The default setting for Chicago-based jam band Umphrey's McGee is a B-plus show. We've had a few of those shows in Buffalo over the years, and they are great performances.
But if you've seen Umphrey's when all cylinders are firing at once, you might've left well, not disappointed, but secure in the knowledge that this band is capable of even more.
Wednesday at Artpark, we got an A-PLUS show. No question. Of the 11 times this reviewer has seen the band, this was the most daring, fluid, eclectic and fully actualized set yet.
Tuesday, Artpark was packed to the proverbial rafters for Peter Frampton's concert. Far fewer turned out Wednesday. But while the Frampton show -- as outstanding as it was -- seemed to attract the more casual listener who had come mostly to party, the Umphrey's-only twin-set gig found a smaller crowd gathered with the clear purpose of focusing on the band foremost in their minds.
Happily, Umphrey's seemed to thrive in the more intimate atmosphere. The band took the stage at roughly 6:45 p.m., took a short break after 90 minutes, then came back to play right up until curfew.
A killer "Crooked One" kicked things off in grand style and seemed to set the tone for the entire evening. This would be an evening of epic pieces punctuated by long, inspired sections of improvisational magic. Do we have Umphrey's guitarist to thank for the magic that hung over the Niagara Gorge throughout the band's twin sets? I believe so.
Jake Cinninger is one of his generation's finest guitarists. When he's on and in the mood to lead Umphrey's -- guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss, keyboardist Joel Cummins, drummer Kris Myers, percussionist Andy Farag and bassist Ryan Stasik -- into uncharted terrain, then some serious chemistry is likely to ensue.
Cinninger was all over the gig Wednesday, soloing like King Crimson's Robert Fripp at one turn, skanking like a member of Bob Marley's Wailers the next. He and Bayliss seem to communicate like few twin-guitar teams in rock history. There never seemed to be a point when one didn't understand where the other was trying to lead things.
So the first set, performed while the sun was just beginning its slow descent and featuring smoking takes on "Passing," "Wife Soup," "Andy's Last Beer" and a newer piece known as "Go to Hell," was pretty much breathtaking.
During the break, smiles abounded, and what appeared to be a mostly twentysomething and thirtysomething crowd expressed the belief that "tonight is magic." Hard to disagree with, especially when the band came back to play an even more fiery set that included a smoking "Nothing Too Fancy," an expansive "Push the Pig" featuring some of the finest playing by Cinninger this writer has yet witnessed and a gorgeous, note-perfect take on Traffic's timeless "Can't Find My Way Home" and a sultry, four-on-the-floor version of the Rolling Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking."
If you haven't yet seen this band and you enjoy virtuosic, improv-driven music, you should. Umphrey's will certainly be back.
Part of Coors Light Wednesdays concert series at the Artpark Outdoor Amphitheater, Lewiston.