Jamband fans in America’s upper left corner rejoiced this past weekend, as jam-scene stalwarts Umphrey’s McGee visited the region for a four-night run. While distance forces many other bands in the touring circuit to make the Northwest a rare stop, Umphrey’s has graced the region with multi-night runs every year since 2001, with the exception of 2007. This year’s festivities began on a Thursday night in the tiny ski town of Sandpoint, ID, at a beautiful venue called The Hive.

This 1,000-capacity venue sold-out well in advance of the show, even without a support act. The beautifully renovated room features three custom beehive-shaped disco balls, among other fun tools for lighting director Jefferson Waful.  Although the room was quite hot due to the fans packing in like sardines, this only added to the show’s energy. Many “Umphreaks” made the trek from neighboring Montana, a state with a large Umphrey’s following, which was notably omitted from this year’s tour.

The band chose to start off this leg of the tour with a “songlist” show, which means that they took the stage armed with only a large list of unordered songs, rather than their usual ordered setlist. This gave them the flexibility to make up segues on-the-fly, going from a large bank of well-rehearsed options. The result was unquestionably one of their highest energy performances of 2016. Each set contained only two breaks in the music, a telltale sign (because of the improvised setlist) of the band feeling extremely comfortable onstage.

The highlight of the first set was the jazzy trio of tunes that concluded it, “Out of Order” > “Utopian Fir” > “Thin Air.” The band’s jazz chops are one of their most endearing qualities, and this block allowed them to dominate the spotlight in a way that doesn’t happen in a typical performance. “Out of Order” is an old song that had new life breathed into it last year when the band finally recorded a proper studio version for their album, The London Sessions. It begins simply, with beautiful keys from Joel Cummins, and takes on additional layers of progressiveness as the song goes on. By the end, the band is seamlessly and effortlessly switching between two of the song’s distinct sections in a seemingly unpredictable pattern.

As they transitioned into “Utopian Fir,” you could feel the room immediately tense up. The band parlayed this tension nicely into a tease of Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” that had everyone in the building going nuts. Even in the middle of a 40-minute block of jazzy/progressive tunes, these guys won’t let you forget that they are the best rock band out there. After returning to “Utopian Fir,” they launched into a nasty funk jam that developed nicely over about ten minutes. After concluding the composed section of the song, they treated us to the evening’s best transition. A small Cummins-led tease of “Thin Air” during the outro of “Utopian Fir” was quickly picked up on by the rhythm section (drummer Kris Myers, percussionist Andy Farag and bassist Ryan Stasik). After a short, dissonant guitar break, guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger joined the party and helped the band move forward into “Thin Air.” This was executed so smoothly that few in the room could even believe what they had heard.

The second set picked up with similar intensity, starting off with the full trio of Mantis-related songs, “Preamble” > “Mantis Ghetts” > “Mantis.” The latter song contains some of the most complex guitar work in Cinninger’s catalog, and the jam developed into an excellent lyrical “Jimmy Stewart,” a rarity that really helped take the show to the next level. In a room of hardcore fans, this move was well appreciated and received with smiles all-around. You know it’s a great Umphrey’s show when you see Bayliss approach the mic in the middle of a jam to take a risk and test out new lyrics. This frenetic lyrical stew made its way into “Comma Later” before an epic “Amble On” (played for only the 9th time), which featured venue owner Jeff Grady sitting in on percussion. This particularly smooth and groovy 44-minute segment concluded with the end section of “Mantis.”

Powerhouse original “The Bottom Half” was given the full treatment, including an excellent cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” in the middle. The Who’s “Eminence Front” got the dance party going, as Cummins absolutely nailed the song’s distinct keyboard intro. Cinninger put his own unique spin on the lead vocals, while the rest of the band locked down the harmonies.  This transitioned into the death-metal-inspired “Eat,” another older track that was reworked in the studio for The London Sessions. Audience members eagerly sang along to the song’s absurd lyrics, while the band raged through the close of the set. A “Slacker” encore served perfectly to remind us that the band’s best was yet to come on this run, although this Sandpoint show may well have been the best top-to-bottom performance of the four nights.

Setlist: Umphrey’s McGee at The Hive, Sandpoint, ID – 3/10/16

Set 1: There’s No Crying In Mexico > Cut the Cable, Phil’s Farm > Turn & Run > Phil’s Farm, Out Of Order > Utopian Fir[1] -> Thin Air

Set 2: Preamble > Mantis Ghetts > Mantis[2] > Comma Later > Amble On[3] > Mantis, The Bottom Half > I’m On Fire > The Bottom Half, Eminence Front > Eat

Encore: Slacker

[1] with The Ocean (Led Zeppelin) tease
[2] “Jimmy Stewart” with lyrics
[3] with Jeff Grady on percussion

After a nice drive through the rolling hills of Eastern Washington, the band held court in Seattle’s historic Moore Theatre, with jazz/funk fusion rockers TAUK in support. As I arrived to the venue, I honestly doubted whether the band would be able to put out a show that could compete with the previous evening’s intensity. Thankfully, I could not have been more misguided in my opinion. This was my third consecutive year catching Umphrey’s in Seattle and the first time I had seen the city’s large community of music lovers turn out in force for the band. Although the show was not sold-out, the floor and first balcony were each mostly full for the entire performance. This helped cultivate another high-energy atmosphere for the band to feed off of.

TAUK’s set was extremely impressive, and doubtlessly earned them many new local fans. It was only my second time seeing them perform, and I was very curious to see how they would tailor their show to the Umphrey’s crowd. Although they are not a jamband, they are definitely capable of skillful improvisation, and I expected to see this featured heavily here. As the set went on, they seemed to only get better and looser. The last track, “Dead Signal,” featured an awesome jam that definitely topped ten minutes, and totally gripped the crowd’s attention. Drummer Isaac Teel’s prodigious talent was apparent as he anchored the band’s groove. Keyboardist Alric Carter was able to produce an endless variety of strange sounds, which helped the band maintain a spacey vibe throughout their set.

The Umphrey’s show in Seattle this year can best be described with one word; confidence. From beginning to end, the band clearly set out knowing exactly how they wanted to play to this crowd, then delivered on their intentions. “Miss Tinkles Overture” saw immediate, rapid-fire funk licks from Cinninger to begin its jam. Cinninger maintained control throughout this one, as he used an octave effect to double his lines. A quick “Anchor Drops” paved the way for a buttery transition into “Resolution,” which contained several quick teases of the Beatles “Norwegian Wood” before the band dropped into the full-on instrumental quote of the famous song. This almost-cover displayed exceptional polish, and the crowd was powerless to contain their excitement.

After working their way back to “Resolution,” they went into another jam that included both reggae and salsa-infused sections. Eventually, Bayliss worked in the opening riff to “2×2,” leading the rest of his bandmates into the tune. This one always features his guitar work heavily, and tonight was no exception. His solos were well-executed and he did an outstanding job of pushing the energy through the roof. A concise “Little Gift” provided a thrashy, Cinninger-led bridge into the set’s biggest bustout, “Alex’s House.” This song’s brilliant keyboard outro provided fodder for an amazing full-band jam, spurred on by Myers’ precisely syncopated drumming.

Set two started off right with “All in Time” quickly dropping into a metal jam that gradually became more ambient as it went on. Cummins’ spacey synth and delay work coupled nicely with Farag’s electronic effects, producing a jam that somehow retained its driving feel throughout. At the peak of the madness, the band deftly segued into the new tune “Attachments,” which was played for the 8th time since debuting in December 2015. This song has come a long way already, and I felt that this rendition was one of the best yet. Bayliss was on-point with his falsetto, and Myers has really perfected the harmonies that give the tune its big sound.

As “Wappy Sprayberry” began, the crowd braced themselves to see what Waful had in store. This song typically features some of the strongest lighting work of any in their catalog, and the size of the Moore Theatre allowed Waful to utilize his full rig. He did not disappoint, utilizing every inch of wall and ceiling space to its fullest. After seeing a good amount of shows at the Moore, I must say that this was the best light show I have ever seen in the venue. “Wappy” included its normal four-on-the-floor dance jam, which was a crowd-pleaser as usual. The band transitioned into the epic conclusion to “All in Time,” featuring some of their very best dual-lead guitar work.

A nice version of “The Crooked One” led into “Mail Package,” a song with amusing lyrics sung by Cinninger. He also contributed a dissonant tease of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” during the improvisation. Next, the band brought Seattle saxophonics pioneer Skerik to the stage in the middle of a cover of the Rolling Stones “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” This man is one of the most boundary-pushing saxophonists out there, and his innovative style has helped him to collaborate with all kinds of artists worldwide. This sit-in was unique for Umphrey’s because of the way he interacted with the band. Right at the start of the jam, he stopped playing briefly to wave the band off, as if to ask them to lay back for a minute and let him work. They did so, and when they tried to come back in, he again waved them off. I have never before seen a musician come onstage with Umphrey’s and control the band this obviously. They handled it excellently, and allowed him to really get going before returning in full for the amazing peak of the jam. Waful perfectly matched the oscillation of his lights with Skerik’s breathing pattern as he played, and it was truly a spectacle to behold. The crowd of Seattlites went wild, as it seemed too good to be true that one of our local heroes was onstage tearing it up with Umphrey’s.

The encore featured a nod to Keith Emerson, of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who had passed away earlier in the day. This cover of “From the Beginning” worked its way into original tune “In The Kitchen,” which prompted a massive singalong, and allowed Waful a final chance to go absolutely insane on the lights. Bayliss acknowledged that this was the best crowd the band had played to in Seattle, and this show left me with sky-high expectations for their return to the Emerald City in 2017.

Setlist: TAUK at Moore Theatre, Seattle, WA – 3/11/16

Set: Home to Me, Sweet Revenge, Sunshine, Carpentinos, Shenanigans, In Bloom, Dead Signal

Setlist: Umphrey’s McGee at Moore Theatre, Seattle, WA – 3/11/16

Set 1: October Rain > Conduit, Miss Tinkle’s Overture, Anchor Drops > Resolution > 2×2 > Little Gift > Alex’s House

Set 2: All In Time > Attachments, Wappy Sprayberry > All In Time, The Crooked One > Mail Package, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking[1]

Encore: From the Beginning[2] > In The Kitchen

[1] with Skerik on saxophone
[2] debut, Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Listen to the audio, via taper John Hermsen:

After two great shows to begin the run, we traveled south to Portland’s Crystal Ballroom to wrap things up with a two-night stand. This historic venue features a floating dancefloor, which actually feels very different from a normal floor, unless the room is heavily oversold. While night one was sold-out, the room didn’t seem nearly as oversold as the sold-out Umphrey’s show I attended at the same venue in 2014.

TAUK opened up the evening once again. This set was extremely fun, and they performed several of my favorite original songs. “Mokuba” started things off nicely, with guitarist Matt Jalbert and Carter perfectly doubling each other’s speedy lines. Another highlight was “Tumbler,” which featured Jalbert’s soulful, expository shredding over a bevy of odd noises from Carter. Teel’s did an excellent job of managing the tempo, grooving just as well at a restrained, slower speed as he does when playing fast. This song was jammed out for about twelve minutes, with Jalbert creatively utilizing dissonance as Carter got weird with his electronic percussion. Their “Eleanor Rigby” cover was a crowd-pleaser and featured a short, glitchy jam, though I still maintain that they could select a more electrifying Beatles cover for their live set. The set-closing “Mindshift” went over well, thanks to a nice takeover section by Carter and Teel.

The group already seemed more comfortable playing to a big crowd than they had in Seattle, and it showed in their looseness onstage. Additionally, their mix was better at this venue than it was in Seattle, which helped many audience members to appreciate them more. They are a great opener for Umphrey’s because they play in many of the same styles, although they do it in a more structured manner. Their set left the crowd limber and prepared to completely lose themselves to the music once Umphrey’s came out.

Umphrey’s could sense this vibe, and wasted no time getting people dancing as they opened with “Dump City.” This is among my favorite of the band’s songs because it is a surefire outlet for outstanding, danceable funk improvisation. This version was no exception. Up next was my first time seeing a new original, “In the Black.” This track has yet to grow on me as much as other new ones, but the band seems to enjoy it. I’ve noticed through the years that the band’s enjoyment seems to be the driving predictor of just how great a song will turn out to be. The debut of “Puppet String” at Summer Camp Music Festival in 2011 sounded skeletal and raw, but the band clearly loved the tune, which was fleshed out and went on to become a heavy-hitter in their catalog over the last few years.

The first crazy moment of the show came during “Nemo.” While most versions of this song feature another track sandwiched into the jam section, this standalone version saw the band switch things up for a substantial jam. Bayliss and Cinninger both joined Cummins on keys, while Stasik bent down out of view to make use of his Moog Taurus, a foot-operated analog synthesizer. The resulting downtempo electronica jam contained a lot of cool work on the synthesizers, organ and Rhodes by the eight-armed keyboard brigade. This was a totally unique style of jam from anything I had heard from the band before, and I can hardly express how awesome it feels to be saying that after 50+ shows. Cummins held down the spacey weirdness as his bandmates returned to their guitars, completing a seamless transition back into “Nemo.”

The set concluded with quick romps through a few more songs that the band doesn’t rotate heavily. Although this kept things lively and unexpected, I was hoping for them to cut loose a bit more on the jams here. Of course, that is how four-night runs work. You get a little bit of everything that the band can do, and sometimes they choose to display their songwriting over their improvisational skills. I love it all and wouldn’t have it any other way.

The second set led off with the first cover of Ween’s “Transdermal Celebration” since the band performed it with Gene Ween himself at last year’s Summer Camp. This song had been cut off the setlist in Seattle the night before, and the crowd went wild for it. “The Triple Wide” featured its usual great light show, along with a nice dance groove. It served an analogous role to the previous night’s “Wappy” by getting the crowd moving early in the second set. The band segued into “Speak Up,” a new tune that was debuted with horns during the most recent New Year’s show in Denver. This rendition definitely sounded more confident and polished, and I was struck by Stasik’s infectious bassline, which propelled the band through the song, even at its leisurely tempo.

A nice “1348” > “Made to Measure” > “1348” sandwich picked the improvisation back up, with the band wasting no time heading into free-flowing space funk out of “1348.” “Made to Measure” has become an every-few-months type of song in recent years, and this bustout was well appreciated. The vocals are a beautiful collaboration between Bayliss, Cinninger and Cummins, and I feel that this is one of many songs in their catalog that benefits vocally from their reduced touring schedule of late. Each of them has unique voices that can really shine when they are well rested, but after weeks on the road you can definitely hear a toll being taken. The next song, “Piranhas,” is in this same boat.

Cinninger next teased a country riff that was reminiscent of “Bad Poker,” before launching the band into “2nd Self.” After a quick run through this tune, the band played “Le Blitz,” notable as only the second occasion this song had been played not opening a set. It served as in intense intro to the fiery “Educated Guess” that would close the second set. The encore kept things mellow and positive with “Booth Love” > “Upward.” “Booth Love” is one of the band’s most distinctive cuts, and that is much easier to appreciate now that it isn’t being hammered so hard in rotation. The transition into “Upward” was smooth and fitting, as the band closed a show with the song for the first time. This tune seems to be an appropriate theme for the band at this point in time, as it describes their trajectory perfectly.

Saturday’s performance was busting at the seams with rare and unusual song choices, and really accentuated how much the band’s catalog has grown over the last few years. Songs that used to be rotation staples are now being played more rarely, which makes them far easier for fans to appreciate. This has made it even harder to see what the band will do next. Their glut of songwriting talent has finally gotten them to a point where even seasoned fans can be utterly clueless about what to expect at any given show.

Setlist: TAUK at The Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR – 3/12/16

Mokuba, Flashback, Waver, On Guard, Tumbler, Eleanor Rigby, Mindshift

Setlist: Umphrey’s McGee at The Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR – 3/12/16

Set 1: Dump City, In The Black, Go to Hell, Push the Pig, Nemo[1], Make It Right, Uncle Wally > Hindsight

Set 2: Transdermal Celebration, The Triple Wide > Speak Up, 1348 > Made to Measure > 1348, Piranhas, 2nd Self, Le Blitz > Educated Guess

Encore: Booth Love > Upward

[1] with Brendan and Jake on keys 

In the jam scene, the saying goes “Never miss a Sunday show.” This is because the when you are staying out late on the first night of your week, the bands know for sure that you are devoted to seeing them. They are supposed to reward you heavily by playing an amazing show. Now, that doesn’t always happen. I’ve seen my share of Sunday night clunker shows, but let me say that this was not one of them.

TAUK came out of the gate swinging and made the most of another opportunity to pick up some new Portland fans. From start-to-finish, this was my favorite of the four TAUK sets I have seen. The last half of the performance was a truly special section, and I was in aural heaven from the moment they began covering Radiohead’s “I Might Be Wrong.” Bassist Charlie Dolan expertly steered the ship on this tune. Not only was this one of the best-executed covers of this tune that I have heard live, but they stretched out the ending with a brief quote of “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” another song from Radiohead’s Amnesiac album. As a Radiohead devotee since childhood, I was super impressed with this extra detail, which helped to show me just how big of Radiohead fans these guys must be.

They wrapped up their set with awesome renditions of “Afro-tonic” and “Collateral.” “Afro-tonic” is a smooth, proggy tune that features amazing interplay between Carter and Jalbert at a relaxed tempo. “Collateral” is more of a banger, featuring a thunderous performance from Teel, spaced out with glitchy sounding keyboard breaks from Carter. It was seriously the perfect high-energy track to close their set and leave the crowd prepared for Umphrey’s. In general, I’ve noticed that the band seems to play with less defined structure towards the end of their sets, feeling more comfortable improvising after they have established themselves onstage with shorter tunes. This worked really well in their opening slot, and left me extremely curious about how they would manage the flow of a two-set headlining gig. It seems like they could go insane if given an entire extra set to improvise that extensively, though I am not sure if that is how they would choose to handle it or not.

Sunday’s Umphrey’s sets featured perhaps the best-flowing setlist of the entire run. This show had something for absolutely everybody. A raging first set began with a “Nipple Trix” > “40s Theme” opener, getting us warmed up for the massive, funky improv section during “Higgins,” which was definitely among the best jams of the entire run. The band worked in quick versions of “Loose Ends” and “Space Funk Booty” before treating us to the always fun “Bad Friday,” with its usual driving dance jam.

Following this, excited whispers raced through the crowd as Cinninger and Bayliss donned their acoustic guitars, and Stasik switched out his bass for a beautiful hollowbody. In 57 shows, this was only my 5th time catching an acoustic segment. This particularly juicy one featured the fourth-ever performance of “Gone for Good” and the sixth-ever cover of Pink Floyd’s “Fearless,” which was an absurd bustout that nobody saw coming. It was only the second time it had been played since 2009. To close the set, they picked the electrics back up and played one of their more intense cuts, “Hurt Bird Bath.” This tune, in particular, seems to get better every time it is played. The band does a great job of keeping the listener waiting on the edge of their seat for the climaxing riff after the jam section, and they never fail to find new ways to stretch this anticipation out for even longer. This perfectly set the tone for the run’s final set.

As the band took the stage for the last set of the run, I couldn’t help but feel confident in what they were about to do. This had already been my favorite multi-night Umphrey’s run I had seen since April 2013, and there was little this set could do to change that. The “Puppet String” opener started things off the exact right way, and the entire crowd got down to one of Stasik’s very best basslines. They left the song unfinished and eased off the intensity for a more relaxed track with “Hajimemashite.” Everyone in the room knew this one, and Bayliss had plenty of help as he belted the vocals. “Bridgeless” came next, picking the intensity up right where they had left off. The highlight-reel jam featured plenty of weirdness from Cummins and Stasik, and Cinninger came in over the top with a super distorted, compressed octave effect. After building this motif into an unstoppable riff, they worked their way neatly into “Similar Skin,” another super-familiar track to the audience. This song played very well in this slot, and the band was clearly toying with us by alternating the intensities of each track so far.

After a brief pause at the end of “Similar Skin,” they played “Cemetery Walk II.” This track had the room going crazy and boasted the best energy of any song played on the entire run. The atmosphere was positively jovial and it was impossible to ignore the blissed-out, ear-to-ear grins on everyone’s faces as they danced. Only Umphrey’s could work that angle into a set with a song as face-melting as “Bridgeless.” Bayliss spent most of the song playing keys as the two-minute studio track was extended to a ten-minute live cut. This is a wonderful tune, and this version took my appreciation for it to a whole new level.

Bayliss paused to thank the crowd for being so welcoming verbally, but his true thank you came in form of the next song, a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Making Flippy Floppy.” It just so happened that this was the band’s most commonly played cover that I had not seen before, which had me running around hugging all of my friends. It wasn’t just because of the stats, this is one of the band’s best and most polished covers in their entire repertoire. This is a Talking Heads song that I actually learned by hearing Umphrey’s play it on recordings over the years before I ever even heard the original version. As they ventured into the jam, they brought Teel and Carter from TAUK to the stage. I’ve always maintained that percussion is the most underrated key to drilling Talking Heads covers, and Teel substantiated my theory nicely during this jam. Plus, how cool is it to say you got to see the TAUKing McGee cover the Talking Heads?!

This song was so intense that the crowd needed a second to breathe after it was over. The band ran with the energy and began to play “Ringo,” to deafening screams. This version was short lived, as the band had simply jammed too hard earlier in the set and had a curfew to manage. We were left with a five-minute snippet of “Ringo” as the band left it conspicuously unfinished to close out the set with the epic conclusion to “Bridgeless.” This is one of their best dual-lead guitar shred-festivals, and closed out the set in a fitting manner. After seeing the intended setlist, I learned that they had also cut “Believe the Lie,” a lengthy tune that provides even more of a testament to how crazy the set’s improvisation was.

The encore was “Day Nurse,” a jazzy original that allowed the crowd one more chance to groove and dance smoothly, before transitioning into the end of “Puppet String,” which saw more headbanging. The band had given the audience absolutely all they could take, and we all walked out of the door smiling that evening. The band had played in a way that was engaging to the casual fan, but still kept the diehards on their toes. Many of my companions said it was their favorite Umphrey’s show they had seen in over a decade. Rankings aside, I think it is safe to say that when the band returns to the Northwest again, there will be even more sold-out venues awaiting them. I know that I’ll be ready to get in the van. 

Setlist: TAUK at The Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR – 3/13/16

Friction, Rainwalk, Horizon, Times Up, I Might Be Wrong, Afro-Tonic, Collateral

Setlist: Umphrey’s McGee at The Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR – 3/13/16

Set 1: Nipple Trix > 40’s Theme, Higgins, Loose Ends > Space Funk Booty, Bad Friday, Gone for Good[1], Fearless[1], Hurt Bird Bath

Set 2: Puppet String > Hajimemashite, Bridgeless > Similar Skin -> Cemetery Walk II, Making Flippy Floppy[2], Ringo[3] -> Bridgeless

Encore: Day Nurse > Puppet String

[1] with Brendan and Jake on acoustics
[2] with Alric Carter on keys and Isaac Teel on percussion
[3] unfinished

Listen to full audio, courtesy of taper Cliff Morse:

A full gallery of photos can be seen below, thanks to Scott Shrader (Seattle) and Jason Charme (Portland):