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Photo by Jeremy Smith

UMPHREY'S McGEE - Brooklyn Bowl, Sept. 8, 2011

by Jim Testa

Better than: Listening to your uncle's old Grateful Dead records while nibbling KFC

Let me be perfectly upfront about this: When the press invite came to check out Umphrey's McGee at Brooklyn Bowl, it proved to be a perfect storm of serendipitous circumstances: I felt like going out, I had nothing else to do that night, and the event included complimentary fried chicken and sides. It turned out that Brooklyn Bowl's famous Blue Ribbon fried chicken is way too salty; but the music turned out to be a real treat.

I had always been vaguely aware of Umphrey's McGee as a jam band that had successfully copied the Grateful Dead's template for success: Tour all the time, change set lists every show, build a loyal fan base, let your fans bootleg and trade your shows, and enjoy a long, successful career without bothering much about record sales, radio play, or good reviews.

But I didn't realize that the Chicago-based sextet has been around over 13 years, released a dozen full lengths, or had the kind of fan base that would allow it to sell out four consecutive nights at a huge venue like Brooklyn Bowl in the heart of hipster Williamsburg. Nor did I expect a "jam band" to blow me away. Ask anybody; I hate jam bands. Always have.

Umphrey's McGee I liked.

Umphrey's McGee has at its core an improvisational element - the band calls its jammy excursions "Jimmy Stewarts" - but these aren't burnt out folkies; the band mixes funky grooves and sinewy solos with full-blown synthesizer-fueled progressive-rock in the style of Yes or Pink Floyd. And they travel with their own light show that perfectly accentuates their psychedelic leanings. Crazy guitar solos, sci-fi synth parts, and funky percussion combine in an unlikely but hugely captivating fusion, and the band's huge repertoire makes each show an event. I suspect that quite a few audience members at the show I saw attended all

Brooklyn Bowl crowds tend to be pretty predictable: Lots of hipster dudes in fedoras and ironic haircuts (or beards and flannel) and their girlfriends, everybody in the room between the ages of 19 and 29. But Umphrey's McGee's crowd was both surprisingly diverse (a complete mix of ages, from teens to gray-haired seniors, and all varieties of dress) and yet almost laughably predictable. You could scan the packed audience area in front of the stage for ten minutes before finding a single female face. Young, old, and in-between, it was; but it was also at least 90% male. I mention that sociologically, not pejoratively, by the way; it just seemed a curious phenomenon. Both jam bands and prog-rock have historically appealed to more guys than girls, but Umphrey's McGee even more so.

Many of those dudes, I suspect, bought tickets for all four nights; like Phish or the Dead, Umphrey's McGee audiences seem unable to get enough of their heroes. The band played two lengthy sets on each of its four night residency and probably didn't repeat more than a handful of songs; at the show I attended, they introduced one young woman in the crowd who was seeing her 100th show. I suspect she wasn't alone.

 is an independently published music fanzine covering punk, alternative, ska, techno and garage music, focusing on New Jersey and the Tri-State area. For the past 25 years, the Jersey Beat music fanzine has been the authority on the latest upcoming bands and a resource for all those interested in rock and roll.

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