This is the longest I have taken to write a review of an album. I received the promo for Umphrey’s McGee’s newest live album Live At The Murat back in October of 2007. Unfortunately, at the time I received the promo I didn’t feel I was informed enough about the band to give this album a fair review so I “lived” with it for a while.
I was fairly familiar with the band, and liked parts of The Bottom Half, which was their last studio release (also released in 2007). The Bottom Half was the remains of the studio work from the previous 2006 release Safety in Numbers. As a result, I was pretty interested to hear this release, but was immediately overwhelmed by it in that I realized that the release didn’t have many songs from either of the last two releases so I wasn’t familiar with the songs.
In my review of Keller Williams’s album Dream, which was also on SCIFidelity, I told a story of my first Phish concert. This was the tour supporting Farmhousein 2000 and by then, Phish had already been together for seven albums. I hung with Phish until shortly after the hiatus before the subsequent breakup in 2004. During the time I was a fan I had a lot of catching up to do with Phish. While Farmhouse was regarded as Phish’s most accessible album, the albums to date were generally not as nearly as accessible and usually based on some amount of fleshing out of the material on tour. So, the previous releases had their own established history with the fans and the live shows. As a music fan who loves to dig in with a band– it really was a very daunting idea to do this with Phish. You had the officially released catalog as well as all of the taped shows and the volumes of information and statistics that were kind of a hold over from the Grateful Dead’s fanbase. I jumped in with both feet and even bought all of the LivePhish releases with the costume Halloween shows as well as the official releases. After the Hiatus, and the release of Round Roomin 2002, I kind of fell out of the collecting mode with Phish and I really even became sort of tired of listening to their stuff. I eventually sold off the LivePhishseries as well as some of the promos and other items I had. I still have the studio releases which are really allI feel I need. I didn’t follow the solo careers of the members after the first two Trey Anastasio albums and the Vida Blue release from Page McConnell.
And, so it is with Umphrey’s to an extent. Like Phish, Umphrey’s is a band with history of a growing and fervent fanbase. 2007 is nine years after their formation, and Live at the Murat is an attempt by the band to capture where they are these days with their live show. It is their first official live release since Local Band Does Oklahoma in 2003 and one the band spent time preparing for. While the album itself is based on two nights at the Murat Egyptian Room in Indianapolis, the show had some prepwork done ahead of time to plan some of the performance.
The album itself is a collection of new material, some of the planned “interludes” as well as some “fan favorites.” Since I got this album, I have had the opportunity to download some other shows to kind of catch up on what Umphrey’s shows are like. Like Phish and the Grateful Dead before them, a live show from Umphrey’s McGee while largely improvisational has a meticulously planned setlist with a focus on not repeating themselves. While this is great and guarantees that a fan gets a different show every time, this makes comparing a live album against any given show sort of pointless (unless you want to get down to discussing different dates of “In The Kitchen” which I’m not interested in doing).
In my opinion, the first five tracks on Disc One set the bar pretty high for the album with one of the strongest sequences of material I’ve heard in a while. There is a reason that “In The Kitchen” is one of the fan favorites and we get a cool transition of an acoustic version which after a couple of improv segments turns into an electric version. Very nice and I listen to this part of the album the most when I return to it. I really like the dramatic piano at the end of “Electric Improvisation” and the chord change that leads back into the reprise of “In The Kitchen.” This is followed with the only song on a studio release in two years, “Higgins” from The Bottom Half. I would have expected to hear more material from the last two albums as this is what most bands do with their live albums. This makes the album essential in the catalog since it provides many unreleased tracks.
I listen to my fair share of music in the course of a week and between my CD player and my iPod I always have something playing. I have found that Live at the Murat really stands up to repeated listenings for me. To that end, I might even recommend this album to anyone who was interested in hearing the band for the first time. It shows off the band’s astounding live chops as well as their ability to craft a song. One thing that this band has going for it for me is that their influences draw from some progressive bands that I listen to. The Wikipedia article on Umphrey’s lists Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes, Genesis as well as bands like the Police. I have pretty extensive King Crimson and Pink Floyd collections and I picked these influences out right away. One track that took me by surpise is “The Triple Wide” which is a dancey, electronic instrument propelled partially by an 808 beat carrying a buzzy synth line to a dual with guitar at the 4-minute mark.
Since last year I’ve been following the very excellent and recommended Podcast. In addition to the selected live shows provided we get to hear the very laid back sense of humor that seems to contrary to the virtuosity of their performance. We are provided with their sense of humor on this album as well even without stage banter. The band gave the audience some chanted cues which show up in the recording. One notable one is the “This album sucks!!” that closes out disc one. We also get some “FUCK YEAHs” during the great Fripp Guitar Craft-alike “Angular Momentum.” We get the requisite stoner humor in “The Fuzz” (“There goes my BOOOONNNG!”), bathroom humor in “40’s Theme” with the warning “Tomorrow you’ll be on the shitter.”
Of course, this isn’t really what Umphrey’s McGee is about at the end of the day. Umphrey’s is ultimately a band who is all about the music and really about bringing great shows to the fans and Live at The Murat is a great portrait of the band in it’s element. The twin-guitar attack of Umphrey’s provides a well-adapted and flexible tone surface. The band likes to stretch out in searing guitar solos and soaring anthemic building bridges. While I’m not part of the regular in-the-know fanbase, yet, at the end of the album I find myself looking forward to seeing a show.
Visit the Murat Mini-Site for streaming tracks.