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Robert Ker

Robert Ker is a freelance music writer in Portland, where he and his wife own the vintage store Find. Contact him at: bobzker@gmail.com Twitter: @bobbker

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Posted: February 20, 2015

Concert review: Unpredictable fun in Umphrey’s McGee at the State

Written by: Robert Ker
Umphrey's McGee at the State Theater. Bob Ker photo

Umphrey’s McGee at the State Theater. Bob Ker photo

One of the big misconceptions about “jam bands” is that they all sound roughly the same and belong under the same umbrella. In recent months, however, the State Theatre has hosted three jams bands without much in common apart from some questionable band names and an audience that comes out of the woodwork — or perhaps down from the University of Maine at Farmington — to party.

The String Cheese Incident brought its bluegrass sound to Portland in November. Trey Anastasio of Phish fame and his band showed up in full funk in December. And, on Thursday, fans braved whiteout-like driving conditions to fill the State Theatre to hear the progressive rock of Umphrey’s McGee and were rewarded with a blazing performance and the State’s typically exemplary light show.

Of the three, Umphrey’s McGee is the youngest band. They came up in the late 1990s, honing their skills in Indiana and then Chicago. By the early 2000s, they’d been together just long enough to take advantage of the window created by Phish’s brief hiatus and the ascendance of festivals such as Bonnaroo, and grew a large audience through buzz-worthy performances. I first saw them at a festival in the mid-2000s where they shared a stage with fun-loving goofballs Ween; to say there is an overlap in appeal would be an understatement.

There is a strong emphasis on the guitar at an Umphrey’s McGee concert. The band features two guitarists — although that number balloons to 200 if you count the air guitarists in the audience — and have developed an effective style of mixing Frank Zappa-like noodling with crunchy power chords. The result is a fluid assault of rock guitar, aided by the fact that these guys have serious chops. They’re so good that it can be hard to tell if they slip into technical proficiency for its own sake, but as with any progressive-rock or jam band, that is a feature, not a bug.

The band wisely nicked some of the things people love most about Grateful Dead and Phish concerts, digging deep in their repertoire, weaving songs in and out of each other, dropping teases of cover songs, and encouraging audience participation. Nowhere was this more evident than the second-set opener “Bridgeless,” which ran through complex time signatures, prompted the die-hard fans to yell “woo” at certain musical cues, slipped into two other songs, including a cover of Herbie Hancock’s mid-’70s classic “Hang Up Your Hang Ups,” and eventually cycled back in on itself some 15 minutes later. This dexterity and unpredictability is what the crowd paid to see.

The first set wasn’t quite as strong and seemed to meander a bit. Umphrey’s McGee is good at a lot of things, but crafting a hummable melody isn’t one. When they lean on their songwriting, the results typically aren’t as strong, although the slower, slippery “The Linear” was a fine exception. They also nailed a cover of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” both in terms of the instrumentation and, more impressively, the vocals. That song is a grand rock-n-roll statement and a perfect set closer in a show where bassist Ryan Stasik happily wandered the stage, striking various rock poses and furiously working his fretboard. He was clearly having the most fun of anyone in the room, and with that crowd, that’s saying something.

WHO: Umphrey’s McGee

WHERE: State Theatre

REVIEWED: Feb. 19

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