Aspen Times Weekly: Umphrey’s McGee Takes Three at Belly Up
If You Go …
What: Umphrey’s McGee
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: March 17-19, 9 p.m.
Tickets: Sold out
Umphrey’s McGee has become a staple of Aspen’s winter music scene in recent years as the wildly popular Chicago-based six-piece band has made multi-night runs at Belly Up an annual tradition.
The legendary Umphrey’s live shows have re-imagined the scope of improvisational rock music since it formed in 1997 by classmates at the University of Notre Dame. You may call them a jam band, but their brand of jamming isn’t the indulgent guitar noodling you’ll often find from the legions of acts that have attempted to follow in the Grateful Dead’s footsteps.
“Don’t get me wrong — if jamming for a half-hour in A minor feels right at the time, I’ll do it,” Umphrey’s guitarist Jake Cinninger told The Aspen Times during one of the band’s many stops in town. “But the idea is to build a complexity in the moment, and create something that sounds untypical. Like you built something.”
Cinninger sees Umphrey’s as heirs to Frank Zappa and Miles Davis as much as Phish or the Dead. In concert they pull off their intricate, long-form improvisational versions of their studio songs by keeping eye contact and using hand signals while directing a light show through talk-back microphones. It’s a spectacle for the eyes and ears.
“We call them baseball cues,” Cinninger says of the on-stage communication. “We can sound like we’re writing music in the moment.”
Right now, the band is in a creatively fertile period — in the summer of 2014, Umphrey’s released its first record in three years, “Similar Skin,” and followed it up last spring with the surprise studio album “The London Sessions,” which featured 10 tracks recorded in a single day at the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London. The current cross-country tour has seen them dusting off early songs that they haven’t played, sometimes in years.
Umphrey’s first played here in 2003 and returned occasionally, including a headlining slot at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival in 2009. Over the last five winters, their annual residencies at Belly Up Aspen have become the hottest winter ticket in town and a highlight of Aspen’s jam-packed cultural calendar. Last winter the band supplemented the Belly Up run with a free show downtown as part of the Aspen Skiing Co.’s annual Hi-Fi Concert Series.
They draw devoted fans from far and wide to the resort for the increasingly rare experience of seeing Umphrey’s bring their massive, intricate sound to a small 450-capacity club.
Umphrey’s returns to Belly Up for three sold-out concerts March 17 through 19.
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.