The Rapidian

Umphrey's McGee unleashes sensory thunderstorm at Meijer Gardens

Grand Rapids-frequenting jam band Umphrey’s McGee likely laid down the heaviest performance in Meijer Gardens history.

SETLIST

Set 1: Mullet (Over), No Diablo > End of the Road, Southern Cross, Phil’s Farm, FF > Resolution > Booth Love

 

Set 2: Go to Hell, Remind Me, Cut the Cable, Gents > Pay the Snucka, Wappy Sprayberry > Robot World > Miami Virtue.

 

Encore: Rock the Casbah > Glory

 

> indicates improv jam transition.

/Ryan Yuenger

/Ryan Yuenger

Shortly before Umphrey’s Mcgee took the stage for its 12th Grand Rapids performance since 2005, the dark clouds overlooking the ampitheater at Meijer Gardens were a sign of what was to come: Sonic thunder and visual lightning.

With musical styles ranging from metal to electronica to jazz, the South Bend-born band is a hard one to pin down. Most would call them a "jam band," but when a band is this diverse, trying to put them in a box would simply be a distraction from the sensory whirlwind they unleash at their more-than-willing fanbase, known affectionately as "Umphreaks." 

Meijer Gardens is known more for its intimate, song-driven performances, so the band obliged during the first set.  The uptempo instrumental “Mullet (Over)” drew raucous applause and head-bopping among the pit of Umphreaks at the front of the stage, as well as slightly-less-raucous foot tapping among the season-ticket holders in the lawn.  The driving country/bluegrass rhythms from drummer Kris Myers and bassist Ryan Stasik paves the way for guitarist Jake Cinninger to shred through this prog-rock hoedown.

“No Diablo” started off slow, with the nasal lyrics of Guitarist Brendan Bayliss making any fan of 90’s pop-rock proud -- and the rest of us cringe slightly. However, a line in the song reminds the listener that it’s not all about the lyrics.

I don’t mean to be misleading, and I would hate to complicate your point of view. I’m only trying to pack some words you need to hear. The explanation—that’s up to you. Now it’s not enough to just show up with only words to say, there’s more like this, that I just can’t explain.  And if you really just presume that’s my impression now of you, there’s a lot of ground to cover and even more that we need to talk through.

After an upbeat and bluegrass-tinged "Phil's Farm," Umphrey's closed the set with the funktastic "Booth Love,” a showcase in diversity which featured a breakdown of Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive.”  

After a short setbreak and some light rain, the band returned for set two.

“That concludes the acoustic and love ballad portion of the show,” said Bayliss, as the band took the stage with the evening sun setting behind a veil of clouds. “Put on your helmets and your seatbelts -- let’s rock and roll.”

Rock and Roll they did, starting with the intricate, progressive metal composition “Go to Hell.” It was a distinct shift in tone from the first set, and more than welcome for the Umphreaks. Even some of the Meijer Gardens regulars started to get up on their feet.

On top of the shift in tone, the band really came alive after darkness fell thanks to lighting designer Jefferson Waful. He showed why many fans consider a great lighting designer to be a member of the band. When all the elements come together, this band is at their best.

Whether they play metal or funk or any other genre, there is always a distinct Umphrey’s-ness to it all. Their defining sound is largely due to the tone of Cinninger's guitar, but there are other elements in play. The band's ability to play intricate, progressive compositions in unison with a stunning light show creates an original and thoroughly enjoyable show for any music lover. 

“Gents” is an instrumental track which deftly blends heavy prog-rock guitar riffs with serene, staccato piano from Joel Cummins and an underlying electronica thump. The song culminates with a funky breakdown and improvised jam into the first notes of the instrumental speed metal of “Pay the Snucka.”

Afterward, Bayliss took a moment to acknowledge some fans packing up early.

“I don’t like that metal stuff,” Bayliss said, imitating some unseen Italian grandmother.  “All those screeching guitars.”

Once the first note of the next song hit, Many in the crowd immediately knew what was coming: a 12-minute genre-bending, mind-expanding exploration of sound called "Wappy Sprayberry." 

The lyrics are not the focus of the song, but they still leave something to be desired. 

We're all reminded insecurity / I pray at home to have you next to me /There's nothing wrong as far as you can see
And who could deny that pull / Open, invited, you unravel me / There's no need to push away, I won't retreat
I'm so excited I can barely breathe / But who could deny that pull?

Sprayberry segued its deep synth bass sounds into the spaced-out electronica instrumental “Robot World,” followed by a 15-minute rendition of “Miami Virtue” to close out the second set. 

The roar of the crowd following this epic 30-minute closer made it clear they aren't leaving without more, so the band promptly returned for a nostalgic encore of the punk rock classic "Rock the Casbah" as well as the transcendent, ascending "Glory" to finish the show.  

The culture surrounding this band us undeniably similar to that of jam bands like the Grateful Dead -- dedicated followers, multi-set concets, varied setlists -- their sound draws more from bands like King Crimson and Yes. And while the lyrics to many songs can be a forgettable vehicle for an extended jam, they can also be a perfect breeze to complement the sensory thunderstorm that is Umphreys' McGee.

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