Album Review: Umphrey’s McGee, ‘Zonkey’

Written by Andrew Howie

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Umphrey’s McGee has been hailed as one of the finer jam bands to headline the scene lately; their unique and heavy approach to improv appeals to those fans who want something a little edgier (to use the UM fan mantra, “face-melting”). I’ve seen them around 30 times, and they’re a lot fun, even if I mostly just sit in my lawn chair at the back of the crowd. With all of that in mind, they have followed Phish’s lead in trying outside-the-box approaches to keep fans salivating for more, and their newest effort in this direction is their mashup album Zonkey.

One of the things that got me into the band in the first place was their attention to detail when covering a famous song while still putting their own spin on it. I’ve seen them cover everything from the Beatles and the Police to Metallica and Snoop Dogg. Their musical knowledge is pretty far-reaching, and they have clearly studied these tunes for years, because they play them spot on (a friend of mine and I have a running joke that Umphrey’s is the best cover band in America).

They took this to a new level when they started mashing songs up. Playing two songs live at the same time and melding them into one is quite the feat for any artist, let alone a group based on improvisation and technical dexterity. Zonkey is the culmination of these fan-favorite excursions (every year Umphrey’s performs a mashup evening on Halloween), and is a real treat for those diehard Umphrey’s fans out there who can’t get enough.

While Zonkey is obviously a cover album, the splicing and mishmashing of the songs is an interesting touch, and I’m certainly not aware of any other band pulling this off. Detailing the songs and artists covered is pretty clunky for a review, so check out the full track list here. Some artists covered include Frank Zappa, Talking Heads, Ween, MGMT, Rob Zombie, and Gorillaz. As far as the song quality goes, this album is a bit of an anomaly, because these songs have been around for years in most cases, and decades in others. We all know these songs, so reviewing those isn’t going to add much.

I can say, however, that the way Umphrey’s McGee makes such disparate song elements work is commendable, and a true testament to their talent and innovative spirit. That being said, this is definitely more for diehard fanboys/fangirls of Umphrey’s (a.k.a. me five years ago) than the casual listener. It makes for a fun listen, the novelty is clearly worth an extra listen or two, and it definitely stands out from the typical studio jam band album.

So if you’re looking for something wonky and fun, or just a mega-fan of Umphrey’s McGee, give Zonkey a shot. It’s worth the time it’ll take you to listen, and these are (for the most part) great songs being mashed up and kept alive for a new generation.

Rating: 7 out of 10