Driving from Albany to Buffalo feels like you're driving to the end of the world; however upon entering the Town Ballroom for a Wednesday-night Umphrey's McGee show‚ I knew it was going to be worth the trek. Forty-five minutes before the band stepped onstage the packed club was already going bonkers‚ and it had nothing to do with the playoff hockey games being projected on the two screens on either side of the stage (though that was a cool touch-go‚ Rangers!). The arena tiered level design of the hall made it feel like a Roman mob thirsty for blood. Or maybe it was merely drunk Buffalonians delirious from finally thawing out from another harsh winter‚ but nevertheless‚ the place was raucous. By 8:40 the throngs were whipped up with intermittent chants of "Um-Phreys" and "Let's go Umphrey's."
By the time they stepped onstage at 9:25‚ the crowd was more than ready and the band immediately fed off of and manipulated the high-octane energy waiting for them. They led off with a 20-plus-minute "Utopian Fir‚" which in of itself displayed why I find Umphrey's to be the most exciting progressive live band today. They began by toying with the swelled energy by shifting tempos and creating mini rises and crescendos. They had the crowd on their toes from the get-go‚ as musical eruptions would come out of nowhere. It never ceases to amaze me how locked-in this band is‚ especially guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss‚ who will be trading licks one minute and be in perfect syncopation the next. By the middle of the song‚ the band had become musical chameleons‚ dropping styles on a dime‚ going from jazz‚ heavy metal‚ classical‚ electronica and prog before settling into the reggae-dub heart of the song.
They neatly slipped into the smoother waters of "Anchor Drops." Even here Cinninger managed to keep the mob honest by unleashing a monster pyrotechnic solo. From there‚ they launched into a short but fun "Fuzzy Dutchman." They completed the set with the always crowd-pleasing "All in Time‚" which segued into a "Senor Mouse" that featured good audience participation and jam before dropping back into "All in Time" and whipping the crowd into a frenzy with its grand classically influenced ending‚ complete with drummer Kris Myers' sticks twirling in the air and heavy cascading notes‚ before supplying a much needed set break.
Umphrey's picked up the intensity right where they left off by opening the second set with a mind-blowing "Ocean Billy." This composition once again allowed them to toy with the crowd's energy by utilizing tempo changes and rising crests. Cinninger even contributed to the song's heavy percussion by sliding in on Andy Farag's set; though Myers and Farag certainly did not need the help. They stretched it out into a full electronica jam. They moved on to a heavy "Search" and a soulful "FF‚" which segued into "August‚" which once again allowed them to show their proggier side. They finished the set with a bang by choosing one of my favorites‚ "Bridgeless." To me‚ this song has it all: a dark‚ mysterious opener‚ ominous undertones throughout‚ a head-bopping beat‚ cryptic lyrics‚ big breakdowns‚ dramatic runs and style shifting. Umphrey's knocked it out of the park. They left the stage to a crowd stomping mad for more.
They obliged by coming back with a great version of "Liquid‚" the fairy tale-like song with a big rising singalong chorus‚ which the enthused crowd just ate up. Cinninger on vocals playfully inserted keyboardist Joel Cummins' name as many times as possible into the song ("ring the Joel Cummins in my head"). It was clear throughout that Umphrey's appreciated the passion of this crazed crowd. At one point Bayliss remarked‚ "You guys are really making this feel like a Friday even though it's a Wednesday‚" and at another he quipped‚ "I don't know what you're on‚ but I want some. Looks like you're having the time of your life." They rewarded the crowd with an extra encore number‚ "Roulette." This was not enough; the throngs spilled into the streets of Buffalo howling for more.
I was fortunate enough to get more the next night‚ much closer to home‚ at Revolution Hall in Troy‚ N.Y. I was surprised to see many familiar faces from the previous night‚ people who had also made the trek back east. Before the show‚ the energy was nowhere near the feverish levels that it had been the night before. Umphrey's quickly infused some much needed jolts of wattage by opening with the deep grooves of "Dump City" with a segue in and out of "Wappy Sprayberry‚" which featured a nifty "In the Flesh" tease. They followed that with "Intentions Clear." This one-two punch really demonstrates the versatility of Umphrey's. They begin with a ferocious instrumental song and jam and cleanly switch it into a jazzy and heartbreaking bad-relationship song that sounds like Steely Dan for the 21st century. Bayliss sings and plays the song with such conviction that you'd swear this conversation just took place. The night was off to a great start.
They continued with "Soul Food I" and "Sociable Jimmy" before ending the set with a ridiculous "The Bottom Half." This is another example of a great Umphrey's composition - big rises and crescendos‚ great lyrics‚ tempo and style changes and epic guitar eruptions. The song shows the virtuosity of all six members of the band‚ especially in the live setting. Though a hot set in its own right‚ it differed from the previous night; it was not as guitar driven‚ the contributions of Joel Cummings were more audible‚ and it seemed that bassist Ryan Stasik was the evening's musical director. It was interesting to see Stasik getting right in Myers' face several times‚ having long conversations as the jams were unraveling.

They began what was to be the best set of the two nights with a slick version of the Police's "When the World is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Around." They followed that with the splendid deep riffs of "Nemo." After that the games started‚ with an epic version of "Prowler." In the middle‚ they started spilling out the sweet soulful grooves of Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgeting" before digging deeper into the hip-hop beats of its sampled offspring‚ Warren G's "Regulate." The crowd was going nuts. They followed that with the funky one-two punch of "Alex's House" and "Bright Lights‚ Big City." which morphed into a crazy instrumental fusion version of "Billy Jean" that kept the crowd soaring. As the crowd was locked into the groove‚ Umphrey's quickly changed it up by igniting the explosive "Miss Tinkle's Overture." The tune blew the crowd away and practically ripped the roof off the place. This set toyed with the audience‚ bringing them all over the musical map. They set the crowd up like bowling pins before knocking them down with one of their most ferocious tunes and ending the set on the highest of notes. It was as if the whole set was just a lead-up to this most explosive of moments. By the time they had left the stage‚ it was as if they were Sherman's army exiting after pulverizing the Southp; they had the air of conquering heroes‚ and the crowd wanted more.
They came back and offered a nice version of the "The Floor" before calling it a night. No one in the crowd‚ though‚ was prepared to leave. Many stayed‚ hoping for more and grabbing up mementos‚ such as setlists‚ drumsticks‚ towels‚ and I even saw a girl take an empty water bottle from the stage. Kris Myers hung around chatting with those who refused to let the night end.
This was a great two nights of music. It once again reminded me why I find Umphrey's McGee to be by far the most technically proficient and exhilarating bands around. They're young and hungry and getting better by the minute. I can easily see them as the future of the "jam band scene‚" as well as crossing over to become college radio stars. If these two nights were any indication‚ the future is now.