Los Angeles loves lots of things; GMO free food, winning sports teams, the band Muse, and of course themselves. One thing Los Angeles doesn’t exactly love is jam bands. Unless you are four guys from Vermont with a very successful ice cream flavor, or three senior citizens with the ex-boyfriend of Katy Perry and Taylor Swift filling in for your beloved yet very deceased spiritual leader; chances are you are going to have a tough time in tinsel town. The current exception to the rule is the six piece genre defying Umphrey’s McGee who for the third consecutive spring managed to pack the historic art deco Wiltern Theater. For the last time before Donald Trump becomes leader of the free world, the tour closing Saturday night main event featured special guests, exciting covers, and some of the heaviest songs in their vast catalog.
After an opening set by Tauk that most of the crowd talked over, Umphrey’s McGee bassist Ryan Stasik kicked off the first of two sets channeling local legend Flea with the thunderous Le Blitz. With the rest of the band slowly joining him for the short instrumental opener, the band quickly segued effortlessly into Educated Guess. One thing that Umphrey’s does remarkably well is combining numerous styles into one cohesive sound. With Educated Guess, the group manages to channel the spirit of both The Police and Meshuggah while keeping noodle dancing flat brim hat wearing Bernie Bros completely hypnotized.
Another first set highlight was the new number Attachments. Being performed for only the 10th time, the opening guitar licks of Jake Cinninger would feel at home a few miles north on the Sunset Strip during the good old days when Ronald Reagan was in charge of America. Yet what sticks out most on Attachments is the way the recent Los Angeles transplants keyboardist Joel Cummins and drummer Kris Myers backing vocals trickle down with lead vocalist/guitarist Brendan Bayliss. Where most jam bands are not known for strong vocal performances, this song moves your soul based off the rich melodies and harmonies found within the blending of the three voices, and it is destined to be yet another weapon in the band’s highly stocked arsenal.
Taking full advantage of being in Los Angeles, the highlight of set one was a guest appearance from legendary Frank Zappa bassist Arthur Barrow. With Stasik leaving the stage for a few minutes, the band ripped through their original Soul Food 1 before performing the Zappa classic Treacherous Cretins for the first time. Both Bayliss and Cinninger looked as happy as kids on Christmas as they gave their fret boards a solid Zappa workout before closing out the non-stop action with the Umphrey’s original Glory. As if that wasn’t enough to delight the crowd, with Stasik back on stage, the band closed the first set with the full on heavy metal assault Wizard Burial Ground. Los Angeles is a chatty bunch but by the time the mighty palm muted riffs gave way to Cummins keyboard solo that makes you miss the days when arena rockers wore capes, most fans were unable to talk with their jaws dropped down to the carpeted theater floor.
After a short set break, the band kicked off the second set with the very silly 40’s Theme. One thing that sets Umphrey’s McGee apart from the likes of Phish and moe. is their ability to write far superior song lyrics. There are of course exceptions to the rule and with mentions of chicken, beans, and of course beer consumed 40 ounces at a time, 40’s Theme is one of them. However, with the floor of the Wiltern smelling like fried chicken throughout set break, many of the fans who predicted 40’s Theme to open the second set danced a bit harder in celebration of calling the opener as the smell of marijuana replaced fried chicken in the air.
After a nice 40’s Theme jam, the band brought back the heavy playing featured at the end of the first set with Puppet String. Showcasing the insane talents of Cinninger, the lanky guitarist laid down flawless harmonics as the band built up the song behind him. Once locked in, Cinninger launched into a frenzy of finger tapping that would make Los Angeles native Eddie Van Halen proud. If that didn’t get your head banging, the beefy riffs after the first chorus featured in the song could have raised Jesus from the dead a day early. Just when you felt things couldn’t get any crazier, the band abandoned Puppet String and shocked the crowd with their newly unleashed cover of the Mark Ronson/Kevin Parker track Daffodils. Featuring Kris Myers on vocals, the band managed to take a crowd that was ready to start a mosh pit minutes earlier and got them dancing like all those pretty hipsters out at Coachella.
With Daffodils in the rearview, the band spent the next forty minutes exploring fan favorites Wappy Sprayberry>The Bottom Half>Hurt Bird Bath. In a city filled with perfect people, Umphrey’s McGee locked in and flawlessly took the west coast on a sonic adventure that went all over the place. Spaced out interludes, chunky metal riffs with enough of a pause to give the audience a chance to woo, and even a hint of lo-fi jazz dazed the loyal audience as the clock stretched past midnight and into Easter Sunday.
After closing the second set with what could be described as a Rage Against The Machine influenced hard rocked called Hindsight, the band quickly returned and kept the party going with a three song encore. Kicking things off with a fantastic cover of Ignition (Remix) by R. Kelly, it felt as if an earthquake had hit Southern California as everyone bounced along to the music. All good things must come to an end and with their final few minutes of their successful West Coast run coming to a close the band closed the night with the uplifting and appropriately titled Upward before causing many to lose their mind one last time by finishing Puppet String.
Los Angeles is a tough town, and after performing here for well over a decade, Umphrey’s McGee has managed to find the success that so many other jam bands have failed to capture. There is a joke that Los Angeles has a bit of everything yet the best of nothing. Perhaps the reason Umphrey’s works so much better here compared to other jam bands who can draw big crowds in other parts of the world is the fact they manage to have a bit of everything and be the best at it. From R. Kelly covers to riffs Slayer wishes they had written; Umphrey’s McGee has created a truly unique and unmistakable sound. With the audience slowly growing with each performance, it’s just a matter of time before they can pack the former home of the Lakers like the granddaddies of jam bands do.
Photos courtesy of Steve Rose.