Montanan Umphreaks get Fat Tunes on Fat Tuesday

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Umphrey’s McGee w/ Big Gigantic
The Babcock Theatre
Billings, MT
March 8, 2011

On this Fat Tuesday in the Treasure State, “Umphreaks” and first-timers alike flocked to Billings’ historic Babcock Theatre to catch Umphrey’s McGee second Montana performance in the past seven years. This was also the first leg of Umphrey’s winter tour with Big Gigantic as opener, a match certain to please. After an other-worldly outing by the six-headed monster in Missoula back in October, expectations were high, and Umphrey’s has made it damn near impossible to disappoint.

umphrey_s_312.jpgAfter stringing together sold out shows from the start of their winter tour, the band was most certainly on fire, but there was a little more wiggle room in the intimate Babcock Theatre. Luckily, this didn’t diminish the crowd’s energy and love for the band. As doors opened and concert-goers trickled into the venue, Big Gigantic got cranking with their infectious brand of electronica/house grooves. Featuring heavy beats by drummer Jeremy Salken and the mind-bending sax work of Dominic Lalli (formerly of The Motet), the duo delivered their unique sound. The crowd couldn’t help but be on their feet from the get-go with this high energy act, who generated some great mojo for the boys from the Midwest.

Before Umphrey’s took the stage, they brought out local Bozeman folk legend THE Squirrel Murphy to warm up the crowd with his comedic “I Wish I Was You So I Could Fuck Me,” from his album The Nuts In Your Face. The band then took the stage to uproarious approval, followed by the daunting opening notes of “Cemetary Walk.”

Not the typical opening rager that the band has become synonymous for, guitarist Jake Cinninger stepped it up with some mean fills and evil slide-work before hopping into the always fitting “Partyin’ Peeps.” Nothing gets the crowd into it as much as this “reggae-on-steroids” tune, and the band always seems to enjoy telling this tale of times’ past. There are few spectacles in music that can match the epic crescendo that the finale of this song delivers.

umphrey_s_164.jpgUp next was their dirtily-funky “Much Obliged,” which allowed for a plethora of improvisation. They built it into an almost “Havah Negliah”-esque jam, breaking it down enough to be molded into their beautifully composed “Uncle Wally.” The intro to this one featured euphoric trades between guitarists Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss that were beautiful enough to bring one to tears… and did.

After the brief yet angelic outro was a delightfully and fittingly placed “Blackbird” tease they ripped into the opening notes of their classic metal/rockabilly anthem “Phil’s Farm,”yet another tune that lends itself to gobs of improve. The boys took this night’s version in the complete opposite direction of the structure of the song, with drummer Kris Myers leading the band into 15 minutes of ass-shaking house and funk grooves. As if on a dime, they dropped back into the roots of the song, only to see keyboardist Joel Cummins go bananas on his Fender Rhodes, followed by Bayliss shredding to the halting end. Closing out the first set was their hauting “Morning Song,” showcasing Bayliss’ underrated and soaring vocal range. Not a bad way to start the night for this much appreciative Billings crowd.

Leading off the second set was their exuberant “Front Porch,” which, when placed at the start of a set, has typically been left incomplete until the conclusion of that set/show. Not on this night.

On this occasion they crammed two separate and intensely progressive jams in before slamming back into the rocking finish of this 17-minute version. Next up was their first cover of the night with The Police’s “When The World is Running Down You Make The Best of What’s Still Around.” The gold medal during this tune (and for the entire night really) had to go to the remarkable rhythm section of Myers, Andy Farag, and Ryan Stasik. Highlighted by feverish interplay between Myers and Farag, this rendition would’ve surely made Stewart Copeland proud.

Following was the ever-rocking “Alex’s House,” which led to a particularly dark jam (featuring more wailing slide guitar from Cinninger) before breaking out the instrumental gem and now-rare, “Soul Food I.” A definite highlight of the night, this uniquely funky ride went off into Michael Jackson land with a dance party jam of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” that included a hilariously on-point verse delivered by Bayliss. Coming out the backside of “SFI” was the rip-your-face-off “Go To Hell,” wherein Bayliss proceeded to interject that the first time the band played in Montana, there were six people in a bar, and that was the six of them.

umphrey_s_252.jpg Rounding out the second set, and perfectly placed as usual was their multi-tiered crowd fave “40’s Theme.” Who couldn’t love a song about chilling, smoking, eating chicken, and drinking 40s of Olde English? Sadly, this particular version saw Jake flub lyrics, repeating the first verse.

It was slightly noticeable that the misstep threw them off for a second, though it didn’t sway their ability to push through to what arguably became the jam of the night.

Featuring extended raindrops from Cummins and some very tasteful slapping by Stasik, they seamlessly handed it off to Bayliss who built the jam back up before handing it off to Cinninger for the number’s monstrous peak. By the time they hit the brakes, the crowd was begging for more, which, after almost 10 minutes of ranting and raving, they finally received in the form of the band’s festival staple “All In Time.” While perhaps not the most ideal encore, the band did beat the shit out of both the tune and the brains of the awestruck audience.

The most assured conclusion of the night: go see Umphrey’s McGee. They truly are on fire, night after night. Umphrey’s McGee taps into that nerve that releases one’s primal inhibitions, and is the reason why we go to concerts…to be blown away.

Click the thumbnail to view Frank Douglas’ photos from The Show!

 

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