By Josh Herwitt //
Umphrey’s McGee have never been ones to mail things in — and no, I’m not talking about if they use the postal service or not.
Yet, the sextet that formed at the University of Notre Dame close to 20 years ago have always made it a priority to keep each and every one of their live shows unique. Whether it’s through special guests, a never-ending list of covers or their distinct setlists, Umphrey’s know quite well how to keep their fans on their toes.
Last year, we asked if Umphrey’s were LA’s quintessential jam band despite them not being your typical “jam band” in the traditional sense (read our review of the show here). While that question still remains valid today, their popularity in the City of Angels hasn’t dwindled one bit. At The Wiltern last Saturday, fans from all over California and even other cities west of Chicago — the band’s second home after college for all intents and purposes — were in attendance for Umphrey’s winter tour finale. We actually met one from Salt Lake City in between sets, in fact.
Some might think it’s crazy to travel to see a band perform in another city, but not Umph fans — and it’s not that hard to see why. Take this latest performance in LA, for example. Six songs into the first set, Umphrey’s invited former Frank Zappa bassist Arthur Barrow up onstage to perform “Soul Food I” and “Glory”. And yes, of course there was a Zappa cover in the form of “Treacherous Cretins” from 1981’s Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. Meanwhile, covers of both Mark Ronson’s “Daffodils” (the original features Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker) and R. Kelly’s catchy party track “Ignition (Remix)” would come later, during the second half of the show.
What has always made Umphrey’s so intriguing to me is their affection for progressive rock and heavy metal. Sure, most of their fans are more likely to listen to the Grateful Dead and Phish than say King Crimson, Yes, Iron Maiden or Guns N’ Roses, but what makes them so different is their ability to channel all of those rock bands while creating their own sound. After all, an Umphrey’s McGee show is something more than your average rock show — it’s one full of sharp twists and turns, over peaks and through valleys. Improvised prog rock, or “improg” (live improvisation + progressive rock) as some say, is what Brendan Bayliss (guitar, vocals), Joel Cummins (keyboards, vocals), Jake Cinninger (guitar, vocals), Ryan Stasik (bass), Kris Myers (drums, vocals) and Andy Farag (percussion) do best, and there’s really not any other bands out there doing it to this day.
That said, New York City four-piece TAUK proved to be an ideal opener for Umphrey’s. Their perfect fusion of instrumental rock and funk played well with what came after it, delivering a seven-song set highlighted by a cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. Though still relatively young, TAUK have a promising future ahead and getting the opportunity to open for a band as respected as Umphrey’s should pay dividends for them down the road. As primarily an East Coast band, Matt Jalbert (guitar), Charlie Dolan (bass), Alric Carter (keyboards, organ) and Isaac Teel (drums) haven’t made it out to the West Coast all that much, but hopefully that’s about to change after their impressive hour-long slot at The Wiltern.
In many ways, booking Umphrey’s and TAUK together felt like a perfect marriage between two one-of-a-kind bands each doing their own thing, yet doing it extremely well at the same time. And in other ways, it was somewhat surprising not to see a collaboration between the two in some shape or form before the night was over. But with the kind of talent and musicianship both bands possess, I wouldn’t put it past them if they ever get to share a stage in LA again.
Set 1: Le Blitz > Educated Guess, The Crooked One > Example 1, Attachments, Soul Food I > Treacherous Cretins > Glory, Piranhas > Wizard Burial Ground
Set 2: 40’s Theme, Puppet String > Daffodils (Mark Ronson cover), Wappy Sprayberry > The Bottom Half, Hurt Bird Bath, Hindsight
Encore: Ignition (Remix) (R. Kelly cover), Upward > Puppet String
 with Arthur Barrow replacing Ryan Stasik on bass
 debut, Frank Zappa; with Arthur Barrow replacing Ryan Stasik on bass