E1 Entertainment // 2008 // 132 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // June 15th, 2009
Captured in high-definition and mixed in 5.1 surround!
The latest installment in the venerable PBS musical series Soundstage, Soundstage Presents: Umphrey's McGee...Live offers a refreshingly straightforward explanation of its contents right in the DVD title: a live recording of seasoned prog rock / jam band Umphrey's McGee. Honesty in advertising! I like it. With a hefty runtime and plenty of musical variation and style changes, this is an entertaining, dynamic, and occasionally frustrating set full of musical complexity and melody, one that fans of band are certain to enjoy.
Umphrey's MgGee have a name like an Irish pub in a college town. The South Bend-based band emerged on the music scene ten years ago, running the jam band circuit in the United States playing alongside bands like Phish, The String Cheese Incident, and The Grateful Dead. The scene was an immediate and comfortable fit for the band, which approves of fan taping of live shows and makes regular contact with adoring fans through its Web site. Musically, the band is a bit of an ugly duckling on the scene, having less in common with their hippie-influenced touring peers and more in common with progressive rock bands like Dream Theater, King Crimson, and even early Genesis, pre-Phil Collins singing. The band's sound is a compelling and often schizophrenic mix of reggae, jazz, and hard rock; improvisational and progressive, like Led Zeppelin jamming with The Police at Frank Zappa's house. The songs are meticulously constructed down to the most minutiae with a care-free ease suggesting the most creative of free-form improvisation, but actually born of a frightening level of detail and composition. It is nerd rock in the most flattering of connotations.
Soundstage Presents: Umphrey's McGee...Live contains fifteen songs recorded in 2008 in Chicago, the band's current home base:
* "Ocean Billy"
* "Got Your Milk (Right Here)"
* "Out Of Order"
* "Great American"
* "The Bottom Half"
* "Believe The Lie"
* "Morning Song"
* "Alex's House"
* "Made To Measure (Bonus Track)"
* "Wizard Burial Ground (Bonus Track)"
Umphrey's McGee has serious musical perspicacity, constantly switching up tempos, rhythms, and melodies in magnanimous fashion, weaving together every genre of music imaginable into single songs. Then the song ends and they do it all over again, but in a completely different order. As simple musical entertainment, Umphrey's McGee's tunes are catchy, engaging, clever, and diverse, and complex without being alienating, switching up reggae riffs into experimental guitar percussion and sound effects, Seventies-style keyboard melodies, and aggressive percussion. This is a seriously fun band, and the performance here captures it perfectly. The energy levels of the recording are a bit tame, recorded with a small well-behaved crowed and little band interaction between songs, but the music is top-notch.
If the performance has a flaw, it's the sheer duration and involvement required of the audience to take in the complex sonic textures and rhythms pumped out by this progressive rock jam band. With a running time of over two hours (and only fifteen songs), the set drags at times, lost in a self-indulgent sea of clever musical licks, loops, and mathematical grooves. The great thing though is how quickly Umphrey's McGee kick themselves out of whatever rut they work their way into; their set undulates and drifts like the ocean tide, so watch your feet. Boring and tedious passages quickly give way to raucous prog jams, heavy guitar licks, or reggae-influenced harmonies. The fun in Soundstage Presents: Umphrey's McGee...Live is watching the sheer musical talent at work, the craftsmanship and detail put into every 13-minute jam.
The technical presentation is about as good as standard DVD can offer for a concert recording. Shot in high definition, the source material is splendid, but noticeably better than the DVD presentation is able to crank out. This would be quite the presentation in Blu-Ray, but on standard DVD, the picture suffers some noticeable flaws and peculiarities that keep it from being top-tier. Color saturation is balanced, with moderate flesh tones and washed-out black levels, and detail is quite impressive; hair follicles, sweat beads, and guitar strings shine with intrinsic and well-defined detail, sharp and with no noticeable grain. The set is lit by multiple screens and color-shifting scrim backdrops that get pixelated and blocky at inopportune moments. Compression artifacts crop up noticeably around edges. This is a great transfer, but not quite perfect -- and it makes you really yearn for a high-definition treatment. I wish I could catch this as a rerun on a PBS high-definition feed for comparison.
Audio comes in a simple stereo mix, and a full 5.1 Dolby Surround treatment, which is absolutely the method to go with. Full, detailed, and meticulous, this is a marvelous sonic performance. Bass response is active and strong, but never overpowering in the mix, and instruments make full use of the sonic space. Every percussive tap, every crystal-clear guitar string pluck comes through in perfect clarity.
An eccentric and energetic band, Soundstage Presents: Umphrey's McGee...Live hits that great balance between a high quality technical presentation and enjoyable performance. Fans of Umphrey's McGee are sure to love this DVD. It might not capture the live energy of a performance, but for pure sonic enjoyment, it can't be beat.
A great performance from an amazingly talented and entertaining band -- not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Umphrey's McGee