This concert review/recap is acting as a follow up to my preview of the show that included my hopes and expectations for my first true Umphrey’s McGee show. Read the preview HERE!
On Thursday night, February 2nd, 2017 Umphrey’s McGee returned to downtown Grand Rapids with special guests, Spafford, to break in the brand-new 20 Monroe Live. Guitarist Jake Cinninger, a Michigan native, returned the stage after missing a few shows due to the flu.
According to a tweet Joel Cummins sent out, West Michigan comes in at number 5 in terms of attendance for UM shows (1. Denver 2. Chicago 3. Atlanta 4. NYC). The show didn’t sell out, but I’d estimate 2,000 people packed in to see the 20-year-old band from South Bend, Indiana.
The full show consisted of 17 songs, only 3 of which had been previously played this year (2017). Highlights included one major bust out, 2 on-point covers, and an epic three-song run that had never been played before, according to my research aided by allthings.umphreys.com. Continue reading below for a full recap of the show inclusive of pro shot videos and photographs.
Walking into the fresh venue, the staff was incredibly friendly and helpful. Being a Grand Rapids native, it was exciting to walk into a new venue of this caliber, and it even felt a little strange- like we weren’t in our little city anymore. This venue is a perfect example of the growth of Grand Rapids and the music scene here, for both local and national bands coming through town.
If you’re thinking about checking out 20 Monroe Live for an upcoming show- do it. The 2600 capacity room was spacious and offered good views from both the floor and the reserved seats in the mezzanine. Lively art was scattered throughout the building offering tribute to legends like The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and The Beatles. TVs were mounted on the walls with a live feed from the stage if you had to slip out, and the show was played through the speakers in the bathroom so you didn’t miss a single note.
There were plenty of places to grab a drink; so, lines weren’t crazy. I got my $11 Bud Light (woof) and settled in the front left for Spafford who was set to kick off the night at 7:30.
This four-piece “electro-funk therapy” group from Prescott, AZ has been generating some serious buzz in the jam scene this year. After grinding in their home state and mostly touring out West for a few years, they are gaining national attention as the Umphrey’s opener for this tour, a position that has been held by bands like TAUK and The Main Squeeze in the past.
They kicked off their 45-minute set with “Walls,” a four-on-the-floor, spacey funk groove that started a 20-minute sequence. The first thing I noticed was Jordan Fairless on the bass guitar, flowing well with the group and holding down the low end.
Guitarist Brian Moss pretty much took over the rest of the set ripping some solos that seemed to drive and elevate their jams. Transitions were tight, and the vocals and harmonies sounded strong.
By the end of the set, about two-thirds of the crowd had filed in and seemed to be enjoying themselves. I would have liked to hear a little more variance in the style of jams but with just a 45-minute set, it can be hard to get heated up and show off different strengths. Spafford will be touring heavily in 2017-2018, so keep your eyes out for a headlining show. Otherwise, make sure to get Umphrey’s early enough to catch them.
At 8:45 PM sharp, the band took the stage in front of an energetic crowd. Bassist Ryan Stasik donned a “Michigangster” shirt, a nod to his Michigan roots.
The boys jumped right into it, opening with “Flamethrower" > "The Floor” with heavy guitar riffs and strobe lights to get the heads banging.
This was the first time I’ve seen the band for a headlining club show, and the first thing that hit me was the overall sound of the group. Chris Mitchell, the band’s Front of House Engineer is one of the best in the business, and the mix was flawless. Even with 6 people on stage, you could pick out every little nuance from the individual players. The heavy hitting sections smacked you right in the face and you could feel it in your bones.
After the opening sequence, guitarist Brendan Bayliss greeted the crowd: “It’s been a long time!” Their last show in Grand Rapids was in August of 2015 at Frederick Meijer Gardens.
“Mulche’s Odyssey” followed, and then “Night Nurse" > "Bright Lights, Big City”.
At this point in the show, I had been blown away by the technicality of the different members. I knew this going in, but those dudes are machines. Kris Myers is an exceptional drummer, never missed a beat, and punished his drums with 4-8 bar fills that build and build to continuously elevate the jam to another level. In my opinion, while Cinninger lead many changes with hand signals and guitar cues, it was Myers who pushed the boundaries and orchestrated the feel, intensity, and direction of the improvised jams. He has so many different tools in his drumming tool belt and used a combination of his jazz, fusion, funk, rock, and metal influences to create a powerful and dominating presence in the mix and on stage.
I thought to myself: “It must be awesome to be a fan that has been with them since 1997.” I understand why they have so many life-long die-hard fans after just my first show. And this is 20 years after their conception as a band.
The first thing that popped into my head during the ten minute “Bright Lights, Big City” was ‘video game funk’. I enjoyed this song a lot. The happy major jam was a welcomed contrast to the darker and heavier tones that were set in the beginning of the set. It was a feel-good jam, and everyone in the crowd reciprocated the energy with big smiles and hands in the air.
Bayliss recalled the first time the band played in Grand Rapids in 1999, giving a shout out to The Intersection, where “probably 11 people” saw them play in town for the first time. He emphasized how much it means to them to have this kind of crowd so many years later.
Then came this righteous run to close the first set: Visions > Ain’t Too Proud to Beg (The Temptations) > Red Tape.
“Visions” hadn’t been played in almost exactly a year, and was well received by the crowd. The ten-minute song seamlessly flowed into The Temptations’ hit “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” which hadn’t been played in twelve years. In 2003 the group covered a few Motown songs for NYE in Chicago including “Shotgun,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)," and “Tell Me Something Good.” It will be interesting to see if they play another one this weekend when they are actually in the Motor City. The cover had percussionist Andy Farag on the classic Motown tambourine and featured an organ solo by Cummins. For having not played the song live in 12 years, it was incredibly tight and well polished. Cinninger took the soulful lead vocals while other members lent a hand with backups.
“Red Tape” lasted ten minutes and reminded me of .38 Special’s “Hold On Loosely.” A blackout from Jefferson Waful who absolutely crushed the entire show ended the first set, and Sturgill Simpson came on as the house music while fans mingled and discussed the first 72 minutes of Umphrey’s show.
The second set started with something that had never been done before. "Soul Food I" > "Soul Food II" > "Soul Food III." This three-song run lasted almost a half hour and was the first time the band has ever played all three songs in a row. “Soul Food III” had only been performed one time before last night.
“Soul Food II” featured a Holly Bowling sit in. She's a dynamic keyboardist known for incredible piano arrangements of famed live shows. She traded solos with Cummins- starting on the organ, and then sliding over to the piano. Bowling also performed at Founders Brewing Co. for the official pre and post show parties.
An eleven-minute "Conduit" followed the Soul Food run and earned one of the biggest applauses of the night from the crowd.
The second set finished with a rousing rendition of Pink Floyd’s "Comfortably Numb," "Partyin’ Peeps" and "JaJunk," a heavy-hitting tune in 7/4 time where percussionist Andy Farag shined with tasteful and not over-the-top contributions to the rhythm section. Part of the reason Myers sounds so impressive is because of the layers that Farag adds to the rhythmic texture.
The loud crowd was rewarded with a ten-minute encore of "Kimble" and "Gulf Stream". Strong extensions in both songs rounded out a night of high-quality music and production.
“All my friends are here right now, they could be your friends too,” sang Cinninger. Indeed plenty of my own friends and familiar faces were in the audience, which only added to the pleasure of my first real UM experience. There is a great vibe in the audience, and you can tell a lot of friendships have been forged through the music of Umphrey’s McGee.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed myself at this concert. While I won’t be sitting in my room listening to all of these songs on repeat in my spare time, I can honestly say that while I was on the floor, I was happy, impressed, and at times blown away by the full-scale production of the show.
I will say I wasn’t really surprised by too much- going in I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to get from the show. It’s an intense show- and some parts of it I wasn’t into because of my personal taste, but I can’t hold that against the band. Although they might not be the band that I choose to follow around the country, I can understand why so many people do. I would definitely go see them again and encourage anyone who has yet to see them live to make it out to at least one show.
Walking out of the show, the 1976 Kiss anthem “Detroit Rock City” came over the house speakers, foreshadowing the rest of Umphrey’s McGee’s Michigan run. Time to lose your mind in Detroit, Umphreaks.
Flamethrower > The Floor
Night Nurse > Bright Lights, Big City
Visions > Ain’t Too Proud to Beg > Red Tape
Soul Food I > Soul Food II > Soul Food III