Review: Umphrey’s McGee Heats Up Stage AE in Pittsburgh
PITTSBURGH — A steady winter rain poured down onto the Steel City on Jan. 24 when Umphrey’s McGee made its annual trek to Stage AE, much to the delight of a capacity crowd.
Despite the dreary weather, fans of the progressive rock, jam-band juggernaut were warm and toasty inside the concert venue that literally sits in the shadow of Heinz Field. Cold rain likely turned to steam when it hit the outside of Stage AE, because two smoking-hot sets of rock’n’roll were being served up inside that night.
Umphrey’s McGee was celebrating a milestone earlier in the week, marking the band’s 22-year anniversary since its very first gig. Formed in South Bend, Ind., in December 1997 when founding members were attending the University of Notre Dame, the band played its first show on Jan. 21, 1998, and have not looked back from there.
Making a grassroots name for themselves with eye-popping live shows, Umphrey’s McGee launched out of the Chicago area and set the underground rock scene ablaze nationwide, commanding top slots on major music festivals across the country within its first 10 years of touring.
In the world of jam bands, Umphrey’s McGee plays the same role as Rush does in classic rock. They’re the skill-heavy progressive band that specializes in instrumental acrobatics and musical precision.
With more than 2,000 shows under their belt, Umphrey’s continues to churn out new music and deliver stellar live shows that — as is a trademark among all great jam bands — are completely unique every night.
The revolving set list that landed at Stage AE as part of Umphrey’s “Hindsight 20/20 Tour” brought a mixed bag of gems that spanned the band’s career.
“We have one for your that we’ve not played in a very long time,” announced guitarist Brendan Bayliss, just before fellow frontman Jake Cinninger strapped on an acoustic guitar and busted out “Red Room” from the band’s 2007 album “The Bottom Half.”
Afterward, bassist Ryan Stasik clarified that not only had the song not been played in a long time, they had never performed it live in concert before — so it technically was a live debut more than 12 years in the making.
Although Umphrey’s McGee is known to be a band born in the Chicago area, it’s well known among fans that Stasik is originally from Pittsburgh, and Stage AE shows (now marking the ninth year in a row at the venue) are somewhat of a homecoming for him.
The band took time between songs to wish a happy birthday to a member of their traveling crew, and Stasik stepped up to the microphone and asked everyone to wish a happy 70th birthday to his mom. “If you would, repeat after me on the count of three: happy birthday, Marsha!” The packed crowd complied, as a spotlight found her in the upper left balcony, decked out in a shimmering outfit that embodied the “ready-to-boogie” attitude that was shared by everyone else in the house.
The first set was heavy on spacey rockers and instrumentals, with original tunes like “Blue Echo” and “Divisions” sandwiched around a great version of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” — no doubt a nod to Neil Peart, the iconic drummer of Rush who died of cancer on Jan. 7.
One would assume the elaborate “Tom Sawyer” gave Umphrey’s McGee drummer Kris Myers a good workout, but the kind performance Myers delivers with Umphrey’s original tunes — which are often full of intricate time signatures and high-flying crescendos — is enough to make Neil Peart proud every night.
Almost a “bust out” song, it was the first time the band performed “Tom Sawyer” in nearly three years.
Each member of Umphrey’s McGee got to showcase their talents in the spotlight during different parts of the show. Percussionist Andy Farag cut loose during the “Liberty Echo>Blue Echo” segment. Joel Cummins took the spotlight primarily during the second set, which offered a more funky, hard-driving array of tunes.
A highlight of any Umphrey’s concert is the searing duel-guitar virtuosity of Cinninger and Bayliss. Combined with the state-of-the-art light show that relentlessly washes a rainbow of mind-melting light beams over the crowd, such spectacular sights and sounds alone are worth the price of admission.
“Slacker” opened the upbeat second set in grand fashion, kicking down the door to a barrage of improvised jams that followed.
“Triple Wide” gave way to “In the Black” and a crowd-pleasing version of “Synchronicity II” by The Police.
“The Bottom Half” and “Prowler” bled into “Linear” and a set-ending “Kula” before the band came back out for a generously substantial encore of the song “Conduit.”
Umphrey’s McGee has been teasing new material on its website recently, with new studio single “Suxity” released earlier this month and a new studio version of “Ride On Pony” was unveiled in December. The tunes have been making their way into live set lists alongside band classics.
Although Umphrey’s McGee is by no means a made-for-radio, commercially friendly rock band, it is surprising to see how many people they’ve reached by word-of-mouth and by playing live shows. They are without a doubt an act that can raise the eyebrows of any music fan, and for those who have not seen them play live, they just may be enough to restore your faith in rock’n’roll.