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Umph Like

Umphrey’s Mcgee is a great band. Of this there is no doubt. Super talented musicians with great attitudes having an absolute blast entertaining themselves and their fans. It’s not hard to see why Umphrey’s McGee has gained so much traction and popularity in recent years. It’s because they do a lot of things very very well.

Umphrey’s grooves hard and they groove tight. Their covers are impeccable. They create a wall of sound that is as full, as sonically complete and overwhelming (in a good way), as any band that I’ve seen in recent years. They sing well. They are perhaps some of the best natural “jammers” I’ve ever seen. They write some incredibly catchy songs. Umphrey’s has a keen sense of dynamics; they are masters at controlling their sound. This enables them to create these wonderful, seamless song mashups that are a significant innovation. It’s totally unique.

No matter how many times I say I had a great time at last night’s show, it isn’t going to matter, but for the MOTHERFUCKING RECORD: I had a great time last night and I will definitely see Umphrey’s McGee again. I danced, I soaked in the crowd, I met some new friends, I got astonishingly drunk, a rarity for me. Their light show is incredible and Jefferson Waful should be lauded for innovating wherever and whenever he can. He’s really much more than just the band’s “Lighting Guy,” functioning as more like a community manager, expertly connecting the band and their diehard fans. Every band should have one of him, basically the exact opposite of a Peter Grant. (if you don’t know who Peter Grant is, well, click here http://bit.ly/T1yMc5)

As the case with any band, there are some things that Umphrey’s doesn’t do well. Using a truly heady combination of the aforementioned strengths, Umphrey’s generates torrents of energy onstage. The problem is that, having created all that energy, they don’t actually know what to do with it. It just kind of sits there.

This wouldn’t be such a problem except that most of their music is predicated on such energy creation, and the band is  are either unaware of the very demands that their music creates, or they’ve consciously chosen to take a different path.  There is almost no release to all the tension they create; it’s kind of like fucking on molly. Umphrey’s seems pathologically incapable of peaking.

Some may argue that that isn’t their point, or their mission, or a musical concern of the band. Fine, except then don’t spend the majority of your shows creating such energy just to leave it hanging there, spinning on the table like the top in Inception towards infinity.

Additionally, a great deal of Umphrey’s songs are not particularly well-crafted. But because their music is played so tightly, so expertly, it almost fools you into believing that their craft is artisanal. Almost. Skin it back the slightest bit and what remains are a lot of loosely related prog-rock segments mashed together, three, four, five at a time with very little rhyme, reason or harmonic goal in mind. It’s certainly not easy, this. Umphrey’s Mcgee are great musicians. But artists they are not.

This does not mean that Umphrey’s has no good songs. Fuck that. “Ocean’s Billy” is an incredible rock anthem that Brendan belted the crap out of. “Puppet String” was all sorts of convoluted mischief that anchored a smoking second set, making a reappearance after the encore of “Booth Love.” The first few minutes of said “Booth Love” were sublime. But “Conduit” meandered like a retarded child lost in the woods never to be found.

But perhaps the biggest problem that Umphrey’s faces is that, and this is in spite of their reputation as an overly confident, “fratty” or overly “bro-ey” band, there actually ISN’T enough ego on stage. Several times last night saw Brendan, Jake and Ryan huddled onstage looking around for direction from one another. And yet no one stepped to the fore. I couldn’t believe it. Someone at some point is going to have take the reigns of this band. And this point harkens back to what I said earlier about being unable to peak, or achieve release. You can’t take things over the top if someone isn’t willing to grab hold of the steering wheel.

It’s admirable how democratic Umphrey’s is. It’s reflected in their stage presence, their sound, and the way the fans feel they have ownership of the band. It’s probably what makes them such dynamic groovers, they create incredible pockets in dozens of manners and styles. Probably my favorite aspect of the band so far. And yet, we all know that a benevolent dictatorship is preferable to a slow, stupid and lazy democracy. Umphrey’s needs a Shah.

Not only will I see more shows, I’ll do as much due diligence as I can by listening and studying their music. These are simply the first reactions that I felt were valuable to record. I expect my opinions and thoughts of Umphrey’s music to evolve as the facts at my disposable grow.