BY JAMES MOORE
I head up to Iowa City on a frigid bardot February nacht tocheck out Umphrey’s McGee, a Chicago-based chronic sonic band. They’replaying the IMU Second Floor Ballroom, a stately wood-floor venue that probablyholds, I don’t know, 600 to 800 peeps all told.
I have to admit, SCOPE Productions, the University of Iowa’s StudentCommission for Programming and Entertainment, offers a pretty sweet varietyof mui varioso musicalia. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco just played there. Upcomingshows include perennial favorite guitar-a-mundo Keller Williams on April 11,Nawlins voodoo funkship Galactic on April 12 (I’m a Stanton Moore junkie),and jam-cum-techno-cum-dance band Lotus with DJ Harry on April 25 in the IMUWheelroom.
I like Iowa City. It reminds me of my hometown, Madison, Wisconsin. Okay,a tiny Madison—and you have to squint a little bit—but the vibeis there. What can I say? College towns are the cat’s meow and velourpajamas rolled into one. I love the intellectual thread entwined with the flotsam/jetsamof surround-sound party down students flowing like endless rain in Herman Hesserivulets braving sub-arctic temperatures wearing only the sheerest of smiles.
I decide at this point, for no reason, to start every paragraph in this month’scolumn with “I.” Not because of a pre-Grammy magazine feature Isaw on rapper/producer father/son/and holy ghost of the serious hip-hop hapsKanye West entitled “The Ego Has Landed,” but simply because Ican. That, my friends, is what being in the moment is all about. And beingin the moment is the capital jam bands traffic in. Does anyone feel a seguecoming on?
(I do. Two non sequiturs walk into a bar and order tequilas. One says to theother, “You ever been to Mexico?” Just then a beautiful questionmark saunters over, sits on a stool between the two, and lights a cigarette. “Whatare you boys talking about?” she purrs, demure as the contours of herfaux fur, exhaling a perfect ring of blue smoke. “You,” says theother, smiling as wanly as an overwrought metaphor. “You boys have names?” solicitsthe curvy Minerva. “I’m 9/11,” says the first. “Don’ttell me,” she says to the other, slightly rolling her eyes, “You’reSaddam, right?” Before he can answer, a bracket bursts into the bar withexpletives strapped to his chest. The bartender reaches for his semicolon beneaththe counter, whispering to no one in perpendicular, “Big Bang ‘Theory’ myass, George Deutsche Baghdaddy.” “Wake up, Slash! You’rejust having a bad dream,” shouts the exclamation point’s Norwegianwife. “Thanks, Asterisk,” he sighs, fondling her memory but notunduly.)
I dig the jam band thank-you-ma’am scene truly but not immoderatelyor unduly. Medeski, Martin, and Wood? Hell yeah. Phish? Never got hooked. Oysterhead?Less Trey. More Les. Phil Lesh? Yes. Bob Weir? Not so much. Maceo? Big fun.String Cheese? A little stringy or cheesy for me, not sure which. I like SoundTribe Sector 9 in concert and what I’ve heard of Tea Green Leaf on record.Hope to see Railroad Earth soon. Neil Youngwith Crazy Horse is to jamming what Bob Marley was to jammin’. JimmySmith, rest his soul: pure crème brulee. (First album I ever boughtwas one of his Blue Note recordings.) Miles’ “Bitches Brew” ismedicated goo.
I have to say, the jam world, like all things—like America itself—isa mixed bag. For those who grok the scene, there is a devotional, almost sacramentalaspect to partaking in the experience. Devotees go for aural sustenance butthe communal aspect is not to be underestimated. There’s an indeliblesuperfluid connection that goes from performers to performees and back againthat is palpable at these shows. Back when guitar gods ruled the earth andsolos began to stretch the length of eternity, audiences flew on every note,every flight of fancy. The ride was everything. It was all about getting off.It still is.
I walk into the ballroom. It’s a Tuesday night. The place is slowlyfilling up. A Fairfield acquaintance walks by and tells me how much betterthese guys sound live than on record, how much he loves UM. AnchorDrops isthe only CD of theirs I’ve heard and it definitely has its moments. Itfeels a tad more head than heart but, man, it is really well-recorded, verysatisfying sonically. The dual guitar work anchors and buoys the whole effortwith some supple key flourishes. The singing has a definite if languid Yestang. (The name of an earlier CD kills me: Local BandDoes OK.)
I notice the crowd starting to chant, “Um-phrey, Um-phrey.” It’sa smart, young, white crowd, obviously favorably disposed to the band. Lotsof tie-dyes. A girl comes and sits next to where I am leaning against a wall.All of a sudden I hear a “thwack” and look down. The girl is flaton her back motionless. Security rushes over. She does not respond to shoutsor slaps. Then, just like that, she sits up, collects herself, and walks awayas if nothing happened.
I hear a roar. The band takes the stage. They tune a while unhurriedly. Afog machine kicks in. Jake Cinninger stretches out on guitar adeptly finger-pluckingand playing loop dee loo leads eventually in harmonized tandem with singer/guitaristBrendan Bayliss. Bayliss looks like a young Stevie Guitar Miller. The musicis simultaneously battened down and relaxed in the pocket. It creates a liquidshower of sound, very clean, a sort of spry elfinkind space bowling alley oopmusic riveted with cascading arpeggios. A half dozen pivoting light cans behindthe band do all kinds of cool light-show things all night (strobing, fog pierces,twirly-bobs on the ceiling, etc).
I look out across the room. It’s maybe two-thirds full (not bad at $18to $20 a pop). A sea of heads that look like billiard balls on a velvet tableundulates merrily to and fro. The smell of herb wafts up. The music is waypast jam band 101. Loads of finesse, effortless transitions, glints of MahavishnuJohn McLaughlin playing in the Hall of the Mountain King, if you know whatI mean. Zappa on Robitussin or the Dead on Irish coffee.
I notice the crowd seems to know almost every tune. What little singing Baylissdoes is even more languid than on record. Two percussionists punctuate thesoundscape, along with a five-string bass and a bevy of keyboards. (Joel Cumminsprovides some tasty nuggets in several solos.) They’ve got a band-next-doorvibe with acemanship playing. Song styles morph from rock to reggae to effusionfusion fractalizing hither and yon. The sound is wired but not corrosive. Guitarwraparounds create their own rhythmic and counter-rhythmic contours playingoff each other lusciously, comforting as a big heated aquamarine waterbed.But even with all the twists and turns, the unremitting grind-grind-grind beginsto feel a bit sausage factory after awhile, like a jar of pimento olives.
I leave satisfied but not singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Maybeit’s just the damn $7 parking ticket I get stuck with on the way out.