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Umphrey's McGee celebrates America with musical fireworks

With no show to play on the 4th of July, jam band giants Umphrey's McGee decided to celebrate Independence Day one day early, throwing a funk-filled dance party at Frederik Meijer Gardens.

/Ryan Yuenger

After party at Billy's Lounge

At the request of Umphrey's, most of the crowd at Meijer Gardens headed over to Billy's to check out Psychedelic Elephant Machine Gun (PEMG), a side project of Grand Rapids' most prominent jam band, Ultraviolet Hippopotamus. 

For most of the night, the show was at capacity, with many fans having to wait outside. However, by the end of PEMG's two sets, everyone who wanted to come party was treated to some futuristic electro-funk including a fantastic rendition of the Ghostbusters theme. 

/Ryan Yuenger

/Ryan Yuenger

“Yes Michigan, it is great to be back” were the words that greeted fans of Umphrey’s McGee on a refreshingly cloudy day at Frederik Meijer Gardens.

 Umphrey’s first played Grand Rapids in 1999 to a very small crowd at The Intersection. According to the band, the entire crowd consisted of their friends from South Bend, which is where the band holds its roots. Since those days, the band has grown to selling out venues like The Intersection, The Orbit Room and Meijer Gardens while also headlining festivals such as Summer Camp in Illinois.

“So tomorrow is the 4th of July as you all know,” said one of their guitarists, “So tonight we gotta celebrate America.”

Celebrate they did, treating attendees to over two hours of an infectious blend of musical fireworks. Adding to the celebration was a custom light setup that the band brought, featuring about 20 color changing, custom rotating spotlights that penetrated the air even when the sun decided to peek from behind the clouds.

The funk driven “Booth Love” led off the first set with an explosion of energy, but not before a slow, spacey intro jam to allow the crowd to finish heading toward the dance pit. The song’s funky groove combined with a thick bass line, disco sensibilities and soulful lyrics filled the pit with bobbing heads and flailing limbs that were eager to experience the rest of the show.

Umphrey’s is a jam band through and through, and a fantastic one at that. They do what all great jam bands do: they expertly melt songs into one another and blast the crowd through an improvised tour of outer space in between face-melting verses. What sets them apart from other jam bands, though, is their ability to keep the crowd dancing while also experimenting with intricate progressive rock melodies that would make prog rock heroes Emerson, Lake and Palmer proud.

Another aspect of Umphrey’s that sets them apart from other jam bands is the dual lead guitar playing of Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss. Their ability to feed off each other, as well as the running, melodic bass lines of Ryan Stasik, allow the band to create some breathtaking auditory landscapes that are distinctly Umphrey’s.

An early highlight for the crowd came as the band played an Eric Clapton-popularized song, “After Midnight.” Shortly thereafter came the funk-laced “13 Days,” featuring a classic Umphrey’s guitar riff and some of their most honest lyrics:

"The moment you leave/you will be asking for more/but I know what it is for/still for a time I could act surprised/As soon as it seems/you will be where you were/last but with no one to laugh at/so I wouldn't try for a second time/When you're alone/there will be no one to say/whether or not it's ok/Comfort can come in so many forms."

Following a short set break, the second set transitioned into nothing short of a full on dance party. With the sun falling behind the trees lining the west side of the property, Umphrey’s light rig became decisively more vivid, flooding the vision of the increasingly growing dance pit.

Before this show, I had never seen the majority of attendees at a Meijer Gardens show standing and dancing. The fact that this happens at such a classy venue like Meijer Gardens is a testament to the dedicated fan base of Umphrey’s. From people handing out homemade “Umph Love” stickers to fans forming their hands into “U” shapes to show their love to the band, it was clear that this was an all Umphrey’s crowd, and not a typical Meijer Gardens one.

An ever-shifting style of play keeps great jam bands like Umphrey’s able to play 2 hour sets and keep the crowd dancing along and begging for more long after the end of the show. Ranging from soulful funk to rock to synth-filled electronica, Umphrey’s brought enough heat at this show for several fans to leave with their faces melted all over the lawn, no doubt causing trouble for the Meijer Gardens cleaning crew.

As parting words, the band had a few sage words of advice for the crowd who couldn’t find their faces after the show.

“Happy Fourth of July everybody, watch out for those cops.”

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