On October 20, 1999 — just over 20 years ago — Umphrey’s McGee made their New York City debut at the famed and now-shuttered Wetlands Preserve. Much has changed over the past two decades for the band as they returned to the Big Apple to kick off their 2020 with two shows at The Beacon Theatre and a Sunday night performance at Brooklyn Bowl. Saturday’s concert displayed just how far the sextet has come and included another tribute to late Rush drummer Neil Peart and guest appearances from NYC music scene fixtures Mike Stern and Leni Stern.
The latest big change for UM comes behind the light board. Youngster Ben Factor is now the band’s LD after Jefferson Waful retired in 2019. Factor has a completely different style than Waful and also varies his designs more from the song-to-song than Jefferson, who always utilized his signature sleek symmetrical lightscapes throughout each tune in a way that there was never any mistaking who was running lights. At times it was disorienting to have such a new approach to the lighting after over a decade of Waful on lights. Ben has the material down and will continue to find his own signature looks as the years move on. Taking the role of one of the best in the rock lighting game is no easy feat.
Last night’s show began with the gorgeous instrumental “End Of The Road.” The band worked the Safety In Numbers classic into a well-jammed “1348” they left unfinished before transitioning into “Crucial Taunt.” Next up were two songs from guitarist Jake Cinninger‘s Ali Baba’s Tahini days, “Syncopated Strangers” and “Nothing Too Fancy.” The 30-minute segment featured otherworldy improvisation to accompany the heavily composed sections. It’s rare one would see UM miss a change and Saturday was no exception. The sextet is as tight as it gets. “Seasons” from 2018’s it’s you followed and would be the last song of the night debuted within the past decade.
Umphrey’s then welcomed the husband-and-wife guitar duo of Mike & Leni Stern to share the stage for a cover of Miles Davis’ “It’s About That Time.” Speaking of signature styles, the Stern’s each have a tone and approach different than any other and delivered smoking solos. Last night’s “It’s About That Time” was UM’s first since New Year’s Eve 2018 — a span of 152 shows. It was also just the third cover of the song since 2015. Mike Stern was a member of Miles’ band from 1981 to 1983 and again in 1985. The guitarist is a regular at the 55 Bar, a legendary and intimate night club in Greenwich Village.
It’s About That Time Captured by The Savage Shiba
One night after Umphrey’s covered “Anthem” by Rush in honor of Neil Peart, they had another tribute to the late drummer to start Saturday’s second set. This time, UM drummer Kris Myers provided lead vocals on the band’s debut cover of Rush’s 1981 hit “Limelight.” Myers absolutely crushed his instrumental and vocal parts. The five-song second set continued with a “Der Bluten Kat” > “Higgins” > “Der Bluten Kat” segment that spanned 35 minutes. “DBK” was the only song played last night that UM performed at their NYC debut just over 20 years ago. The six-piece expertly moved from one jam space to another during the first “DBK” jam and then dropped on a dime into an extended “Higgins” that featured more impressive and deep exploration.
Cinninger stepped into the spotlight following “DBK” to start “Booth Love.” The band patiently worked through the tune and during the jam Jake put down his guitar and headed over to keyboardist Joel Cummins‘ part of the stage. Jake let it rip on Fender Rhodes (and then on Mellotron) in yet another display of his virtuosic musicianship. Guitarist Brendan Bayliss let his band mates do the heavy lifting while he took cell phones from members of the audience to film Cinninger and Cummins wailing away. Bayliss took a nasty solo of his own before UM finished “Booth Love.” The grand finale of the set was “All In Time,” one of the first originals UM ever played. Each member of the group contributed to a stellar 21-minute rendition of the tune that included a taste of Rush’s “The Spirit Of Radio” within. Myers and percussionist Andy Farag treated fans to a drum duel in the middle of “AIT” that likely would’ve made Peart proud.
Umphrey’s still had another treat for fans when they came back to the stage for the encore. At the end of such a potent rock show, the band went a different route in encoring with a cover of Pat Metheny’s gorgeous instrumental, “Last Train Home.” Cinninger, Cummins and Bayliss each took varying approaches to their solo on the song from the jazz great’s Still Life (Talking) LP. Last night’s “Last Train Home” was the first played in the Northeast at a concert open to the public since October 17, 2008 and was just the 20th since the band debuted their take on the tune in 2003 (and 10 were performed between 2003 – 2005). UM said farewell by ending the “1348” they started three hours earlier. Tonight, the band returns to Brooklyn Bowl and a free live stream is available.
Limelight via LazyLightning55
Last Train Home > 1348 Captured by The Savage Shiba
End Of The Road Captured by The Savage Shiba
Higgins Captured by The Savage Shiba
Setlist (via All Things Umphreys)
Set 1: End of the Road > 1348 > Crucial Taunt, Syncopated Strangers > Nothing Too Fancy, Seasons, It’s About That Time
Set 2: Limelight, Der Bluten Kat > Higgins > Der Bluten Kat, Booth Love, All In Time
Encore: Last Train Home > 1348
-  Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love (Van Halen) tease
-  with Mike Stern and Leni Stern on guitars
-  debut, Rush
-  with Jake on keys
-  with The Spirit of Radio and YYZ (Rush) teases