For the last 10 years, the Umphrey’s McGee Jazz Fest late nights have been heavyweight contenders for some of the craziest shows of the Festival marathon – filled with the sort of shenanigans somehow atypical for Jazz Fest but perfect for New Orleans (Tony Clifton anyone?). These shows were nothing short of legendary and resulted in spilling the rowdiest crowds I have ever seen out into the wilds of Decatur St / Napoleon Ave / S Peters St (depending on the venue of choice).
Over the years, they climbed the ladder of New Orleans venue’s from the Blue Nile to the (old) Howlin’ Wolf to Tipitina’s to the Orpheum to the big room at the House of Blues, where they held down a guaranteed 2:00am spot for a few years, before taking a Jazz Fest hiatus of sorts and returning to the Crescent City sporadically since. Louisiana holds a special mark in Umphrey’s lore, as a pow-wow at an interstate motel in Shreveport set in motion original drummer Mike Mirro leaving for Medical School, thus enabling current skins-powerhouse Kris Myers to jump on the ship. Now heavily entrenched into the band’s sound, it is hard to think of Umphrey’s without the razor sharp precision back there on the kit.
This time around the Chicago prog-jammers held down a French Quarter Fest late night that topped off the perfect FQF Saturday and sprung the House of Blues into a pandemonious state for just a few hours. Opening the evening with “Gurgle”, a new synth/improv-laden instrumental led right into the catchy “Domino Theory” from UM’s latest LP. The meat of the first set hit the table with a huge 35 minute serving of “Bridgeless > The Bottom Half > Nothing Too Fancy”, a run thick with heavy guitar runs and their signature prog’d out dance party movement. As an aside, one thing that I like about Umphrey’s is that no matter far out they take the music, they almost always keep it close to the vest – constantly maintaining the ability to hit the breaks, shift gears and slam full-bore into another odyssey of sound. This quality applies across the board of improv whether it be a key change, a new theme, or a new song. This rang true just before setbreak, when the upbeat “Women Wine and Song” crescendo’d right into the opening riff of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years (the first song I heard in 2005) and closed out the first half with a little Dan love for the Big Easy.
“Bright Lights, Big City” is a song that never fails to find it’s way into the HOB NOLA rotation, and the crowd got a chance to stretch it out as the fast-paced opener melted down into a 4 on the floor groove. After returning to the “Bright Lights” central theme (and a brief Xxxplosive [Dr. Dre - no holograms]) tease, the band dropped into “Ringo”, weaving through a drawn out jam laced with intricate arpeggios and intricate call-and-response from Bayless and Cinninger before heavily spiralling back into the closing segment of “Bridgeless”.
Subtle highlight of the night?
Definitely the beautiful late second set SRV bust-out (“Lenny”), contrasting the screaming intensity of the latter half of the show perfectly. The set ended with a pulsing return to “Nothing Too Fancy” and encored with “40′s Theme”, the strange-yet-awesome ode to malt liquor, BBQ and shakin’ that ass. The band’s tour schedule allowed for two days off in New Orleans after the show, and I hope they got a chance to check out French Quarter Fest and everything else this great city has to offer.
SET 1: Gurgle > Domino Theory, Bridgeless > The Bottom Half, Nothing Too Fancy > Wife Soup, Women Wine and Song > Reelin’ In the Years
SET 2: Bright Lights, Big City > Ringo > Bridgeless, The Linear > Lenny, Sociable Jimmy > Nothing Too Fancy
ENCORE: 40′s Theme