Umphrey’s McGee at Riverside Theater
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Jam bands tend to incorporate a wide variety of styles into their musical stew, which generally leads to a bland mish-mash of faceless, meandering guitar rock and bad bluegrass. Most musicians can be good at one thing or mediocre at a bunch of things, but Umphrey’s McGee stands out from the pack by virtue of being really good at a lot of things. It takes a mountain of sheer technical skill to combine metal, funk, prog, and a ton of improvisation and come up with anything other than a disjointed mess. That certainly happens on some nights, but for last weekend’s two-night Halloween celebration at the Riverside Theater, the band was at its best through four sets.
The “Milwaukee’s Beast” event was billed as a mashup fest; the tradition of crafting live-action Girl-Talk-isms is now one of the band’s calling cards. These are impressive feats of gimmickry, but Friday night’s show focused largely on extended improvisation and only a couple of cover tunes tossed in for good measure. The group concentrated on some of its heavier material for this show as well—no other prominent band in this scene can play anything resembling actual metal like Umphrey’s. It was particularly fascinating to hear these guys take a song like “Miami Virtue”—essentially upbeat synth-pop—and crank it into an aggressive attack of chugging riffs. The band never stretched out into a huge, 20-minute odyssey at any point, but the more focused bursts of jamming kept things moving along as songs drifted effortlessly into each other.
The musicians of Umphrey’s take a slightly different attitude towards open improv than most bands, demystifying the process by acknowledging predetermined structures of many of their jams and the onstage communication that propels them along. Friday’s first set featured a couple of instances (“White Pickle” and “Den”) of previously played jams that the band had plucked out of past shows. But the most dynamic piece of the night came in the second set during “Bridgeless,” one of the band’s most versatile vehicles, which departed quickly from any known song structure into a roller coaster of alternating dark and uplifting motifs, eventually landing in a blistering cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock.” The band returned to finish “Bridgeless” in the encore, following a faithful take on Danzig’s “Mother” with guitarist Jake Cinninger switching places with drummer Kris Myers, who took a rare turn on lead vocals. Aside from a couple of instances in the second set when a jam got repetitive and briefly tiresome (“Tribute To The Spinal Shaft” comes to mind), the show was nonstop action.
Saturday night was the official costume party, and band members came onstage decked out in mashup costumes such as Salvador Dali Parton, Jay ZZ Top, and Elton John McEnroe. This is a band that has gotten bogged down in goofiness in the past, but contrary to the lighthearted nature of the proceedings, the music was at least as seriously impressive as Friday’s show. Following a relatively brief opening “Wappy Sprayberry” was the predictable anthem “All In Time,” a somewhat corny song which nevertheless bookended the show with tremendous feats of strength (the coda came at the very end of the second set). Other improvisational highlights came in the form of the appropriately titled “JaJunk” and “KaBump,” both alternating groove and shred to thrilling effect. Overall, the second night was more dance-party and less evil than Friday, but the peaks were equally as intense.
Umphrey’s debuted three new mashups throughout the night, and the source material could not have been a better overview of the band’s stylistic influences. In the first set, the band brought out Charlie Otto, singer of opening act This Must Be The Band (a Chicago Talking Heads tribute band), to help out with a dizzying combination of “Life During Wartime,” Bob Marley’s “Exodus,” and Frank Zappa’s “City Of Tiny Lites.” Following a massively climactic rendition of “Rocker Part 2” in the second set, the band raged through a no-brainer mixture of Motörhead’s “Ace Of Spades” and “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night” by Ween. But the encore brought the most grin-inducing piece of the night. It started as classic ’80s club hit “Relax” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood and then morphed in and out of White Zombie’s “Thunder Kiss ’65,” but the crowd went bonkers when the band suddenly laced in Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar.” The entire experience (including the Riverside staff, who could not have been more gracious and patient with the intoxicated, sometimes obnoxious capacity crowd) was a showcase of strengths—perhaps not as experimental and exploratory as Umphrey’s on its very best nights, but in two lengthy shows the band gave no reason to dwell on any shortcomings.