Umphrey's McGee :: 12.29 - 12.31 :: The Vic Theatre & Aragon Ballroom :: Chicago, IL
For many music fans, the only way to end a year is in the company of their favorite band. Champagne, balloons and Auld Lang Syne" are the only guarantees, but you can generally expect some sort of shenanigans. Sometimes the gimmicky nature of the holiday run can leave fans wanting more, but 2009 has seen Umphrey's McGee continue to dispense with silliness and concentrate on music as the group's profile keeps rising.
Night one at the intimate Vic Theatre was dubbed Throwback Night," featuring only vintage merch, and only one song from the band's latest album, Mantis (SCI Fidelity), made it into the show, but the music was decidedly forward-looking in terms of performance. UM has roots in the technicality of prog rock and carefully orchestrated improv, but this year has seen more and more experimental jamming with less focus on the specific confines of the method referred to as Jimmy Stewart."
To wit: the second jam of this first-set Front Porch." Following a fairly standard yet high-octane blues rock guitar duel between Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss, the band dropped back into the song proper. Then, beginning as a mellow, tweeky jam, it built steadily and joyously without delay. Nothing complicated, but it was a thrilling full-band wave of fizzy, percolating energy, one of those swell-to-bursting jams (with some amazing light work by mastermind Jeff Waful), where nobody's the star but everybody's riding the same cosmic wave. Drummer Kris Myers couldn't even keep up with his own excitement at times, but it only added to the giddy suspense. It was creativity purely outside of any predetermined order, and it slew the crowd.
This show was full of highlights, from the charging disco-metal showcase of the first set (as Cinninger and Bayliss kept outdoing each other through In The Kitchen," 40s Theme" and JaJunk") to the segue madness of set two. Opening with a dizzying mashup of Pay The Snucka," Mantis" and Mantis Ghetts," the band encapsulated virtually everything it's good at in one long stretch, drifting in and out of the different tracks with ease. Cinninger was on a Slash-esque tear, and Joel Cummins pumped out tons of spacey organ goo. Nothing Too Fancy" was epic, the song drifting from Police-meets-The Orb echoscape to a Don't Fear The Reaper" jam, after which Cinninger just tore the thing wide open in a fury. It then descended into a dub workout before picking up speed again essentially as Pink Floyd's On The Run," or an obvious facsimile thereof. Here, Myers redeemed himself, switching between beats with astonishing speed and accuracy while holding the whole thing together. It was a thing of beauty.
The set closed with a second-ever take on one of UM's infamous Halloween mashups, this one a combo of Fat-Bottomed Girls," Good Times Bad Times" and UM's own Nemo," in a move that underscored the band's ability to temper its predilection for calculated aggression with lightheartedness, but with much more resonance than playing, say, Sister Christian." The encore was vintage: Nopener," a sick, snarling puppy, and a debut of the Joe Higgs reggae standard Steppin' Razor," which drifted into the reprise of Nothing." Front to back, this was the best show of the run.
12.29.09 :: The Vic Theatre :: Chicago, IL
Set I: Andy's Last Beer, Walletsworth, In the Kitchen, 40's Theme, Front Porch*, The Floor, JaJunk
Set II: Preamble > Mantis Ghetts > Pay the Snucka > Mantis > Mantis Ghetts > Mantis > Pay the Snucka, Partyin' Peeps > Nothing Too Fancy**, Nemo's Fat Bottomed Good Times
E: Nopener, Steppin' Razor$ > Nothing Too Fancy
* with Little Drummer Boy tease
** with Don't Fear the Reaper tease
$ first time played, Joe Higgs (Peter Tosh)
Continue reading for coverage of 12/30...
December 30 at the Aragon Ballroom was nowhere near as consistent as the previous night, but there was plenty of solid improv all evening. The band wasted no time, opening with Push The Pig," which Cummins coaxed into the stratosphere. Slamming into Miss Tinkle's Overture" on a dime, UM displayed one talent that sets them apart from most jam bands: these guys don't always let a peak force an instant downslope. They often let it resolve into another variation on the theme with little or no loss of intensity, so they can keep dowsing you with wave after wave until you're drowning in sound.
The highlight of the set (and the show) came after an energy-sapping Got Your Milk" with 2x2." The much-needed pick-me-up was slow in coming, as the jam began to languish almost to the point of nonsense, but bassist Ryan Stasik, the most consistent player of the run, single-handedly saved us from a real slump by crafting some space disco out of thin air. Then Cinninger inserted some growling, Townshend-via-Mogwai windmill chords to the point that Bayliss began to match him with some tasty leads, and suddenly the room just levitated into some undiscovered country. It was palpably outside the band's comfort zone but the risk paid off with some gloriously uneasy exploration, still managing to land effortlessly back into the song's conclusion.
Lionel Richie's All Night Long" was an enticing thematic statement as the penultimate song of set one, as well as the only jamless song. The finale, Resolution," featured a Jimmy Stewart" ending, as conducted by Mike Mad Dog" Mavridoglou, which was a delight to witness. The band's brilliance here was not so much in being able to follow the signals as in how they (especially Cinninger) sprouted interesting musical movement in between specific directions, similar to the band's S2 experiments (read reviews of these here and here) but more contained.
Set two didn't quite stack up. Hangover" extended the All Night Long" motif (by way of crowd chants), which also (sort of) repeated lyrically in the final song of the set, Bright Lights." The highlight of the set was Lady Madonna," featuring a full-blown jam in the middle of The Beatles song with guest saxman Jeff Coffin blowing his pink face off, and a brilliant return to the song's finale. But the other centerpiece, Higgins," was a touch of the prog cliche that UM generally avoids: it never got emotional enough to justify slogging through the admittedly impressive technicality, and the Start Me Up" jam that eventually came out of it seemed totally out of place and went nowhere. The band just didn't have quite the creative spark as in night one, and by the All In Time" encore, the fumes were running out.
12.30.09 :: Aragon Ballroom :: Chicago, IL
Set I: Push the Pig* > Miss Tinkle's Overture, Got Your Milk (Right Here) > 2x2, All Night Long^, Resolution > Jimmy Stewart"^^
Set II: Wappy Sprayberry > Spires > Hangover, Made to Measure$, Lady Madonna$$, Higgins** > Wappy Sprayberry > Bright Lights
E: All In Time
DJ Z-Trip opened
* with Professor Wormbog teases
^ with Jake on percussion
^^ with Mike Mad Dog" Mavridoglou conducting
$ with Jeff Coffin on saxophone
$$ first time played, The Beatles; with Jeff Coffin
** with Start Me Up jam
Continue reading for coverage of NYE...
Umphrey's came out on New Year's Eve determined not to let the pageantry of the evening undermine the music. A rejuvenated Cinninger shot out of the gates on Cemetery Walk" with more fire than we'd seen all previous nights, rocketing the jam to a screeching peak, pure adrenaline. Then, The Triple Wide" - YOWZA! Not as experimental as some of the first two nights' jams, but in terms of raw power, the jam of the run. They just kept fucking with the main riff, stretching it farther and farther afield, until it was oppressively dark, rising to multiple peaks, natural but waaay twisted. The recapitulation was phenomenal.
Divisions" continued to scorch; in between percussion jams, Cinninger was in full rock star splendor, and Waful's lights were more impressive than I've ever seen. Only one other lighting director I've witnessed in action compares to this guy. Bayliss eventually threw his hat into the ring for a race to the finish with Cinninger that blew everyone's hair back off our faces before we took a breath and basked in the chill, countryish denouement.
Out came Mad Dog's Filthy Little Secret horns for Red Tape," although they were just a bit overshadowed by Umphrey's McGee on an extended hot streak. For their next trick, the guys invited former UM drummer Mike Mirro onstage to play marimba for the slippery slice of mellow groove jazz known as Headphones & Snocones." Stasik was the clear master of this tune, though, utilizing glitchy rhythmic nuance as well as pure creative flow.
Finally, the band held the stage alone for Mulche's Odyssey," an astounding capper on the best overall set of the three nights. The menacing riffage gave way to a flowing, dynamic jam. The crowd response bordered on hysterical, as multiple tangents resulted in peak after peak, until it just got as intense as your brain would allow.
Set two began with a disco ball suspended above the soundboard area, and as a dense soundscape began to wash over the crowd, the silhouettes of the band appeared onstage, but these turned out to be imposters - family members and band entourage. The six men of UM were actually huddled around a cluster of keyboards in front of the soundboard, and they proceeded to jam out a slick little Sound Tribe-esque disco party, a geeky little diversion to get the groove rolling on the second frame.
Set proper began with Hajimemashite," which was pure, unadulterated Cinninger; he dominated the night almost to the point of bullying Bayliss into the background, but there was no denying his creativity. Ringo" got into some damn near Primus-level grouchy funk, and Stasik has never seemed more Les. The horns remained for The Skunk, The Goose & The Fly," a neat little Tower Of Power number, and then came a Bridgeless" sandwich, the first slab of which was exhilarating as always, but Ocean Billy" failed to capitalize, a pretty lackluster version. The horns returned to climax the set with The Boss' Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," a solid turn if you can look past the fact that UM doesn't actually feature any really good singers (few jam bands do). The reprise of Bridgeless" was predictably through the roof.
Around ten minutes to midnight, the band-plus-horns emerged for what would be the last song of the year. We jam fans have grown accustomed to the reality that the final NYE set isn't going to be the experimental highlight, more of a well-scripted dance party/cool down if you're lucky. Here in the Aragon, getting ready for my seventh UM set in three nights, I was pretty much in tune with that philosophy. Still, the set started out with yet another highlight, a rousing jam on Much Obliged," which the band eventually steered into Give Up The Funk" as the crowd eagerly sang the beloved chorus, time winding down on 2009. The jam was at an extended, uproarious climax when Bayliss asked us if we were ready to say goodbye to 2009. We were. When the countdown hit ignition, the band shifted into a N'awlins-style Auld Lang Syne" as the crowd swooned in revelry. There's just something exhilarating about ending the year in such peak fashion, with no real gimmicks and no break in the action. It was pure class.
In all honesty, what followed was exactly what I expected: a relatively relaxing, celebratory set of well-played but not necessarily transcendent music. The first official tune of 2010, Hurt Bird Bath," eased into the new year. It featured a solid jam with an impressive stop/start moment to keep us on our toes, and guitar heroics galore. Gulf Stream" featured some lyrical references to 2010, just one of those heartfelt ballads that you'd have to be a total cynic at this point to scoff at.
Probably the most entertaining stretch of the set centered around the official debut of the Turn & Run" re-mix, Turn & Dub." Myers seized on The Police's Deathwish" for inspiration, providing the backdrop for the most intriguing and ultimately triumphant jam of the set, particularly the slurred, drunken ending. After this, Stasik grabbed the mic and, for the first time in the band's 12-year-history, sang a song: Frankie Valli's hit Can't Take My Eyes Off You." Finally, the dance party began in earnest with Cemetery Walk II" to bookend the evening. It ended with Cummins' only notable solo of the night, as the rest of the band gradually peeled off backstage.
Ol' Jake Cinninger did manage to save some hot sauce for the encore, sssshredding 1348." Protocol in the jam world is to be annoyed when the band plays stuff from the new album," so this was probably an unpopular choice for encore, but it was a concise packet of energy that I felt was a perfect bow on the top of this New Year's gift. Reelin' In the Years" was, of course, timely. The fifth debut of the night and a chance for Cinninger to display his inner Elliott Randall, this was a horn-enhanced feelgood closer (even if it is kind of a downer lyrically). Dazzling to the very end, no complaints from this writer.
A lot of Umphrey's fans will tell you 2009 paled a bit in comparison to the previous year or two. My assessment is that it was a transitional year, finding the band occasionally on autopilot in regards to its bread-and-butter material as it expands in multiple directions at once. The result has been a lack of consistency, as well as some career highlights. One thing is clear: UM has not reached its evolutionary peak yet. As the band continues to develop its mashups and the S2 experiments, these elements will lead to further honing of UM's everyday style. These guys have not reached the tipping point yet, and their eclecticism has not begun to diminish their proficiency. History suggests that they won't be able to keep up this high level of musicianship for long. But at this point, no band I know of does so many different things so well, period.
12.31.09 :: Aragon Ballroom :: Chicago, IL
Set I: Cemetery Walk > The Triple Wide, Divisions, Red Tape^, Headphones & Snocones^^, Mulche's Odyssey
Set II: Jazz Odyssey* > Jimmy Stewart"**, Hajimemashite, Ringo^, The Skunk, The Goose, & The Fly^, Bridgeless > Ocean Billy, Move Your Rug^$, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out^$$ > Bridgeless
Set III: Much Obliged^ > Auld Lang Syne^, Hurt Bird Bath, Gulf Stream, Phil's Farm, Turn & Dub^%, Can't Keep My Eyes Off of You%%, Cemetery Walk II
E: 1348, Reelin' In the Years^&
Prefuse 73 opened
^ with Mad Dog's Filthy Little Secret horns
^^ with horns; with Mike Mirro on marimba and Jake on percussion
* pre-recorded composition played over the PA
** with band on electronics and drum pads at Front of House
$ first time played, Jeff Coffin
$$ first time played, Bruce Springsteen
% first time played, original (re-mix by Michael G of Easy Star All Stars)
%% first time played, Frankie Valli; with Ryan on vocals
& first time played, Steely Dan