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Virtuosic, but a bit sterile

Live at the Murat
Live at the Murat
By Umphrey's McGee

Sci-Fidelity Records: 2007

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This review first appeared in Turbula in February 2008.

Formed by students at Notre Dame a decade ago, jam band Umphrey's McGee is more thematically exploratory than many jam bands. Not content with focusing on technical virtuosity, they bring in a lot of jazz and modernist concepts and structures into the rock heart of their music. You're as likely to hear a riff that reminds you of Stanley Clarke or Allan Holdsworth as you are to hear echoes of King Crimson (and the odds of finding strains of the Grateful Dead are pretty minimal).

The playing is undeniably superb, but the songs – even on a two-disc "live" set containing some of their best-known tracks from all their studio albums – just aren't all that memorable. And the arrangements have a certain sameness about them after awhile – giving the album as a whole an unfortunate feeling of sterility about it. At times, the new record sounds closer to a late '70s Return to Forever or Toto album than it does, say, Frank Zappa.

There is some great playing here, some tremendous interplay between the members of the band, as well as some very impressive ensemble improvisation. Hearing folks who can riff on the spot like that is impressive, and a fun listen.