Photos by Derek Martinez
On February 18, Umphrey’s made a return to the scene of their last Nashville visit in 2010: War Memorial Auditorium. This time, however, Keller Williams tagged a long as the opening act du-jour.
War Memorial is an interesting venue. Set adjacent to the Tennessee state capitol in the corner of Legislative Plaza, the auditorium boasts a crescent-shaped stage, beautiful hardwood floors, and a highly ornamented engraved ceiling. The venue was dedicated in 1925, and from 1939 to 1943 served as the fourth home of the Grand Ole Opry. Ever since then, it has been hailed for its near perfect acoustics. The open-floor configuration is perfect for banquets, conferences, and other business functions, but also allows the option of a dance floor for live entertainment. Needless to say, the “live entertainment” on this winter evening, would put that dance floor to good use.
Keller took the stage first for a typically laid-back set of a one man band live-looping mastery. The set kicked off with fan-favorite “Freeker by the Speaker” and Keller kept the good vibes pumping through out. As usual, Mr. Williams used a loop station to layer multiple guitars, drum machines, bass, vocals and other instruments. The Nashville crowd clearly dug his combination of funky bass lines, acoustic guitar virtuosity and unique vocal style. Highlights included a fun “Gatecrashers Suck,” which moved right into an excellent cover of The Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” which featured some beautiful Jerry-esque acoustic guitar work. Later in the set, Keller invited Umphrey’s vocalist and guitarist Brendan Bayliss on stage for a few songs, a treat enjoyed by all in attendance.
After a brief break, Umphrey’s took the stage for what would end up being a three-hour, two set music marathon. The first set began steadily but unspectacularly. Then came “Robot World” with it’s insane, extended, disco-fueled jam. The whole auditorium looked like a hard-rock rave scene from where I was perched on the balcony.
After dancing myself silly, I decided it was time to chase down a beverage. I quickly realized that this venue has the worst beverage/concession setup I have ever seen. It took two separate tries and an almost 25 minute wait to score a measly bottle of water. I returned to my seat to discover that I had missed Keller’s guest appearance on “Partyin’ Peeps.” What a bummer!
Around 10:30, the band left the stage with a brief and unintelligible word. During the seemingly never-ending break, people were confused as to whether the show was over or there would be a 2nd set. Because there had been an opening act, it was not immediately clear that there would indeed be a 2nd set. Boy was there ever.
Set Two certainly had moments of ferocious jamming, but it was mostly a tight and purposeful affair, like most of the recent Umphrey’s shows I’ve seen. Early in the set, they dropped a heavy tease of the main theme from Black Sabbath’s self-titled tune “Black Sabbath” much to the chagrin of the metal heads in the audience. Next came Umphrey’s original “Spires” followed by a tasty “Padgett’s Profile.” This was followed by a nice little four song segue-fest beginning with “Bottom Half” moving into “Jazz Odyssey” which transitioned into a cover of Maurice Williams and the Zodiac’s “Stay.” This soul standard gave Brandon the opportunity to show off his vocal skills by hitting some impressively high notes. Then Jake briefly busted into the Van Halen guitar lead-in for “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” before segueing into a cover of the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See.”
The whole second set was peppered with local references, which included Brandon talking about how early shows at 12th & Porter (a local Nashville dive) were an important part of the band’s formative years. Their choice to cover “Can’t You see” seemed to further accent their affinity for the South. The crowd responded in a big way by belting out the songs final chorus.
Next to bat was “Sociable Jimmy” which quickly slid into “Jimmy Stewart.” “Jimmy Stewart” is Umphrey’s code for a nightly period of free-form improvisation conceptually similar to the Grateful Dead’s “Space.” The boys then wrapped up the second set with “The Floor.”
After one hell of a second set, the show wrapped up with a single song encore of Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years.” It was an exclamatory ending note to an already boisterous evening in the Volunteer State.
All in all, the night was a feat of technical precision and energy that featured a varied offering of covers and originals throughout. Judging from the post-show chatter I caught while leaving the venue, a good time was had by all.