Umphrey’s McGee ended their two-hour non-stop set at Central Park’s Summerstage in New York last week with an explosive cover of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” in which guitarist Jake Cinninger played Pete Townshend’s percolating synthesizer riff — on a Telecaster, in real-time staccato, saturated in echo. It was a hip trick, and typical of this Chicago-based band’s enthusiastic attention to detail. In fact, Umphrey’s McGee may be the most accomplished jam band in America — able to spin out at length between and inside their songs, but never at the expense of the invention and melodies in the songs themselves.
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Like every other jam band in the country, Umphrey’s McGee — Cinninger, singer-guitarist Brendan Bayliss, bassist Ryan Stasik, keysman Joel Cummins, drummer Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag — are still working on the equilibrium between studio and stage. At Summerstage, they played only one song from their fine new album, Safety in Numbers: the snappy, creeping pop of “Intentions Clear.” But the instinctive way Umphrey’s McGee negotiate and fuse punch and finesse was evident in the opening segue, from the extended instrumental prologue “Glory” — with its intricate bursts of biting harmonized guitars and power-chord shine — into the cascading vocal chorales of “Wife Soup,” from 2004’s Anchor Drops. It was as if Radiohead had been born a cheerful Midwestern bar band with brains, rather than bleak and English — a comparison immediately sealed in the next song, “Anchor Drops,” when Bayliss and Cinneger went into a double-guitar frenzy that sounded like (and I actually wrote this down in my notebook) “a cheerful “˜Paranoid Android’.”
The New Orleans instrumental band Galactic were also on the bill, pumping up the funk as the sun set. Their hour went by too fast, but not before they played a couple of timely, torrid covers for their struggling city: a heavy, rolling version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” and Led Zeppelin’s arrangement of the Memphis Minnie blues “When the Levee Breaks,” but with a lot more Meters and Deep Purple.