ASBURY PARK, NJ—It was a hot, but breezy and comfortable night in Asbury Park when Umphrey’s McGee took the outdoor stage at the Stone Pony. Their quirky, jammy, virtuosic and dub-affected rock stylings seemed like the perfect soundtrack for the typical evening pandemonium going on just over the fence on the boardwalk.
Thanks to my girlfriend—her keen insistence and prog-atuned ears—I’ve become an Umphrey’s fan this year, and July’s Stone Pony show was my second time seeing the sextet perform.
Though their studio albums still have some catching up to do with the wonder of their live performances—assuming that’s even possible—Umphrey’s has a way of leaving you with one thought in your mind: “I’m pretty sure I just saw the greatest band in the world.”
That, again, was the case after the July 1 show.
Either they are one of the most patient and precise acts on the planet, or the six members have reached some kind of collective telepathy in which they can go into lengthy five, 10, 15 or more-minute jams and know exactly when to transition back to the song as it was written or to take it even further ‘out.’
In my admittedly limited experience seeing the group perform, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. Guitarists/vocalists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger rarely even sing all the lyrics to their songs as they are focused on taking their music places it’s never been—their music and the occasional cover.
I don’t mean to downplay how great UM’s original tunes are, but the highlight of this show was definitely their synthesis of “Sad But True” by Metallica and “Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz. After a near 14-minute jam, the group crashed in the instantly-recognizable Metallica riff, played it through a couple times before teasing a familiar-sounding dub groove, and then went back to the riff. The air above the crowd surged with fists when they sampled James Hetfield’s original vocal track.
When the groove switched back to dub, bassist Rob Stasik suddenly interjected after the second “Sad But True” chorus with lyrics from “Clint Eastwood” (“I ain’t happy, I’m feelin’ glad/I got sunshine, in a bag/I’m useless, but not for long/The future is comin’ on”) while my jaw dropped in astonished disbelief.
Though you wouldn’t get the impression from looking out at the tie-dye wearing, hula hoop-dancing populace, Umphrey’s McGee brings a peculiar (but not surprising, given their chops) appreciation for heavy metal to their live shows. They played the epic, perhaps tongue-in-cheek instrumental “Wizard Burial Ground,” they covered “Mother” by Danzig in a nod to the New Jersey-native’s contribution to rock and it’s worth noting that the band sells t-shirts emblazoned with Stasik’s name in the Slayer font.
Augmented by a thrilling light show, which on this night illuminated the surrounding buildings in blankets of greens, blues, purples and yellows, the band’s set was thrilling and had the crowd’s full appreciation.
The Stone Pony staff was friendly and courteous as usual, unless you were one of those damned God-hating pot smokers, in which case your ass was getting thrown out. In spite of security’s undying zeal in weeding out anyone with a piece, a pipe, a bowl or a joint, however, the peppery fragrance of marijuana mixed with cigarette smog and swirled over the crowd throughout the night.
The Pony’s crusade against pot users wouldn’t have seemed so inappropriate if nearly every other person in the venue wasn’t already chain-smoking cigarettes. I don’t think I’m alone in that I prefer the piquant smell of marijuana to arid, choking, polluting wafts of ‘American Injun Slims,’ or whatever they’re called. At least the expelled offenders could still hear the show from the boardwalk, if they weren’t locked up, of course.
Umphrey’s allows fans to record their shows and I captured most of their set on a handheld recorder. The sound was typically great that night and I keep listening back to the footage more than a month later, reliving one of the best shows of the summer. I expect I’ll amass quite a collection of these tapes over the next few years.