Show Review: Umphrey’s McGee NYE in Denver

Denver was a busy city on New Year’s Eve.  The String Cheese Incident was playing their 20th anniversary show just outside the city while Pretty Lights was headlining EDM extravaganza, Decadence in the heart of downtown.  Umphrey’s McGee, on the other hand, was wrapping up a four night New Year’s run at Fillmore Auditorium.  I hadn’t caught an Umphrey’s NYE show in over two years and there was truly no place I’d rather be.

Denver, Colorado

I arrived at the venue just before the show started.  My road beverage turned to liquid gold as I waited in a line that wrapped around the Fillmore and into a quaint Denver neighborhood.  Luckily it wasn’t too cold outside, or maybe it was the alcohol, but everyone was feeling pretty good, until we heard the crowd roar from within the venue.

Frustration and panic washed over my face.  With each note that followed, the pain burrowed deeper into the pit of my stomach.  I realized that this was probably my version of hell; being stuck in a line outside a venue only to hear the empty echoes of my favorite songs being played inside while energetic lights escape from a securely guarded door.

The line moved slower than expected and I ended up missing the first forty minutes of the show, which included “Le Blitz > Phil’s Farm > Ocean Billy”.  Therefore, the first official song on my New Year’s Eve setlist was a sassy “Mail Package” that Jake Cinninger soulfully delivered.  It was followed by a thrashing “Wizard Burial Ground” that Brendan Bayliss comically dedicated “to all the lovers out there.”

Umphrey’s ended the first set of NYE with a debut of a never before played original, “Bad Friday”.  This song was probably the highlight of the show.  With the help of Mad Dog’s Filthy Secret on horns, Jake’s familiar soul riff finally took flight.  A catchy backbeat turned this new Umph tune into straight-up pop music.  From the first notes, a disco dance party formed under glimmering crystal chandeliers, which seemed to float above the crowd.

I love being present when an original song is played for the first time because it puts everyone on the same level.  From the most avid fan to the kid experiencing their first show, no one knows what will happen next.  It made me recollect the first time Umphrey’s played “Puppet Strings” at Summer Camp and my visceral reaction to hear it over and over again.  I predict “Bad Friday” will be Umphrey’s bust out song of the 2014; much like “Puppet Strings” was in 2011.

Second set was much stranger than the first. A horn section, appropriately labled Mad Dog’s Filthy Secret, added a deeper level of weird to Umphrey’s musical landscapes.  The sounds engulfed me since I was wearing a pair of headphones that streamed live soundboard audio.  My previous experiences with Headphones and Snowcones convinced me that this was the best way completely submerge myself in the live music experience.  So why not rock them at Umphrey’s biggest show of the year?  The headphones demanded my focus be on the music throughout the first set so I chose to venture through the crowd alone during the second to get a better view of the stage.

I felt like an island surrounded by people, something that further enhanced my response to Umphrey’s debut cover of “Twilight Zone”, which also included teases of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”.  I zoned into the way Jake commanded his guitar while Brendan attempted to catch the rhythm.  It all felt like it wasn’t adding up so I started making friends with the strangers around me and eventually found myself covered in Umphlove stickers.

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Songs like “40’s Theme” and “Booth Love” were done justice by the addition of horns, while “No Diablo” finally got a chance to dig deeper into its Motown roots.  Umphrey’s ended the set on a high note with the most unforgettable cover of the night, Phil Collins’ “Sussudio”.  Once again, the strangeness crept in as I recalled American Psycho’s analysis of Phil’s work.  At this point I began to realize that maybe this weird feeling was strictly subjective.

Third set began just before midnight with an insane version of “Hurt Bird Bath”.  In keeping with tradition, Umphrey’s had never played this song into the New Year.  Jeff Coffin, along with the rest of Mad Dog’s Secrets, amped up the energy of “Hurt Bird Bath” like I had never seen it before.  The insane build up of the song made me appreciate the true meaning of “rage” in how it relates to the actions of a raving maniac.

By now I had found most of my friends standing right in front of the sound board in the center of the ballroom.  This spot provided the best view I experienced all night.  Light designer Jefferson Waful was perched on a tall platform just behind us and his devotion to symmetry made the room’s visual landscape just as stimulating as the audio coming from the headphones.

But when the countdown started, I removed my headphones. This was not a time when I wished to block out the rest of the room.  Umphrey’s provided all the elements necessary to engrave this moment in my head for the rest of my life.  Balloons and confetti fell from the ceiling.  My focus switched from the stage to the people around me.  Smiling from ear to ear, I hugged my friends and wished them the best in 2014.

Whimsical swirls of energy surrounded us as the band ventured into the New Year’s classic “Auld Lang Syne”.  After spending a handful of past New Year’s Eves with Umphrey’s, I knew this was coming.  I even looked up a few verses of the song before the show in preparation, so when I heard those first few notes I belted out the lyrics as loud as I could, greeting 2014 with a song.

It was all so intoxicating; the music, energy of the room, glow of the lights, and smell of weed becoming legal.  At midnight Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana, something I never thought I’d experience in my lifetime.  It made me feel like I was part of something BIG just by being there.  New Year’s always offers a fresh start with limitless possibilities, and this was no exception.

The rest of the third set was pure perfection.  “Hit It and Quit It”, a debut Funkadelic cover, provided just enough raunchiness to everyone’s juices flowing.  I turned my headphones over to some friends so I could share the experience.  The look on their faces was of pure ecstasy.

The night ended with an appropriate “Resolution” encore that jammed out the New Year’s classic, “Auld Lang Syne” and eventually segued into Kool & the Gang’s “Funky Stuff”.  Umphrey’s was once again joined by Mad Dog’s Filthy Secrets to conclude the long night of music on a high note.

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While strange, the night felt perfect in every way.