Indiana sextet Umphrey’s McGee have been a staple of the American jam band/progressive scene for roughly 20 years, blending the laid-back vibes of the Grateful Dead and Phish with the intricate eccentricities of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Frank Zappa, Dream Theater and King Crimson.
Of course, their concerts best represent how imaginative and skilful they can be, and this one – which commemorates It’s Not Us, their new studio album – is no exception. An extensive set adorned by vibrant theatrics, melodic comforts and instrumental wackiness, it’s a thrilling evening, even if it’s slightly repetitive and exhausting.
American singer/songwriter Nicole Atkins’ retro fervour provides a lively warm-up. She features several tracks from her latest album Goodnight Rhonda Lee – including bittersweet ode A Dream Without Pain and feisty rocker Brokedown Luck – plus older gems like Who Killed The Moonlight? and Cry Cry Cry. Complemented by back-up singers and colourful, atmospheric illumination, Atkins oozes vintage charm in her genre‑bending defiances and laments, squeezing bits from a lot of varied genres into an enticing tour de force.
Umphrey’s McGee appear shortly after and use a prolonged Miami Virtue to reveal how lengthy, complex and yet fun their arrangements can be. Packed with wild rhythmic changes, incredible guitar work and some vocal tranquillity, it’s a stunning collection of chilled-out virtuosity. And the rest of their show contains similarly captivating stylistic shifts, be they within brand new tracks (Maybe Someday and Half Delayed) or older favourites (Der Bluten Kat, Example 1 and Plunger).
Beyond playing wholly original compositions, Umphrey’s McGee also pull out inventive combinations of other artists’ material. Early on in the performance, they put a manic spin on a mash-up of The Police’s Every Breath You Take and the Peter Gunn theme song.
Later, Atkins returns to belt out The Pretenders’ Brass In Pocket, while their lone encore selection, Frankie Zombie, unites three vastly different pieces: White Zombie’s Thunder Kiss ’65, Pink Floyd’s Welcome To The Machine and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax. It’s a delightfully erratic ride.
True, their performance eventually becomes a shade too familiar and draining, yet there’s always something jaw-dropping about it.
A special mention must be given to the lighting, since it plays a role in elevating the set into a celebratory psychedelic wonderland, with beams cascading across the entire auditorium while alternating shades to match the music. It makes the night almost as engaging visually as it is aurally, cementing the fact that there’s nothing quite like an Umphrey’s McGee concert.