Turning the calendar with Umphrey’s McGee

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Umphrey’s McGee
Aragon Ballroom
Chicago, Illinois
December 31, 2009

New Year’s Eve has many traditions.  You dress up in a suit or dress; go out for that special evening with friends and family, and since 2000, you can catch Umphrey’s McGee in Chicago – they’ve played almost every venue in the city it seems (Cubby Bear, The Vic, The Riviera, The Aragon & The Auditorium Theater).

um-2.jpg While last year’s Auditorium Theater shows might mark the pinnacle of New Year’s Eve shows to many an Umph fan, the Aragon still holds a special place in the hearts of most, as it’s seen the most action on New Year’s runs since the Vic Days. 

There was a lot of speculation whether or not the shows would sell out with all the competition this NYE in Chicago – Pretty Lights was at the Vic, The Black Keys were at The Riviera and Girl Talk was at the Congress.  But the Aragon remained pack for both nights and solidified Umph’s hold on the Midwest.

Prefuse 73 opened the evening with a great set of his "machine funk and global psychedelia," and started heating up the ballroom (literally) as everyone settled in for a long night.  Umphrey’s made a classy move by offering free water to anyone and everyone at multiple places around the venue, which definitely controlled the amount of underagers being picked up off the floor all evening, and allowed people to mingle and meet new people before the Rock show got underway.

um-5.jpgUmphrey’s opened the evening with "Cemetery Walk," a newer song off their 2009 release Mantis and led unexpectedly into the "Triple Wide" which got the party started and allowed lighting director Jeff Waful to start showing off the massive light rig.  His work throughout the run definitely deservers a huge high five as he canvassed the ballroom to perfection.

Besides the always welcome "Divisions," the highlight of the first set had to be former Umphrey’s drummer Mike Mirro coming out to perform "Headphones & Snowcones," an oldie that hadn’t been played since October 2002.

After a short set break the stage went dark, the crowd started roaring. As smoke filled the stage, music started pumping from the PA.  Everyone thought they were building up to a huge opening and expected the lights would start flying.

um-8.jpgAll of a sudden all the lights focused to the soundboard. The disco ball spun overhead, and the whole band was gathered around at table chock-full of electronics and drum pads. They busted into an electo-funk jam that turned the whole venue into one massive dance party.

One by one the band made their way back to stage to start off "Hajimemashite," followed by a "Ringo" that was augmented by Mad Dog’s Filthy Little Secret horn section featuring Jeff Coffin (Flecktones, Dave Matthews Band).  The horns added great depth to UM’s music, and although the band lost some of their ability to improv, they gained a lot more layers and textures to their already complex and full sound. 

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Then came an old favorite, last played on New Year’s Eve 2001 at the Vic, Tower of Power’s "The Skunk, The Goose, & The Fly."  The horn section really stood out here before leaving the stage for an extended "Bridgeless > Ocean Billy." 

um-4.jpgThe horn section returned for a Jeff Coffin original, "Move Your Rug" and a song played for the first time, Bruce Springsteen’s "10th Avenue Freeze Out," which allowed guitarist extraordinaire Jake Cinninger to release his inner Boss.  The end of "Bridgeless" capped an amazing set and gave the audience a chance to catch their breaths, find their friends and get ready for a third set.

Taking the stage just ten minutes before the end of the year with the horns section, Umphrey’s busted out the much loved "Much Obliged." The crowd helped morph it into a Pfunk jam as guitarist Brendan Bayliss asked if the crowd were ready to say goodbye to 2009.  As "Auld Lang Syne" started to play, balloons dropped and confetti flew everywhere, the audience reached for a loved one or random stranger to hug/kiss.

um-3.jpg"Hurt Bird Bath" flew out the gates as the first song in 2010 but had a more relaxed jam in the middle than expected.  "Gulf Stream" came next and could have been classified as a "ballad," with Jake referencing 2010 and lyrics of being with your friends.  An unexpected "Phil’s Farm" followed and saw bassist Ryan Stasik take the lead on the jam with some heavy funk riffs that made the transition into the debut of "Turn & Dub" that much sweeter. This re-mix (first time played, original (re-mix by Michael G of Easy Star All Stars)) of "Turn & Run" is a welcome addition to the Mantis line up.

um-6.jpgStasik then got to take a break from playing the bass, passed it off to Jake, and grabbed the mic for a very rare moment of singing – his take on Frankie Valli’s "Can’t Take My Eyes off You" resulted from a night of getting too drunk on the bus and promising to sing, and as a man of his word, that’s exactly what he did.  A great moment on a great night, but hopefully a moment that never happens again. 

To bookend the evening, "Cemetery Walk II" got the whole place dancing for one last time before everyone left the stage and gave the Joel his spotlight solo to end evening.

The encore was perfect.  "1348," a favorite new song, came firing out the gates with one of the best builds to open any song, which allowed for one last shred fest by Jake and Bayliss before ending the evening with a long time requested cover of Steely Dan’s "Reeling in the Years."  Bayliss handled the vocals duties very well on this song, and the horns finished out the evening on another solid Umphrey’s McGee New Years Eve show.

As 2010 approached, the band was firing on all cylinders. With the Mantis material finding its place in setlists and the band growing more comfortable in playing the tunes live, 2010 should find Umphrey’s hitting their stride and getting creative with setlists with so much material to choose from.

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