Donnelly: Umphrey’s McGee at Liberty Hall, February 12, 2011

Brett Mosiman seems to know what he’s doing. 

The longtime concert promoter and president of Pipeline Productions proved as much a few years ago when he gave the finger to Kansas authorities and moved his baby, the Wakarusa festival, from Lawrence to Ozark, Arkansas.  Since then, the festival has been climbing steadily upward, making a name as one of the best (and friendliest – shame on you Kansas) in the region. 

And I hear ticket sales are through the roof. 

Saturday night, Mosiman offered Lawrence a preview of one of the main bands playing Wakarusa this summer – Umphrey’s McGee

Umphrey’s McGee bridges the gap between hippie jam band and rocker better than most, attracting both the smelly and the hair-product-using fans with their combination of prog and extended noodling. Listed sixth on the official Wakarusa artist lineup, they have developed a diehard and rapidly expanding fan base through relentless touring and live show recordings. 

As the sold out Liberty Hall crowd waited for the fun to begin, everyone seemed buzzed at the thought of two full sets. A dude dressed as a polar bear pounded PBRs and smelled like a skunk. Now that I think of it, the whole place smelled like skunk.

Umphrey’s is constructed in prototypical jam band fashion – two electric guitars (Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger), two percussionists (Andy Farag and Kris Myers), bass (Ryan Stasik), and keyboards (Joel Cummins). Their sound, however, is a bit harder to pigeonhole. 

While Umphrey’s does, at times, sound like the heir to the Phish throne, they also sometimes sound like the instrumental jam version of System of a Down

Saturday night at Liberty Hall was no exception, as Umphrey’s cranked out hard rock guitar tones with chunky, rhythmic precision, then flipped nimbly to textured, floaty riffs and back again. Over the course of two sets and an encore, the band sounded like exactly what they are – road warrior veteran pro musicians who’ve played hundreds of shows per year for the last decade or so.

By the pumped reception the crowd provided, it was apparent that a majority of the packed house wasn’t Umphrey’s virgins. And I must say, the band garners a pretty good looking fan base that includes a lot of females all the way from late teens to early thirties, unlike some jam bands who draw depressingly sausage-centric audiences.

Umphrey’s revved up with trancey favorite Wappy Sprayberry into FF into Mail Package, forcing even the non-believers to pump fists.  As "Sound Caresser," Kevin Browning, tweaked knobs, I couldn’t detect a thing out of place.  I watched him at the sound board for a bit, and his involvement with shaping and honing every aspect of Umphrey’s sound – from pedal tones to vocals to everything – was impressive. 

Equally impressive was the $100K light rig that dictated the Liberty mood all night (I know, that sounds weird – but it was really cool). When Umphrey’s comes to town, apparently they do so with pro light guy in tow and a shitload of really expensive electronically controlled lights that flicker and burn at the whimsy of lighting designer, Jeff Waful. Definitely added to the overall show experience. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking some up.

One highlight of the night came in the first cover of the night, The Beatles’ "Dear Prudence."  The jazzy, clean,  lightening fast guitar solo outro reminded me a bit of Nels Cline’s licks from "You Are My Face" off of Wilco’s 2007 album "Sky Blue Sky."

The second set started off somewhat more sedate than the first, but picked up some mojo four or five songs in with Phil’s Farm, segued into the odd cover mash-up of The Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams" into Corey Hart’s "Sunglasses At Night."  The second set ended with the disco funk Umphrey’s classic, "Miss Tinkle’s Overture," but there was absolutely no doubt that an encore was on the way.

For most in the audience the show provided exactly what was expected.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Although there were few surprises, the band delivered for the Lawrence masses smartly, leaving everyone wanting just a bit more Umphrey’s.

What a coincidence!  I know this guy Brett who is throwing this party in Arkansas in June – and Umphrey’s will be there! 

I bet if you ask nice he will let you in.                   


Set 1: Wappy Sprayberry > FF > Mail Package, Morning Song, Go to Hell, Dear Prudence, Rocker Part II

Set 2: Mantis, Nemo > We’re Going to War > Nemo, Professor Wormbog, 1348, Phil’s Farm > Sweet Sunglasses > Phil’s Farm, Miss Tinkle’s Overture

Encore: 2nd Self > The Floor
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