Umphrey's McGee

Live at the Murat

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A press release announcing the appearance of Umphrey's McGee's two-CD set Live at the Murat calls it the band's "first official live album," which may come as some surprise to fans who thought the previous discs Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (1998), Songs for Older Women (1999), and One Fat Sucka (2000) (not to mention the EP Local Band Does OKlahoma [2004] and the DVDs Live from the Lake Coast [2003] and Wrapped Around Chicago: New Years at the Riv [2005]) were sanctioned concert recordings. In its liner notes, the group puts it another way. "What we realized in late 2006," they write, "was that we had yet to release a live album that captured the band achieving the best of what we thought we could be." Live at the Murat (recorded over two nights in April 2007 at the Egyptian Room of the Murat Center in Indianapolis, IN) is that album, the band clearly states. Despite devoting much of its recording career to live performances, the band and its publicity firm's decision to position the set as something of a new beginning is understandable. As of the fall of 2007, Umphrey's McGee were coming up on a decade of professional work, which is long enough to expect that the band should no longer be defined as a developing act. At ten years in, in 1975, the Grateful Dead, the godfather of jam bands, had long since become a nationally recognized group with a string of chart albums. Even Phish, a closer career model for Umphrey's McGee (and a group whose mantle they hope to assume), broke out at the close of their first decade with a major-label recording contract and an album in the upper half of the Billboard 200. Both of these predecessors really caught fire as the result of double live albums, Live/Dead in the case of the Dead, A Live One for Phish. Umphrey's McGee, which managed one week at number 186 with its last studio album, 2006's Safety in Numbers, released, like Live at the Murat, on fellow jam band the String Cheese Incident's independent SCI Fidelity label, may be hoping for the same thing, a live album that defines the band and takes it to the next level. But while Live at the Murat does seem like a good summation of the group's strengths, that may not happen.

As jam bands go, Umphrey's McGee are very tight; they play intricate arrangements with shifting tempos and quick-change musical sections, and one benefit of those ten years together is that their interplay is smooth and precise. Live at the Murat, as a live album should, gives them room to stretch out. There are 18 tracks spread across two hours and 12 minutes, and, as with the Grateful Dead, many of those tracks segue into each other. The band even borrows a symbol from Dead Heads by employing the "greater than" symbol to indicate this. Thus, the first four tracks are really "In the Kitchen (Acoustic Structure)>Acoustic Improvisation>Electric Improvisation>In the Kitchen (Electric Structure)," one song suite lasting more than 20 minutes, rather than four individual numbers. Within those lengthy structures, Umphrey's McGee demonstrate the formidable musical chops of their individual members. But ten years on, a critic shouldn't be so tempted to play Spot the Influence. Let's see: a lot of '70s Frank Zappa; the Dead, of course; Mahavishnu Orchestra here; Weather Report there; a little Bruce Hornsby & the Range; Yes, check; the Allman Brothers Band, OK.... Of course, it isn't easy to play like any of those accomplished groups. But by now Umphrey's McGee's own style should have emerged more clearly. It might have if the band concentrated more on songwriting and less on technical acuity. Impressive as the playing is, there aren't any songs here that sound like signature compositions. That may be what it takes to get Umphrey's McGee out of baby-band status and on to their overdue adolescence.

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