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The Thinking Man

THINKING MAN'S THURSDAY: Let's Jam with UMPHREY'S MCGEE

When Thinking Man’s Thursday was created, it was my hope to appreciate progressive music in all its forms. Greg and myself have been good about paying homage to the heavier side of the prog world. That ends now, or at least for this entry, sorta, or something.

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In this entry I am celebrating Umphrey’s McGee, the world’s finest self-proclaimed “Improg” band. The fabricated term “Improg,” may seem a little suspect to some, and it should because it’s a fun way of saying a “jam band.”

I’ll pause here as you roll your eyes, throw up into your mouth, scream in terror, or whatever weird visceral reaction you think you need to have right now.

Anyway, jam bands have an unwarranted bad rap with a lot of people, and with the metal community I attribute that hatred to an episode of South Park where they claim that “hippies hate death metal,” and then Cartman plays “Raining Blood” to break up a jam band festival. Slayer isn’t death metal, but I digress.

Umphrey’s McGee are indeed a jam band. There’s no if, ands, or buts about that. They have the meandering song structure and silly joyful nature of a jam band. They have studio albums, but their magic is on stage extending their songs into longer experiences often of two full sets. They release all of their shows to purchase online. Their fans follow them on tour in drug fueled caravans, and try to give first time attendees free acid. Rather, they at least they tried to that one time in Sacramento, and then got mad when I refused. Thanks again, and sorry again sticker lady (you know who you are). In short, They would totally be in the same category as Phish, Moe, The Disco Biscuits, or The Grateful Dead.

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However, they are in a league of their own. While they have all the jam band qualities, they bring technical prowess and some heavy to the hippie scene they’re a part of. Trey from Phish is no guitar slouch, but Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger from Umphrey’s McGee are straight up shredders. For evidence of this check any performance of “Wizard’s Burial Ground” or “Miss Tinkle’s Overture.”

Metal-ness aside (metality?), this piece is all about progressive music, and Umphrey’s McGee can be found getting proggy in just about every track. Their love of Yes, King Crimson, Frank Zappa and others is evident throughout their catalog. They often stray from 4/4 time-signatures or go on long spacey musical journeys. They have an extensive catalog of songs to choose from, but I like to tell prog fans that they should start with live versions of those aforementioned two tracks as well as “The Floor,” “Puppet String,” and “Bad Friday.”

If you need your prog with added heavy credibility (for some reason), it’s worth noting that UM are no strangers to a heavy(ish) cover. They’ve covered hard rock staples like “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC, both “Black Sabbath” and “War Pigs” by Tony Iommi and the gang, “Enter Sandman” and “…And Justic For All” by Metallica, and even “46 & 2” by Tool.

Hell, further proof that the band are a unique beast can be found in their 2016 record Zonkey. A Zonkey is the offspring of a zebra and a donkey. A animal mash-up if you will. Zonkey is a band mash up album. They mix artists like White Zombie, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and Pink Floyd in a single track to create  “Frankie Zombie.” This one sounds super weird, but it is my favorite track on the album. They also mix Metallica and The Gorillaz (“Sad Clint Eastwood”), Motorhead and Ween (“Ace of Long Nights”),  Beastie Boys and Rage Against The Machine (“Bulls on the Bus”) and a lot more.

They are by no means an unknown band since they’re headlining festivals, selling out theaters all over the country, and touring non-stop. They just seem out of the scope of the typical progressive rock/metal fan. So prog dogs (no one calls you that), get digging. They have A TON of material out there for you to enjoy since every live show is different.

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