takes will feel like an eternity for their dedicated southern fans.