Fall Review – Phish, Umphrey’s McGee, EOTO

MANY THANKS! PHOTOGRAPH : Mike and Trey – Photo by Dave Vann © Phish 2010 from 10/19/10 Augusta Civic Center, Augusta, ME


Fall Review – Phish, Umphrey’s McGee, EOTO

Contributing Writer – Garret K. Woodward

Phish – Utica Municipal Auditorium – Utica, New York – October 20, 2010

Since their return some 18 months ago, Phish, the storied Vermont rock quartet, has slowly and steadily rebuilt their sandcastle of improvisational creativity with an iconic presence and playful ambiance greatly missed for the latter half of the last decade.

And, for their recent Northeast tour, Utica was the proving ground for the ensembles effort to merge past beauty and possibility with modern intent and perfection.

Charging through the desolate southern Adirondack Mountains, the frisky Subaru reeked of cigarette smoke and cheap beer. Icy Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys and Camel filters were hoisted in unison. Overeager and manic faces, only found in the glorious pursuits of a fall Phishin’ trip, glanced into the mysterious depths of the isolation rapidly flying by the car window.

Sunshine scattered across central New York State. The vehicle breezed into Utica- a once flourishing blue-collar city, now reduced to another industrial rust-bucket with a few splashes of fresh paint here and there.

Thousands emerged from seemingly every direction and sauntered into The Aud, quite possibly the smallest the band has played in some time.

Although the softy spoken “My Soul” eased its way into the evening, “Wolfman’s Brother” > “Cities” > “Guyute” left every seat empty, every foot gyrating. The trifecta overtook the room, which started to feel like an incubator amid sweaty faces and foggy windows on the concourse.

Trey Anastasio commanded the audience throughout “Wilson”, with the trademark guitar riff being teased throughout a frisky “David Bowie” beforehand.

It seemed the performance belonged to Jon Fishman. His perpetual drumming stole the show (“Axilla”/“Birds of a Feather”)- a poignant and often overlooked force within the group.

A long lost sense of innocence and reflection swept over the arena during the subsequent offerings. The pairing of veteran road warriors and curious youth conjured a unification few and far between in daily endeavors of the soul (“Split Open and Melt” > “Slave to the Traffic Light”).

A staunch “Good Times, Bad Times” only fueled the speculation on the upcoming Halloween weekend in Atlantic City, with Led Zeppelin being rumored as the preferred musical costume this time around.

If 2009 was the year of Phish returning, then 2010 is the year Phish returns to it’s old tricks and talents onstage. The boys are back and not afraid anymore to venture down the rabbit hole of improvisation and composition only found in the confines of our beloved group.

The confidence and fearlessness is back and it is showing no signs of holding up.

Utica Memorial Auditorium – October 20, 2010

Set I : My Soul, Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan, Vultures, Wolfman’s Brother > Cities > Guyute, David Bowie, Wilson > McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters > Saw It Again > Run Like an Antelope

Set II : Drowned -> Sand > Theme From the Bottom, Axilla > Birds of a Feather, Tela > Split Open and Melt -> Have Mercy > Piper > Split Open and Melt > Slave to the Traffic Light

Encore : Good Times Bad Times

Umphrey’s McGee – Higher Ground – Burlington, Vermont – November 4, 2010

Innumerable black “X’s” adorn hands and expose the youth exuberance wafting throughout the room at Umphrey’s McGee’s second night in Higher Ground. Manic faces speak of recent Halloween performances, comparing and contrasting several ensembles.

I hadn’t seen Umphrey’s McGee since their surprise set on Sunday evening at Rothbury last summer, which turned out to be one of the most memorable moments of the weekend.

And yet, other times I cross paths with the sextet, I find myself continually on the fence over whether I truly enjoy what I’m watching or am just appreciating the musicianship.

This time around, I was leaning towards the latter.

Their transitions are seamless, though I find myself standing next to the bar, wondering what the essence of their sound truly is.

It seems the real meat-n-potatoes lie in their dipping into the thrash metal and punk styling. The full-throttle guitar mastery of Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger, along with the perpetual pendulum drumming of Kris Myers, keep my ears perked and in awe.

But, it is the vocals which seem to fall flat.

When singing, I find myself comparing the group to some ecstasy-addled Sting conducting The Police headlong into the cosmos or a way cooler and more socially acceptable version of the Doobie-killer himself, Michael McDonald.

The more intense and sinister the sound gets, the more I slobber and drool with a mouth of musical Novocain. The more they slow it down and try to show compassion and variety, the more I keep looking at the clock and wonder if I have enough gas money to get back to New York.

Though the initial set coasted through (with Talking Heads “Girlfriend Is Better” being the standout), the subsequent round of tunes took the reigns and guided the listener like a rollercoaster ride.

The ride shakes your body. Your head slams against the handlebar. Your stomach tingles and drops to the floor. The moments are sincere and fleeting, leaving you wondering what happened and will it come back around again?

“Don’t Stop the Spirit of Radio” was a unique reggae/prog-rock take on “Don’t Stop Believing” (Journey). I usually find myself cringing to the tremendously overplayed 80’s hit in bars and dorm rooms across the country, but this version provoked a smile on my face and a dreaded fist-pump from my right arm.

Scott Hannay of Capital Zen (who became known for his interpretations of the Umphrey’s catalogue into Nintendo instrumentals) split duties with keyboardist Joel Cummins on the jovial “Miss Tinkle’s Overture”.

Umphrey’s McGee still leaves me confused on how to pinpoint their presence, but maybe that’s the point. They leave me on the fence, but isn’t that what innovative and progressive music is supposed to do? At the end of the day, they turn heads with a precision and aptitude second-to-none.

The true evolution of an entity comes in time, which my overall opinion will as well.

Higher Ground – Nov. 4, 2010
Set I : Partyin’ Peeps, Booth Love, Nemo, #5, Wappy Sprayberry > Girlfriend Is Better

Set II : Divisions, The Fussy Dutchman, 2×2 , Triple Wide, The Crooked One > Glory > Divisions, Don’t Stop the Spirit of Radio

Encore: Miss Tinkle’s Overture (with Scott Hannay on keys with Joel Cummins)

EOTO – Higher Ground – Burlington, Vermont – November 11, 2010

No longer are Michael Travis (bass/keyboard/guitar) and Jason Hann (drums/percussion) at the whim of the audience anymore. They are steering the ship of the listening public after years of clawing up a slippery slope.

Their onstage presence paints a bright and shiny picture, one reminiscent of an infamous Sneaker Pimps rave at an anonymous warehouse in London circa 1997. They hypnotize your senses with a unique and one-of-a-kind brand of improvisational electronica. Soon it’s 10 minutes later and you find yourself staring into space, caught in a fleeting moment you don’t want to let go of.

The ambition is larger. The level of control exhibited is intimidating, yet promising with every transition, phase, chord, or kick drum reverberating into the night. The momentum resembles a plate spinner, never wanting to break the concentration, never wanting to take your eye off of the next possible scenario.

Their musical toolbox is bigger and the sound is darker, more aggressive in approach.

Though Travis has been the usual vocal looping guru, Hann finds his way into the mix, adding a few familiar phrases and lyrics, which seemingly describe the madness at hand (“California knows how to party/California knows how to party/In the city of LA/In the city of Compton”).

His role has magnified tenfold while Travis continues to be the mad scientist, testing and retesting in his melodic basement until the concoction is just right, just appetizing enough for public consumption.

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