Three weird nights with Umphrey’s McGee

Mitch Leclair

Mitch Leclair

Imagine Frank Zappa dressed as Odysseus, biceps extending off his sailing ship’s bow, screaming into a thunderstorm.

Roger Waters descends on a mushroom cloud, and the pair begins to battle. Intense things are happening in the background – things that make an Oliver Stone flick look like a Wiggles concert.

After a few hours of feeling as though the entire world is crashing inside of itself, a bright light shines through a fractured gray sky, and all you hear is the beginning to Pink Floyd’s “Breathe.”

Black ink on white paper prevents an easy telling of what Umphrey’s McGee can do to a person. Luckily for us, the band plays hundreds of live shows a year, with arguably their best coming in their native Midwest.

The sextet hailing from South Bend, Ind., performed six sets on the First Avenue stage in downtown Minneapolis this past weekend, converting myself and a few thousand more to their robotic blend of Rock n’ Rollism.

Throughout the weekend, Umphrey’s showcased material from their new album Mantis. Releasing this new record has seemingly flipped yet another switch inside of the band, who have filled their latest live shows with improvisations unseen since the late ’90s Phish.

Umphrey’s McGee is one of the most technically proficient bands touring in our time, but it’s the relationship they’ve crafted with fans around the world that will prove to be their most valuable asset.

For example, on Feb. 1 the band joined about 50 dedicated Umphreaks in watching the Super Bowl on the big screen at First Avenue. They mingled throughout the game and ate pizza during Bruce Springsteen’s Nationwide Halftime Cheese Fest.

Before the show on Jan. 30, they held a free meet-and-greet poster signing session for everyone who bought a three-day pass during a special pre-sale period. They’re regular folk – the type of guys that wear old running shoes on stage.

In an age of ever-increasing record deals and a nationwide fascination with whatever looks good, it’s refreshing to discover a band that treats their fans as friends. It doesn’t hurt that their music is basically the sonic version of a supernova either.

It’s uncommon to hear their songs on the radio, but anyone who has ever enjoyed a King Crimson vinyl or Grateful Dead concert recording will probably be impressed with Umphrey’s McGee. This is classic rock 2030.

Jump on, download the Jan. 30 show, and listen to “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” or “JaJunk.” If your heart still works afterwards, go get some more. You’re one of the lucky ones.