New Year’s Eve is always a unique gig for both a band and its rabid fan base, but Umphrey’s McGee’s December 31 concert at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom took on special meaning — the occasion also marked a celebration of UM’s 10th anniversary as a band. Burdened with the lofty expectations of dual celebrations, the scene was set for a letdown, or even a disaster. But, instead, Umphrey’s delivered a fine performance and experience that satisfied even the most jaded of fans.
Photos by Matt Ziegler
Umphrey’s inaugural Black and White Ball capped off a three-night run at an Aragon Ballroom, a fine room that’s quickly becoming the band’s home venue. Each show featured non-stop music from the band, supporting acts and a dynamic lineup of DJs spinning vinyl. To augment the music, Umphrey’s spared no expense setting up a massive[ly awesome] light rig, including a meshed screen that the band used to display all sorts of mind-blowing images.
One of the cool things about Umphrey’s NYE show is that they eschewed an opening act in favor of their showing a 30-minute video profiling their first 10 years as a band. The documentary was extremely well-created, giving the fans behind-the-scenes footage, as well as clips from many of the most important concerts in the band’s history. My favorite part of the film was when they showed guitarist Jake Cinninger shredding a guitar solo worthy of Eddie Van Halen at age 14. That only helps to prove my theory that the guy is an alien put on this earth to rip face-melters. Read on for much more from Umphrey’s NYE show…
The final scene of the movie featured Umphrey’s singing the National Anthem at a White Sox game. As the anthem played, the sextet took the stage and immediately launched into the fittingly anthemic Divisions. Many critics seem to throw a “soul-less” label on UM’s music, but I’d take it they haven’t heard Brendan Bayliss sing this tune, which was among one of the first the band ever wrote. The energy from both the crowd and the band was at an extremely high level from the opening notes of Divisions through the encore nearly four hours later.
Most bands rely on older material and covers during their holiday runs, but Umphrey’s debuted a slew of new material throughout this stretch. During the first set of NYE, Umphrey’s McGee debuted the second part of their Rocker song cycle, aptly named Rocker Part II. The new tune mixed beautiful melodies with hard-driving rhythms to create a distinctively UM-sounding song.
Another new addition to the mix was the white Hagstrom guitar Cinninger used for the first time on stage that night. The Les Paul-esque ax added a thick, almost “mean” sounding growl to Jake’s tone. Even while celebrating the past, Umphrey’s remained dedicated to forging forward. That’s a pretty good sign this band may make it to its 20th Anniversary gig.
Umphrey’s kept one of their New Year’s traditions going when they enlisted a horn section to add some new melodies to familiar tunes. This year the horn section was headed up by Michael “Mad Dog” Mavridoglou, of Jazz Mandolin Project fame, who has played with the band numerous times in their career tracing back to 1999. Feisty vets Jennifer Hartswick, Jeff Coffin, Chris Neal and Brent Sanders all joined Mad Dog on stage. The horn section, named Mad Dog’s Filthy Little Secret, first appeared in the beginning of the second set for kick ass takes of Mulche’s Odyssey and Resolution.
Umphrey’s towards the middle of the second set launched into the white-boy reggae sounds of FF. After a short run through the structure of the song, the band quickly launched into a hearty round of improv. At this point drummer Kris Myers started a duet with keyboardist Joel Cummins, while the rest of their bandmates disappeared from the stage.
Myers and Cummins stopped playing when all of the sudden the lights turned their attention to the front of the soundboard where the rest of the band was assembled around four synthesizers for a round of UNTZ. Cummins made his way to the house organ located on the Aragon’s balcony to trade off passages with the boys at the synths. What a crazy scene, as illustrated in the video below:
After that “once every ten years” keyboard jam, the members of Umphrey’s made their way back to the stage to continue the set. They were joined by Mad Dog’s Filthy Little Secret for a cover of The Kinks’ Black Messiah, a tune I wasn’t familiar with but haven’t been able to get out of my head since. Black Messiah is a reggae song that includes a Dixieland breakdown, a concept as ADD as Umphrey’s music itself. Each member of the horn section got to show off their massive chops in what turned out to be one of many highlights from the evening.
The set-closing Wizard Burial Ground, one of the band’s more ambitious new compositions, sounded terrific with the addition of horns. Everything came together on this tune, from the lights to the music to the rabid energy emanating from the boisterous crowd. If ever a tune was scary, WBG was the one — I saw more than one person covering their ears and eyes during the song. The horns seemed to give the tune even more of a cantankerous edge than usual.
A full-on dance party emerged during the break between the second and third sets, thanks to the non-stop music provided by DJ extraordinare Lyrek. Everywhere you looked people were alternating between smiling, hugging and getting the fuck down. It seemed that the energy built with each passing minute before the band finally returned to the stage a little before midnight.
Umphrey’s opened the set with what I think is their signature tune, Miss Tinkle’s Overture. Miss Tinkle’s features catchy melodies played extremely quickly with ferocious intent. The crowd continued to make their presence felt as the last minutes of 2007 ticked off by hooting and hollering away.
Brendan Bayliss stepped up to the mike and counted down the final seconds of the year with the music building and building before hitting a peak at midnight. Everyone exchanged hugs and kisses with the band providing a SNL Band-sounding version of Auld Lang Syne as a soundtrack to the lovefest. Balloons dropped, confetti cannons shot and the crowd continued to roar its approval. People were getting loose, and some of that looseness made its way to the stage when the band continued.
The rest of the third set seemed like a special present from the band to myself, thanks to Umphrey’s playing a string of my favorite songs. UM launched into a show-stopping version of All In Time shortly after they finished Miss Tinkle’s. All In Time combines all of the elements of the band’s songwriting that I love including introspective lyrics, ADD guitar playing and quick dynamic changes. Other ScottyB favorites in that third set included oldie but goodie Much Obliged, my first Front Porch in 45 shows and a Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am pairing of Alex’s House and Bright Lights that benefited greatly from the horns. The year was clearly off to a good start for me, and the band as well.
After the band left the stage I was wondering if they would have any gas left in the tank for the encore. Umphrey’s quickly answered that question by starting one of their most energetic tunes, Nothing Too Fancy. NTF gave the crowd one more chance to get their groove on, alternating between rock and disco measure by measure.
Towards the middle of the song Cinninger inserted some familiar sounding riffs into the mix. All of the sudden Jennifer Hartswick and the horns emerged and they launched into a cover of The Who’s 5:15. I couldn’t have asked for a better choice, as the gathered ensemble absolutely nailed the song. Hartswick handled the lead vocals putting tons of heart and soul into each note she sang. This was around the point everyone in the crowd started high-fiving each other and made plans to return to Chicago the next year. 5:15 ended with a segue back into the end of Nothing Too Fancy. I was exhausted at that point, so I can’t even imagine how the band was feeling.
For the last half of my life [15 years], I’ve made it a point to attend a New Year’s concert each year, and the experience of seeing Umphrey’s celebrate their anniversary at the Aragon ranks among the best of the batch. Anytime you can celebrate the New Year’s with great music, good friends and a jovial atmosphere filled with good vibes, you can’t help but be extremely happy and thankful.
Here’s hoping the band continues to innovate and shakes the unfair “noodly jamband” label that seems to stop your typical music fan from checking out UM’s catalog. Umphrey’s returns to the road on February 7th in Vancouver, BC.
Let’s check out a few more of Matt’s extraordinary photos before we call it a wrap:
- Previously on HT: Live Downloads: Umphrey’s at the Nokia, Umphrey’s at Lupo’s, and HT Baseball Preview: Farag’s White Sox
- Check out all of Matt Ziegler’s incredible photos from the Aragon
- You can download audio of this show from UmLive
Set I: Divisions > Der Bluten Kat > A Half Sleep$ > Der Bluten Kat, Rocker part II*, Plunger > “Jimmy Stewart”** > Plunger > Divisions
Set II: Mulche’s Odyssey^, Resolution^, FF > “Jimmy Stewart”&, Black Messiah$$^ -> Syncopated Strangers, Wizard Burial Ground^
Set III: Miss Tinkle’s Overture^ > Auld Lang Syne^ > Miss Tinkle’s Overture^, All In Time&&, #Much Obliged > Front Porch, Alex’s House^ > Bright Lights^
Encore: Nothing Too Fancy > 5:15^^ > Nothing Too Fancy
Notes: $ first time played; with Jeff Coffin
* first time played, original
** with lyrics; similar to 11.10.07 Blue Echo
^ with Mad Dog’s Filthy Little Secret horns
& with Andy, Brendan, Jake, and Ryan on electronics at the soundboard; with Joel on venue’s pipe organ
$$ first time played, The Kinks; with Jake on keys with Joel
&& with Top Gun theme tease
# with Liquid tease
^^ first time played, The Who; with horns and Jen Hartswick on vocals