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Umphrey's McGee and Sound Tribe Sector 9 close out summer tour at Wolf Trap

Sep 06, 2013 10:53AM ● By Cate Reynolds

Article by Steve Perraud
Photos by Marc Shapiro

Ending their 14 show, co-billed summer tour on Sunday night at Wolf Trap Center for Performing Arts in Vienna, prog-rockers Umphrey’s Mcgee and experimental electronic band Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) showcased their respective divergent styles. Though both groups put together well-executed and dynamic sets of their own, they would close out the tour in one important category—featured collaborative cover song selection—with a whimper.

Throughout their combined summer billing, the two bands have been coming together nightly to perform different covers at each venue—usually something well known or exceedingly catchy—with as many as a dozen musicians on stage at various times. Included in these selections have been Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Pink Floyd’s “Breathe,” and, most notably, a spectacular version of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” featuring accompaniment by Liquid Horns at the two bands’ Chicago date.

On Sunday night, members of Umphrey’s McGee emerged during STS9’s encore to cover U.K. new wavers Bananarama’s 1983 hit “Cruel Summer.” Now, for all I know, the song was an anthem for both bands throughout their tour and playing it together was some sort of meaningful way to end their combined time on the road. All of the musicians on stage did appear to be having a blast. From an audience member’s perspective, however, the cover felt lifeless in comparison with some of the tour’s earlier selections. If the show’s ending seemed anti-climactic, part of the feeling could be attributed to both bands performing excellent sets prior to the baffling choice.

For Umphrey’s McGee, who have mastered the difficult art of combining metal shredding and instrumental compositions with considerable depth and emotion, one of the evening’s early highlights was an unexpected cover of Led Zeppelin’s delicate “That’s The Way,” one of three songs (also originals “Comma Later” and “Susannah”) in which guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger ditched their normal guitars for acoustic ones. Bayliss and Cinninger, both supremely talented lead guitarists, deftly incorporated all sorts of melodic harmonizing and back-and-forth interplay throughout the opening set, with a particularly strong version of “In the Kitchen” standing out. Bayliss, who was born in Annapolis before moving to South Bend, Indiana, favors local guitar maker Paul Reed Smith’s beautiful instruments.

In what has been a unique way for the band to interact with and offer a new experience to fans, Umphrey’s McGee has offered a limited number of headphones for rental at recent shows, which are patched directly into the house soundboard feed. The headphones, which for this tour have also remained activated for STS9’s sets, are a vivid and illuminating way to take in a set of live music. With the high quality, over the ear headphones on, all outside noise is cancelled out and a near-perfect balance of instruments is brought directly to the mind’s forefront. The experience, which is well worth the cost ($50 for the evening on this particular tour), puts the listener in a direct link to the band’s every note, as if standing directly in front of Umphrey’s McGee in a tiny recording studio.

With both bands alternating opening and headlining sets throughout the tour, STS9 drew the fortune of closing out the final evening. The band’s set featured heavy amounts of bassist and bandleader David Murphy stepping to the forefront, at times shining with tasteful slap-bass or pounding away on his bass-synth. A high energy romp through 2011’s EP title track “When the Dust Settles” continued what has been a string of strong live versions of the song in 2013. The band also displayed impressive cohesion on “Golden Gate,” with auxiliary percussionist Jeffree Lerner filling out the tune’s playful, driving soundscape. That the evening’s two highlights came from the band’s most recent studio release bodes well. And, puzzling aforementioned cover choice aside, the evening served as an emphatic exclamation point on a rightly-lauded tour.