Umphrey's McGee bring the house down at First Avenue, 02/03/12

Umphrey's McGee bring the house down at First Avenue, 02/03/12
A killer light show is the unsung hero of Umphrey's peerless live experience.

Umphrey's McGee
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Friday, February 3, 2012

In the midst of the house crashing down around us during Umphrey's bone-crunching performance of "It's About That Time" early last Friday night at First Avenue, I turned to my friend and tried to give the band the highest praise my beer- and adrenaline-fueled brain could muster. 'Man! These guys are as brutal as Slayer!' I said. My friend, taking in all the smiling faces, headbanging heads and basking in the good vibes that are part-and-parcel of the Umphrey's experience, clarified my remark. 'They're brutiful!' he exclaimed, and it instantly hit me that there's no better way to describe one of the best live bands working.

There are two things about Umphrey's live performance that make them uniquely awesome and can't be replicated in studio. The first is Ryan Stasik's feel-it-in-your-bones bass sound. With low end infusing your being from ears to toes, there's no choice but to occasionally close your eyes, tilt the head back and shake it a little bit. Whether they're playing metal, funk (Friday night Umphrey's busted out a crowd-pleasing rendition of Chic's "Good Times," which features one of the funkiest basslines ever), reggae, or anything in between, you can literally feel Stasik's chin-jutting plucking and slapping pulsating through the body.

The second and most underrated awesome aspect of live Umphrey's is their one-of-a-kind light show. Simply put, a so-called "jam band" with an improvisational bent shouldn't be able to sync up sound and light in the uncanny way that Umphrey's does. When the band rocks out, the lights rock out with staccato flashes. When Umphrey's chills out with drum-and-bass influenced jams, the lights go subtle and dark. And when it's time for the revelers to sing along (as they did during a rocked-out rendition of the Beatles' "Baby You're a Rich Man"), the lights brighten, illuminating both the band and the crowd. Syncopated accents in the music are perfectly complimented with syncopated flashes of light in a one-of-a-kind rock-theater synchronicity.

For each show, Umphrey's seems to emphasize different flavors in their varied sound palette. This year, the band's First Ave. performance rocked harder than ever before. When these dudes want to be heavy, they're one of the heaviest bands ever to grace a stage. Drummer Kris Myers' double-bass technique is on par with any metal drummer out there, and Jake Cinninger's shred-tastic guitar playing invokes six-string luminaries like Allan Holdsworth and Chuck Schuldiner. But, as is rarely the case with bands that are mentionable in the same sentence as Slayer, a positive, let's-fist-bump-not-fight vibe permeates Umphrey's even at its heaviest.

In sum, Umphrey's McGee, 2012 at First Avenue: More brutiful than ever before.

Critic's notebook

Personal bias: This is the fifth straight year I've seen Umphrey's during their annual mid-winter pilgrimage to First Avenue. One of my best friends has been an Umphrey's maniac for years and initially tried to turn me on to the band by through audio recordings of their live shows. Honestly, I thought Umphrey's was all right, but didn't see what all the fuss was about. Then, in 2008, he bought me a ticket to see them at First Avenue. I was absolutely blown away by the band's unmatched live energy and make a point of seeing them every year since -- though I've still never been to get into Umphrey's studio recordings. And, frankly, I've never been a huge fan of their vocals, though the singing is sparse and unobtrusive enough live not to get in the way of their instrumental brilliance.

The crowd: Numerous. Altered. In some cases, annoyingly talkative. But you know what you're in for when you see a big draw in First Ave.'s mainroom. It's a struggle to find a spot with a decent vantage point, not to mention the subsequent difficulty of keeping it during the non-stop jostling. But, if you can find and keep said spot -- and I recommend standing on the platform right behind the soundboard in front of the lower level bar -- then the ganjafied excitement of the predominately college-aged-and-slightly-older crowd actually ends up propelling the half-dozen or so musical climaxes of the night to unexpected and unforgettable heights.

Set list:

Set one -- Nothing Too Fancy > Domino Theory, Wellwishers, Dump City > It's About That Time > Dump City, Intentions Clear > Baby You're A Rich Man > Got Your Milk (Right Here) > Nothing Too Fancy

Set two -- Hurt Bird Bath > Anchor Drops, The Fussy Dutchman, Women Wine and Song > Der Bluten Kat

Encore -- Kimble, Hangover

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