By Josh Herwitt //
Los Angeles has never been known as a home for jam bands. For as well-rounded as its music scene stands today, LA hasn’t ever been a prominent city for jam bands quite like Denver, San Francisco and other smaller U.S. markets have.
While psychedelic rock thrived in the City of Angels five decades ago thanks to bands like The Doors and The Byrds, much of the counterculture that was born out of the 60’s and remains connected to today’s jam band scene isn’t one many LA bands strive to recreate, whether it be sonically or culturally.
So, in a city with as much music and creativity as LA, how is that there are no well-known jam bands, past or present, that officially call it home?
Maybe it’s because LA’s penchant for glitz and glamor has always been a major turnoff for most jam bands. Or maybe it’s the city’s high cost of living that is just too demanding for many to survive in nowadays.
But if there’s one jam band that could finally transform that notion here in La-la-land, it might be Umphrey’s McGee.
The six-piece originally hailing from South Bend, Ind., isn’t your typical “jam band” in the traditional sense. Umphrey’s, for one, have always had an affinity for progressive rock and heavy metal, with a long list of influences ranging from King Crimson and Pink Floyd to Iron Maiden and Guns N’ Roses. For that very reason, their fan base’s demographics remain fairly widespread — much like another well-known jam band by the name of Widespread Panic, coincidentally enough — from young, tie-dye-wearing hippies to 50-year-old dads with long, shaggy hair who just want to rock out.
That said, it isn’t hard to spot the group’s jam band qualities either. Over the course of their 18-year career, Umphrey’s have demonstrated quite a few of those characteristics, whether it’s been the band’s live improvisation, ever-changing setlists or open taping policy.
That’s not all, though.
With their repertoire of covers, nothing appears to be off-limits for Brendan Bayliss (guitar, vocals), Joel Cummins (keyboards, vocals), Ryan Stasik (bass), Andy Farag (percussion), Jake Cinninger (guitar, vocals) and Kris Myers (drums, vocals) these days.
Consequently, it’s a recipe that continues to draw more and more fans each time Umphrey’s play LA. After graduating from the House of Blues Sunset Strip to The Wiltern last year, the Chicago-based band returned to the historic, art deco venue on Friday night and had the 1,850-capacity theater packed from the front to the back. If the show wasn’t completely sold out, it felt damn near close. And really, when you think about it, that’s not bad for a band — let alone a “jam band” — that only plays LA once a year. Add in the fact that Cummins and now Myers live in LA, and it makes even more sense that Umphrey’s McGee could be well on their way to becoming LA’s quintessential jam band.
Playing two sets and an encore for a total of almost three hours, Umphrey’s performed a number of cuts from their upcoming ninth studio album The London Session, which was recorded in one day at Abbey Road Studios in London. Unlike the year before where they shocked everyone at The Wiltern with a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” there were no big surprises this time around. Instead, we were treated to classics like “Bridgeless,” “In The Kitchen” and “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” as well as a cover of The Police’s “Driven to Tears” to close out the second set, not to mention Joshua Redman’s jazzy saxophone lines at various points throughout the night.
Yet, what was also interesting to hear was Tool’s Ænima being played over the PA system in between sets. Whether that was Umphrey’s choice or the venue’s remains unknown, but the selection definitely said something about the type of music fans who occupied The Wiltern that night.
Formed in LA during the early 90’s, Tool has been one of the most respected rock bands over the last two decades. With multiple Grammy Awards and countless sold-out tours inked on their résumé, Tool’s prog-rock/alt-metal tendencies have won over fans both far and near, garnering one of the strongest cult followings in rock despite the fact that their last album 10,000 Days came out practically nine years ago.
As cultivators of “improg” (live improvisation + progressive rock) and fans of heavy metal, Umphrey’s McGee in many ways fall under the same musical tree, even with all of their “jam band” attributes. Sure, they likely won’t be selling out two nights at Staples Center — much like Tool did in 2006 — anytime soon, but with the audience they’ve been gradually building in LA, they may finally be on to something.
UPDATE: Umphrey’s McGee have confirmed to us that Tool was the band’s choice to play during intermission at The Wiltern.
Set 1: October Rain, Bridgeless > Gents > Bridgeless, Booth Love > Rocker Part 2, Professor Wormbog*, Made to Measure* > Bad Friday*
Set 2: Miss Tinkle’s Overture, Hajimemashite -> In The Kitchen, Wife Soup*, 1348* > Educated Guess* > 1348*, Driven to Tears
*with Joshua Redman on saxophone