Strongly predicated on their live performances, venerable Chicago jam band Umphrey’s McGee has been making a pretty interesting practice since 2011. Each year, they compile the best of their concert run-throughs of that entire year, and combine them onto one live album, known respectively as the “Hall of Fame” compilation. The inaugural one, Hall of Fame: Class of 2010, came out in 2011, and they’ve done it every year since then, making this new one the 11th in the series, just out earlier this month.
And I’ll tell you: this band sounds as fresh, vital and energetic as ever. Actually, they seem to have more energy than the average 20-year-old, even, as none of the first 10 tracks on the new Class of 2020 clock in at under 10 minutes. I’m getting arthritis just thinking about playing this stuff.
In general, anyway, Class of 2020 comprises as a composite this band’s typical proclivity for long, psychedelic songs, which feature interesting shifts in meter, tempo and mood, and also, interestingly, sporadic elements of heavy metal, perhaps then drawing comparisons to Led Zeppelin. In reality, obviously, the music is way more ethereal and “jammy” to really compare to Zep, but the godfathers of metal do naturally emanate as a worthy mentor of Umph, as would Rush, whose “YYZ” the jammers have been known to cover from time to time. (I’ve also personally witnessed them handle both “That’s the Way” and “The Song Remains the Same”; each to great results, from Jimmy Page and company.)
The shocker here, evident to any tried and true Umphhead like me (they’re originally from my hometown of South Bend and I’ve seen them like 13 times), will be the “Front Porch” version here. Now, notoriously, “Front Porch” is kind-of sort-of the song that put these guys on the map, got them airplay on our local rock station here of 103.9 WBRB “The Bear.” I’ll admit, at the shows back in 2001 or so, when I was in high school, I wasn’t above yelling out plaints of “FRONT PORCH! FRONT PORCH!” It was a song they hated playing at the time, though, and really, stylistically, you can see why. Even by this time, three odd years before their fateful set at Bonnaroo 2004, they’d expanded artistically into songs that were epic and intricate and even, I daresay, whose appeal was subtle, not unlike a sort of twisted jam permutation on Radiohead. “Andy’s Last Beer”; “Prowler”; “Nothing Too Fancy” and “Ringo” are just a couple numbers that will more than showcase this, and also just about each of which ended up making it onto their initial album Local Band Does Ok, which kind of did for them what Meaty, Beaty Big and Bouncy did for The Who, just summing up their early, primitive years, pretty much.
Well, they seem to be more full of vigor and even better at their instruments than ever, on 2020, crazy of course seeing as it was a COVID-shortened year on the concert circuit. What’s more, “Front Porch” is given new life as a true epic, transformed from the four-minute pop song it was at its genesis to a 30-minute bloated beast of mood jamming, with the original song infrastructure juxtaposed sporadically, with long, bulbous jamming sessions wedged in between. When we get down to the song’s original skeleton, though, the band rock out heartily and robustly, reminding me quite a bit of Phish on one of their anthemic tunes like “Chalkdust Torture,” with Jake Cinninger’s guitar sounding every bit as confident and purposeful as Trey Anastacio’s might, all the while. Interestingly, along these lines, in the sprawling opener “Utopian Fir,” the band briefly tease the Phish song “Cavern,” hence hopefully suggesting that any rivalry between these two bands is only friendly and cheeky, which, as far as I’ve ever heard, it always indeed has been.
“Resolution” is a proud standout with Brendan Bayliss’ mellow vocals crooning out the lines “You can’t suck the juice out of me / ’Cause I’m as dry as Albuquerque / In June”. The ironically romantic “Wappy Sprayberry” makes a mark for its allegiance to heavy metal, rendered, again, only intermittently, around textural jamming truly made for getting stoned to. The true dog star here, though, might be “Cut the Cable,” another apparent love song and one full of an undeniable amount of melancholy and mourning. In the chorus, Bayliss bellows out the lines “The situation’s stable / Cut the cable / To my coffin” and the whole thing’s so poignant and perfect, like how nobody knows how long this band can keep going like this, how long their live music can seem so vital and invincible and how long the cosmos will continue to keep aligning over an event like an Umphrey’s McGee concert. But for now, they still do, a fact I’d gleaned with ample clarity from the live stream I caught of them, starkly, in January 2020, and from this album, which should ensure that they’re ready artistically, functionally and emotionally, for the roaring ’20s.
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