Improv titans Umphrey’s McGee made their way to New Orleans again this year for Jazz Fest season. They came here last April to the Joy Theater, and decided to return just over a year later to the Orpheum. Umphrey’s is a progressive rock jam band originally from Indiana, but is now based in Chicago. They came together in 1997 and have played festivals and venues nonstop ever since, including the first ever Bonnaroo music festival.
Over the years, Umphrey’s has set themselves apart from other jam bands with their extremely skilled and organized way of improvising the music they play. Instead of just extending a section, UM will attempt to make something new with every chance they have, dubbing their improvisational style “Jimmy Stewart.” This name came from a ballroom they once played in that housed one of their best improvised sessions. They have all learned to play with each other in a sense of listening and knowing when to step in or “lay out.” In past interviews, the members have stressed the importance of listening as much as playing, as jamming is an organic conversation that involves both give and take. “We’re creating a spontaneous composition with each other, not ourselves,” says drummer Kris Myers. The idea is that none of the members of Umphrey’s are competing with each other onstage, and the result is a perfectly balanced arrangement that gives a very impressive feel of being practiced or pre-written, when it almost never is.
Big Something from North Carolina opened the show at 8pm, then Umph followed at 9:15. The first song they played was “North Route” which lead into “All In Time.” UM’s sound is also unlike other jam bands. Apart from every player being unbelievably skilled in their instruments, guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger play with a big influence from heavy metal, progressive rock, and jazz guitar styles such as Van Halen, Frank Zappa, and George Benson. This gives their music a very unique touch that is all their own, and makes them one of the loudest and most climactic jam bands out there. Another undeniable trait of UM is that despite the range of genres they span during live performances, pretty much every one of their songs goes all the way to 11 at some point or another. As face-melting and mind-blowing as that might be, it does tend to make the songs of a particular set blend into one all-night jam that could have ended or begun with any of their tracks. As long as you’ve got some alcohol or something else to get you in the proper mind set, though, the experience is altogether unforgettable, assuming you pace yourself and don’t black out, of course. Another element that helps is the fact that their light designer, Jefferson Waful, is a mad scientist of the light board. Umphrey’s sets are always accompanied by unparalleled light shows that dazzle with every color combination imaginable and seem to shift gears as often as the band does.
They ended their first set with “Great American” and then took a 20 minute break before coming back full force with “Miss Tinkle’s Overture.” They kept the night going with five more tracks that all became snowflakes of musical genius, ending with “When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” into “40’s Theme.” To no surprise at all, they were cheered back with a tumultuous chant of “One more song!” They played two: “Much Obliged” into “Hajimemashite.” One of the best things about Umphrey’s McGee as a band is their jam band prolificacy, promptly recording and sharing all their performances. If you weren’t able to catch one of their shows, or you are dying to relive it, they offer download cards at the merch table with the ability to download any live set from just about any show they’ve ever played. If that’s not enough, they also often stream live video of their shows. So, if you didn’t experience the NOLA show at the Orpheum in some way or another, you have no excuse.