The Chicago band Umphrey’s McGee has made a rapid grassroots rise in the national jam-band scene, going in the past year or so from headlining small clubs to nearly selling out the Avalon. Like most bands that succeed based on a reputation for improvisation, they haven’t done it through radio play or record sales, though their third album, the new “Safety in Numbers” (Sci Fidelity), is an accurate representation of their progressive background. Instead, “Umph” has garnered a reputation as a stellar live act thanks to intense instrumental passages both technically impressive and perpetually wanky.
In two sets, the band blew through a slew of diverse material. They tackled the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man” and their own “Believe the Lie,” like many Umph songs a vehicle to demonstrate their ability to joust between standard 4/4 guitar heroics and odd-time-signature proficiency.
It takes a tight band to maintain multipart blasts like “Believe the Lie,” and Umphrey’s McGee are packed like sardines. Their songs — and their shows — occasionally seem like short-attention-span theater; like the work of their indie-rock brethren in Firey Furnaces, their songs are often so all over the place that it’s impossible to latch onto any one theme. But it’s no surprise that the main topic of discussion in the smoking area at set break was who had scored tickets to David Gilmour’s upcoming L.A. shows; at their strongest moments, Umphrey’s McGee share the acid-space mentality of Gilmour’s band Pink Floyd, reaching for the stars with their guitars.
They don’t always get there (a too-long noodle-fest with ex-Particle guitarist Charlie Hitchcock was just one example of overextension), but when they do — a transcendent dual guitar pull in “Morning Song,” or the very Traffic-esque groove of “Women Wine and Song” — Umphrey’s almost deserve the reverence their fans heap on them.