Umphrey's McGee at the Fox Theater, by Joshua Huver
Umphrey’s McGee (photo: Joshua Huver)

On Friday, March 23, the heavy-metal stylings of progressive, aggressive rock and roll sextet Umphrey’s McGee shook the Fox Theater. From rare song selections, choice covers, and the surprise guest sit-in of the year, the Chicago-based band left the Bay Area satiated.

Ahead of the show, rumors swirled with the storms in the Sierras. Would the band, driving from a show in Tahoe the previous night, make it down the mountain? Friday morning’s answer was clear: blue skies and a prescription for a heavy dose of headbanging.

Before UM took the stage, the crowd warmed up to an energetic trio from SoCal. A group of studio musicians that specializes in break-neck tempos and clever puns, Organ Freeman had their own exclamation point to add. Consisting of drummer Rob Humphreys, guitarist Erik Carlson, and organist/key bassist Trevor Steer, the Los Angeles-based band appeared to have won over several pockets of the audience.

Performing a mostly instrumental seven-song set that spanned a fevered 45 minutes, Organ Freeman ought to do well in the future, given the Bay Area’s appreciation for inspired funk. Four of the songs were selections from the group’s 2017 release Respect My Art.

Early Friday afternoon, Umphrey’s McGee keyboardist Joel Cummins, the band’s unofficial Twitter king, teased an unbelievable special guest for the evening. Fans’ imaginationsran wild. Rumors ranged from one of the Grateful Dead’s core four to Carlos Santana to more modern-day musicians, and the anticipation was high.

Umphrey’s walked on stage and kicked things off with “Le Blitz,” an instrumental intro designed to light a fire under the audience. They smoothly segued into “Remind Me,” one of the middle anchors of the band’s 20th anniversary LP it’s not us. The 15-minute section perfectly embodies the vast dynamic influences that make up the Umphrey’s McGee sound. Check out the band’s live feed of the opening of the show, and follow it from industrial nu-metal, funk, blues, and everything in between.

Umphrey's McGee at the Fox Theater, by Joshua Huver

“Sociable Jimmy” followed next, including a piece of improvisation that has been popping up more and more frequently in their live shows under the name “It Doesn’t Matter” (the title being a tongue-in-cheek jab at ultra-critical fans). Following “Sociable,” the band moved into the second selection from the new album, “Half Delayed.”

Then the new track segued seamlessly into the UM staple “Hurt Bird Bath” from the 2003 studio release Local Band Does OK. Guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss then swapped out their instruments for acoustic guitars. First was “Great American,” named after the venue across the Bay where the song was composed over a decade ago. After a solid jam that saw dynamic rhythm exchanges from drummer Kris Meyers and percussionist Andy Farag, the band moved into the third of four songs from it’s not us., a tear-jerking love ballad titled “You & You Alone.”

For the end of the first set, the electric guitars returned and Cummins took to the microphone to introduce David Kaffinetti, better known as Viv Savage from the famous fictional band Spinal Tap. They performed the Spinal Tap song “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight,” a song that Umphrey’s hasn’t played on stage in 1,488 shows. It was last heard live on December 11, 2004 — nearly 14 years ago.

Umphrey's McGee at the Fox Theater, by Joshua Huver

The second set started barely 30 minutes later with the video game-frenzied flury of “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” from the 2004 LP Anchor Drops. The next two songs together totaled nearly a half-hour. “August,” from the band’s debut LP, 1998’s Greatest Hits Vol. III, started with bassist Ryan Stasik soloing on “America The Beautiful” before dropping into an inspired back and forth with Bayliss.

“Plunger,” the lead track from Anchor Drops, wasted no time pumping up the audience and eventually segued into the final selection from the latest record, “Whistle Kids.” Umphrey’s then moved into a cover of Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” and an original staple, “Resolution.” Savage returned to the stage for a second sit in appearance on “Resolution,” and the band ended the second set with the groovy piano-charged instrumental “Den.”

For the encore, the sextet returned to the stage for a single song, “National Loser Anthem.” A tradition that once was reserved for Halloween shows (and that started at the Warfield in 2008), Umphrey’s McGee has made a name for themselves and their affinity for reproducing other songs, even going as far as creating and composing their own mash-ups. Available on their 2016 mash-up album Zonkey, “National Loser Anthem” combines elements of Radiohead’s “National Anthem,” Beck’s “Loser,” and “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins.