Lettuce and Umphrey’s McGee Bring Spectacular Light Show and Jams to the Waterfront

A review and photos from the Great Plaza on the waterfront.

Photo by Stephen Olker

Photo by Stephen Olker

Lettuce, the band, isn’t wilting in the face of the sun currently blazing in their eyes as they range through their funk-space tune “Doubleheader.” An early show time of 5:45pm and a truly swampy night welcomed Lettuce, Umphrey’s McGee and their eager fans to the Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing.

Lettuce’s core have been playing together since their Berklee College of Music days, and it shows. This is a precision funk band. 100% tight, turn on a dime, popping with sax and trumpet, dialed in and connected. Eric Krasno has real soul in his guitar tone; he is never boring to listen to, either in this outfit or brother-band Soulive, which also features Lettuce’s Neal Evans on keys.

Bassist E.D. Coomes bounced like a Gummi Bear despite the increasingly soupy ambience, but too soon Lettuce left us to absorb the humidity and abundant aromas of the stepped Great Plaza to await the second set of the afternoon.

Umphrey’s McGee hit the River Stage at 7:36pm, opening with their stalwart jam vehicle “Bridgeless.” Debuted in 2004, this is a key composition in the canon – basically a 101 course in the signature Umphrey’s sound: ultra-dorky, all-the-notes prog-rock buzzed up with heavy metal and funk breakdowns. On second thought, that describes nearly every Umphrey’s song. They are nothing if not consistent.

Drummer Kris Myers drives the music, and is so good it can make percussionist Andy Farag feel superfluous at times. Bassist Ryan Stasik is stupidly groovy, leaning back feather-fingered at just the right moments. Jake Cinninger and Brendan “BB” Bayliss trade guitar leads and vocals with the dexterity and consideration of old lovers. Bayliss is a very, very good player, with his own distinct sound; but Cinninger is a virtuoso. He makes it look easy to play all those notes. I checked in with the @umphreysmcgee Twitter account to look for set lists updates during the show, and noticed for the first time the band’s bio: “Musicianship for the masses.”

Try as I may, I don’t think I can come up with a better phrase to describe Umphrey’s than “Musicianship for the masses.” UM has a kind of crunchy guitar-stomp, aggressive yet meticulous style that defies genre. They’ve been playing together so long and are such prodigious talents; six well-read nerds having a conversation at top volume. They nail all the changes. They play everything at breakneck pace, an onslaught of sound. They don’t make mistakes.

As with other jam bands who improvise beyond the verse-chorus-verse structure of mainstream music, you can lose your place in time and sort of wake up ten minutes in the future wondering if this is still “Bridgeless.”

Twenty minutes after UM hit the stage, we’ve arrived at the third song and a tropical vibe with “Loose Ends,” an ambitious anthem from the 2014 album Similar Skin. “Loose Ends” showed off how well the band synthesizes another of their broad diversity of musical influences – here, a percussive Latin groove that segues seamlessly into “Red Tape.”

The sun is finally set — bringing absolutely no relief from the filthy humidity, which seemed to get somehow worse after dark – but at last giving lighting designer Jefferson Waful’s rainbows their time to shine, arcing through the smoky air. With darkness taking hold and the kids sent off to bed (at least the woman nursing her literal newborn next to me had gone home) UM stepped into “In the Kitchen,” another classic jam vehicle debuted in 2004 and handy entry point for the interested n00bs.

Red, white and blue lights winked on the Ben Franklin Bridge and private boats bobbed in the river behind the stage as Lettuce’s Eric Krasno joined UM for a turn through the tune “Bad Friday.” Stepping back to create spaces for Krasno simultaneously highlighted UM’s dazzling proficiency and hard-earned skills of improvisational listening while revealing the only true thing they lack as a band: soul.

Krasno has heart. UM has brains and guts, imagination and fire, but the nonstop machine-gun attack is a Tin Man. Marvel at the sheer musicianship, absolutely – but what does it make you feel? The neck ache after a night of headbanging is not the feeling I mean.

With “Bad Friday” wrapped, we arrive at the superjam portion of the evening, wherein UM invites Lettuce’s Adam Smirnoff (guitar), Ryan Zoidis (sax), and Benny Bloom (trumpet) for the only cover of the evening, Peter Gabriel’s brassy “Sledgehammer,” to close the set. Who doesn’t like “Sledgehammer?”

A hearty three-song encore later (“The Floor,” “August” into “”1348”), it was 10pm and the UMphreaks were let loose on Penn’s Landing, quickly infiltrating the hordes of families and weekend revelers enjoying the LED light show and food vendors on Spruce Street Harbor Park’s boardwalk despite the utterly repulsive weather.

Speaking of repulsive, the Great Plaza is the sort of space I’d hesitate to designate a “venue.” A flat pit mounted by two tiers of concrete steps, it’s the kind of joint you’d expect to see an amateur big-band playing on a summer night for a crowd of families with coolers and lawn chairs. Saturday’s show had an undeniable aroma of vomit wafting on the wet river breezes; lines for beer, water and bathrooms were long and slow; some fans attempting to buy tickets were delayed in making their purchase because the box office didn’t have the ability to print new tickets. If Penn’s Landing wants to attract more national touring acts to the Philly waterfront, a facilities upgrade should be in the near future.

Despite the oppressive weather and pukey wafts, Umphrey’s brought 110% to their performance, as they always do. Everlastingly on the road, Umphrey’s McGee has an appealing humility, insane work ethic, truly devoted listeners, and geeky-made-accessible musicianship for the masses – giving you a taste of old-school groove, funk, and metal in the way only they can play it.

Umphrey’s McGee set list
River Stage at Great Plaza, Penn’s Landing Philadelphia
July 18, 2015

1. Bridgeless

2. Higgins

3. Loose Ends

> Red Tape

4. In the Kitchen

5. 2X2

6. Bad Friday (with Eric Krasno on guitar)

7. Sledgehammer (with Adam Smirnoff on guitar, Ryan Zoidis on sax, Eric Bloom on trumpet)

(End of Set)


1. The Floor

2. August

> 1348