Umphrey’s McGee celebrates a decade on NYE

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Umphrey’s McGee
Aragon Ballroom
Chicago, Illinois
December 31, 2007

Ten years ago some friends from Sound Bend, Indiana had an idea: to play music in exchange for free beer.  Today these same friends, Umphrey’s McGee, are at the top of their game, playing to sold out audiences all over the country.  Despite drastic changes over the years, there has always been a constant – love, both for the music and for each other.  It’s on their faces when they take the stage, and on any given night their smiles are so infectious one can’t help but be in a good mood before the first note is played.  Best of all, they still are the same approachable, sarcastic, beer-loving guys that started playing music together back at Notre Dame.

To commemorate their 10 year anniversary, Umphrey’s McGee headlined Chicago’s historic Aragon Ballroom.  The evening, dubbed the “Black and White Ball,” capped off an incredible weekend of music.  The shows on the 29th and the 30th saw the band debut new original songs ("Kula" and "Search 4") and covers ("Holding Back the Years," "Right Off," "Can’t You Hear Me Knocking"), and Jeff Coffin and Jennifer Hartswick pop up and lend their horns on a few tracks.  There were incredible opening acts (The Wailers and Tortoise), and DJs spun Chicago house between sets.  The real gem of the weekend came on New Year’s Eve with the debut of a 10-year anniversary video, a prelude to the evening’s show. 

um_071231_a.jpg The video showcased important events from the band’s first decade, complete with long hair Brendan Bayliss (guitar) shots, Jake Cinninger (guitar) shredding at age 14, Joel Cummins (keys) falling from his piano bench, Ryan Stasik’s (bass) Borat outfit from the Caribbean Holidaze, Kris Myers  (drums) first time playing, and Andy Farag’s (percussion) big afro.  You really got a sense of the band/organization as a whole, and how incredibly tight they are.  It’s a big family and New Year’s Eve was the culmination of a long 10 years, with the hope of 10 more.

As the video came to a close with the band singing the National Anthem at US Cellular Field (home of the Chicago White Sox), the screen was taken down and the first notes of "Divisions" rang out.  One of the first songs Bayliss wrote, it was a poignant, emotional way to start off the celebration, and it segued into a monstrous "Der Bluten Kat > A Half Sleep > Der Bluten Kat." 

Next was the debut of "Rocker part II," a continuation on the story of Brian Shultz, who was tragically killed by a drunk driver was the inspiration to much of Safety in Numbers.  Unlike its predecessor, this “Rocker” is more of a, well, rocker and has a lot of potential to become a regular part of the setlist.  "Plunger" followed and segued into “Lyrical Stew,” whose lyrics spoke perfectly about the evening events: “Now we’re all here, this is what we’re supposed to do…Look at what’s next, there’s so much left.”  It’s a great look at the current state of Umphrey’s and a nod toward the future.  "Divisions" closed the first set in emotional fashion and showed the soul in Bayliss’s voice.

The second set started as strongly as the first left off, with a rousing "Mulche’s Odyssey;" it was the 1st appearance by Mad Dog’s Filthy Little Secret (Jeff Coffin-saxophone, Jennifer Hartswick-trumpet, Michael Mavridoglou-trumpet, Chris Neal-saxophone, Brent Sanders-trombone).  Horns have been a staple at Umphrey’s NYE shows since 2001 and it’s fun to guess what songs will receive the treatment every year.  "Resolution," a perfect NYE song, popped up next with an extended ending by the horn section.  What came next surprised everyone in the house. 

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Fan favorite "FF" reared its old school head, but instead of its usual nasty jam, everyone left the stage but Myers, and Cummins.  They played back and forth for a bit until the stage darkened and all the lights focused on the soundboard.  Cinninger, Bayliss, Farag, and Stasik were there, gathered around a small table in the middle of the ballroom where they played various electronic instruments.  A dance party jam ensued until Jake counted down from four and pointed to the balcony, where Cummins was playing the vintage house Wurlitzer.  It was incredible – definitely the most unique thing Umphrey’s has done on New Year’s Eve.

It was followed by a new cover, The Kinks’ “Black Messiah,” augmented by Mad Dog’s Filthy Little Secret.  Then "Syncopated Stranger" led into the most evil song of the night, "Wizard Burial Ground."  This was the 1st appearance of horns on this song and it added a whole new dimension of darkness.  After another set break with DJ’s making the crowd get down, Umphrey’s was ready to break into the New Year and start the next 10yrs of their career.

"Miss Tinkle’s Overture" brought 2007 to a close in amazing fashion: the horns were blasting, guitars wailed, and Bayliss yelled the countdown.  Thousands of balloons dropped as champagne corks popped on stage.  2008 started with a bang, then they kicked right back into "Miss Tinkle’s" to keep the party going. Bayliss proclaimed “You make us feel like the luckiest band alive" when the song ended, and he meant it.

um_071231_c.jpg As the familiar notes of "All In Time" rang through the air, it was evident that the band was loose and ready to blow the roof off the Aragon.  "Much Obliged" followed with an upbeat ambient jam that shifted into a spirited "Front Porch" that had some fantastic piano work by Joel in the middle.  The "Alex’s House" that came next had horns for the first time, and the Mad Dog horns once again did a fantastic job of adding subtle layers, adding a new dimension to the music.  They led into "Bright Light, Big City," fitting given the celebratory spirit of the evening and the city they were playing in.  "Bright Lights" was meant for horns, and it was clear instantly.

A cake commemorating the ten year anniversary was rolled out, and the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to Umphrey’s.  "Nothing Too Fancy" opened the encore; always a crowd favorite, this got the whole place grooving again but took an unexpected turn about halfway through when Jennifer Hartswick came out with her trumpet.  The Who’s “5:15” was the meat in the "Nothing Too Fancy" sandwich and saw Jennifer lend her gorgeous vocals the the classic from Tommy.  It was an incredible weekend capped off with a phenomenal encore. 

Umphrey’s McGee and their crew are a well-oiled machine by this point.  The lights were great and the sound was dialed into a room that’s notoriously boomy, and everyone who is involved in the planning and production really deserves a big thank you for making this year’s NYE celebration one of the best ever.  There’s a lot to look forward too in 2008 with a new album in the works, new tours, and new songs to debut.  Next stop: the west coast in February.

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Photos by Matt Ziegler

 

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