Arts & Entertainment, High Notes

moe. No Guts, No Glory, Umphrey’s McGee Similar Skin

In the beginning…the Grateful Dead took their repertoire of blues and jugband songs and added a jazz ideology, creating an art-form previously unknown in the rock & roll world:  The Jam.  The Dead’s ability to spontaneously create music on stage quickly became a nightly revelation and soon came bands such as Santana and the Allman Brothers Band, who further destroyed all boundaries of rock music and whatever notions they contained.  Meanwhile in the UK, bands such as Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson were stretching boundaries with more intricately composed music known as “progressive rock”.  Add a dash of the arena rock that we all grew up with and you have the groundwork for the modern Jam Band.

The first generation of jam bands rose to prominence in the 80s and skyrocketed to fame in the 90s, including Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, and the most successful of them all, the mighty Phish.  It was inevitable that there would soon be a younger generation of bands to carry on the legacy.  Bands such as String Cheese Incident, Disco Biscuits, and Galactic took that legacy and blasted into wildly different directions, making waves by the end of the 90s and then, with the rise of the Summer Festival, came to rule in the 00s.

Two of the most popular bands in that school are Umphrey’s McGee and moe.  Both of these bands share stages and a similar endgame but they take very different approaches in getting there.  The easiest way to sum it is up is to say that moe. is a jam band with progressive tendencies, and Umphrey’s is a progressive rock band with jam tendencies.  Both bands have large followings and spend the majority of their lives on the road, playing sold out shows all over the country, the stage being where they thrive.  But another thing that both bands share is a knack for making killer studio albums, something not often seen in the jam world.  They continue this trend with their latest releases, each of which stands among their best work.

For their eleventh album, moe. enlisted producer Dave Aron, whose resume mostly centers on hip-hop acts like Snoop Dogg and 2pac.  An odd pairing, yes, but it pays off.  Originally intended to be an acoustic album, that course was changed once they teamed up with Aron and the album took a more solid approach.  About half of the songs were known to fans and the studio versions really hold up, especially “Billy Goat” and “Silver Sun”, two songs that come close to hitting the ten-minute mark and do so without being overwrought.  Other familiar songs, such as Rob Derhak’s dark, swirly “White Lightning Turpentine” and Al Schnier’s adorably poppy “Little Miss Cup Half Empty” are right at home alongside brand new songs like “This I Know” and “Same Old Story”, a song that would surely be given the status of Coolest Song In The World on the Underground Garage if someone there were to hear it.

Chuck Garvey opens the album with “Annihilation Blues” and, like every song Chuck offers up, it is pure gold.  Derhak delivers the catchy “Blond Hair And Blue Eyes”, the first to be graced with a video.  Layered with low brass and a great groove, this song deserves to be huge.  He also contributes “The Pines And The Apple Tree” and “Calyphornya”, both of which retain the album’s initial acoustic vibe while still fitting in with the current scheme, as does Schnier’s “Do Or Die”.

Like most albums, there is a deluxe edition that features three bonus tracks.  Unlike most albums, one of these tracks is the best song on the album.  Schnier’s “Hey-O” is a super catchy, super poignant number about living life in the moment and is one that hits very close to home.  Why they did not release this song as a single I will never know.  If you buy this album make sure it has this song on it.  It will be your favorite song in the world before you hit the first chorus.  The last two tracks are live favorites – the instrumental “MarDeMa” and the manic “Runaway Overlude”.  Both are great to have in studio renditions but “Hey-O” is the clear winner.

Almost as glorious is Similar Skin, the latest from Umphrey’s McGee.  Most of the songs have been played live, some for a long time, but the album does not feel patched together.  Unlike most jam bands, their approach is much heavier and more intricate, sometimes employing metal stylings, especially in the kick-drum from Kris Myers and Jake Cinninger’s ferocious guitar playing, and featuring tight, composed instrumental sections, delivered with the same sort of epic panache as Dream Theater.  There is a good deal of Rush in their influence pile, most noticeably in “The Linear” and “Educated Guess”, and there is a lot of math-rock that shows up in “Cut The Cable” and the epic “Bridgeless”, which has been a ten-year work in progress.  A Kiss influence surfaces in “Little Gift”, a song that makes you want to cruise around in a Camaro in 1979, and there is a similar old-school feel in “Hourglass”.  It would be a little off-putting if that wasn’t just the general spirit in this band.  There is a Ben Folds vibe that creeps up in “No Diablo” and “Puppet String” features some wicked bass playing from Ryan Stasik.  Likewise there are two fantastic bonus tracks, “Morning Song” and “Room To Breathe”, both longstanding live staples that are finally getting the studio treatment and, as with the above, they do not disappoint or weigh the album down one bit.

While historically I have always been a much bigger moe. fan  they are easily in my top ten I still dig Umphrey’s and listen to them whenever I can.  I don’t profess to be an expert on their history or their live performances as with moe. but I know what I like and everything they do, I like.  Similar Skin is no exception.

Written by: Chris Anderson

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