Show Review: 3 Nights of Umphrey’s McGee in ChicagooOooOooOOoo

Umphrey’s McGee threw a celebration for their triumphant return to the Riviera Theater from February 20th to the 22nd.  It had been a long wait since their last three night run of shows in Chicago and the build up was almost unbearable.  Needless to say, the creative energy was flowing all weekend and these concerts showcased some of Umphrey’s best work to date.

Buckets of rain flooded the city streets and sidewalks before the show on Thursday.  Luckily, meteorologist Tom Skilling warning me of adverse weather conditions on Chicago’s WGN Midday News.  I just so happened to tune in because Umphrey’s McGee was the show’s musical guest of the day.  The band performed “No Diablo,” “Puppet String,” and “The Linear” throughout the hour long news program and the 30 second clips of my favorite band were just enough to send me over the edge with excitement.

Thursday

Umphrey’s kicked off the first night of the run with an intro called “October Rain” playing over the loud speaker as the band walked onto the Riviera’s stage.  They then took to their instruments and began to play along with the track.  Umphrey’s immediately harnessed the room’s energy and once they found themselves in a free flowing groove, the band quickly segued into the frat party anthem: “40’s Theme.”  Guitarist Jake Cinninger kept the song in Old Dirty Bastard territory, without letting it get too heavy.

After a contained version of “The Linear,” the song “White Man’s Moccasins'” hectically tripped into a maze of focused energy led by keyboardist Joel Cummins.  There was a special feeling to the show that night.  It almost seemed like everyone in the room was attending some sort of family reunion.  Not to mention that the Riviera Theater is like the “Ghost of Concerts Past.”  Its elegant chandeliers and pealing ceiling paint make you wonder what it looked like during its hay day.  uphre-001The balcony has perfect lines of site and a clear sound can be heard from almost every seat, even without headphones.  The old theater chairs are so warn you can practically feel the springs stretch as they struggle to support you.  I’ve seen dozens of shows at this particular venue but Umphrey’s NYE show from 2010 takes the cake.  Needless to say, this time around felt just a special.

“Much Obliged” continued the show until it eventually hit an uplifting jam that provoked a lyrical Jimmy Stewart from Brendan Bayliss.  This freestyle segment set the room ablaze with its indiscernible words just before it slammed into “Kimble.”  The awkward change of pace was followed by “Morning Song” which seems to strike a nerve every time I hear it live, and always for a different reason.  This time it was slow and controlled.  See for yourself thanks to Tourgigs:

The first set ended with a grand version of “The Floor” that opened up into a progressive build that left me immediately impatient for more music.

After a longer than average set break, Umphrey’s chugged their way back on stage like a slow moving train.  1620684_662312633639_1776614016_n-001They started off the set with an appropriate “Slacker” that coincided perfectly with their tardiness.  A hectic jam was complemented by sweeping laser beams of light that originated from the back of the stage and penetrated those of us in the audience.  The show continued with a “Higgins” that restrained the band’s energy before it was finally allowed to gain momentum.

A big “Oh no!” came from the crowd as they witnessed the stage crew set up a microphone in front of bassist Ryan Stasik.  Everyone knew this was when things would get weird.  “Sad Gorillaz” is an Umphrey’s mashup of Metallica’s “Sad But True” and Gorillaz’s “Clint Eastwood”.  This particular version showcased an entertaining lyrical Jimmy Stewart sung by Stasik and its contents covered everything from xanax to Care Bears.  He ended the sonnet with, “What the fuck… is happening?”

In contrast, Stasik later provided a moving bass solo to push forward the first few frames of “August.”  As the rest of the band started to chime in, I couldn’t help notice the hush that had fallen over the crowd.  Ryan Stasik is the male version of a diva and the whole room seemed completely captivated by him.  I’m fairly certain he wore at least six different outfits over the course of three shows that weekend, which must be a record for any bassist.

By the time “August” reached the raging jam, “Snake Juice,” I couldn’t help notice the whole room was thrashing.  Umphrey’s then went back into “August” to help bookend the segment.

The second set of Thursday night eventually ended with “Hurt Bird Bath.”  This song always feels like an intense journey to a magical place.  Waful held the tension of the room until his lights ignited into an explosion of color like never before.  This combination of adventurous sounds and stimulating visuals provided a limitless moment of bliss only felt by being in the right place at the right time. It’s no wonder this song always invokes Umphrey’s fans to “Woo…”

rawk hands-001The show’s encore came just after midnight with a complete version of “Pay the Snucka” that featured an insane guitar solo from Jake Cinninger.  I use the word “insane” very literally here because a close friend of mine started to lose his shit at this point in the show.  It was as if Jake channeled some sort of heavy metal death god and was sealing the fate of our souls with rapid fire guitar notes.  And so, the first night of Umphrey’s in Chicago came to a close.

Set 1: October Rain > 40’s Theme, The Linear > White Man’s Moccasins, Much Obliged[1] > Kimble, Morning Song, The Floor

Set 2: Slacker, Higgins, Sad Gorillaz, Syncopated Strangers[2], August > Snake Juice > August, Hurt Bird Bath

Encore: Pay the Snucka

[1] with The Fuzz jam and “Jimmy Stewart” with lyrics
[2] with White Summer (Led Zeppelin) jam

 

Friday

By the second night, wind gusts had torn all the letters off the Riviera’s marquee.  A longer than average line wrapped around the venue for this sold out show because many fans, like myself, just couldn’t wait for the next round of Umphrey’s McGee.

The show kicked off with the slow growing intro called “A Mild Sedative” and eventually exploded into the first notes off the album Anchor Drops.  This version of “Plunger” contained a frantic jam to start the Friday show off right.  It peaked with an abrupt stop-and-go section that slowly evolved into group improv unlike anything Umphrey’s has ever played before.  Up next was “Passing.”  Though it was a short and sweet, it stabilized the room’s energy before Umphrey’s launched into “The Crooked One.”  There was a tension that was present when the song first started but ten minutes later, it turned into a glorious progressive jam that was bathed in Jefferson Waful’s lights.

The song “Comma Later” was played so impressively that night, many of those who once hated the tune are now sold on its potential.  It’s jam was thick with disco grooves and peaked over, and over again.  This was the type of moment die hard Umphrey’s fans live for and it was a total game changer for this particular Umphrey’s song.

Friday’s first set ended with a 20 minute “Preamble> Mantis Ghetts>Mantis” and closed on a Cinninger peak.  It was so intense, Jake had to turn his back to the audience while he became frozen in the moment.  It was obvious the guitarist was in prime form that night.  He aligned the whole room on his frequency, practically demanded we get on his level or be left in the dust.

I guess you could say that the first set of Friday night was looser than a ‘lot girl’ at the end of Phish’s summer tour.  In fact, the first hour of music was so robust, a set break was welcomed this time around.

“All In Time”  kicked off the second set.  This classic Umph song contained a jam led by percussionist Andy Farag that subtly turtled to its peak until Jake unleashed like a viper, shredding it to pieces.

“The Triple Wide” began as a dedication to the band’s friends and family that were there in the audience that night.  Then, in the middle of the song, half of the band ventured up into the balcony to rage right next to their loved ones.  It was something Umphrey’s has recently started to experiment with since they’ve started playing with wireless technology.  Needless to say, the crowd was wildly entertained by the theatrics and even chanted, “USA…USA…” in approval.

“Hajimemashite” started out pretty standard but once the first verse was complete, Umphrey’s immediately transitioned into the song “Glory.”  The rest of the tune bounced back between the two songs as if they were always meant to be played together.  It was a moment of pure grace like I’ve never experienced before.  Check out the video shot by Tourgigs:

After the mesmerizing “Haji/Glory” combo, Bayliss took a moment to thank the crew and introduce his fellow band members.  A song played as each member was introduced and the band even completed a whole verse of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” after Kris Myer’s introduction.  The group then went into the jazzy old school favorite “Prowler” that almost immediately transitioned into a 10 minute “Intentions Clear.”

All of the night’s cover songs came at the end of the show and I have to admit, I was kind of embarrassed I knew every word of Wang Chung’s “Dance Hall Days.”  Most folks around me seemed lost but I still sang each verse as loud as I could.  The set ended with “Hangover” and included a tease of ZZ Top’s “La Grange” and a full verse from Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.”

Jake Cinninger dedicated the encore to South Bend then delivered the first verse of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”  For the final song of the night, Umphrey’s McGee played a heavy version of “1348” that left everyone in the room satisfied.  The show, overall, contained everything that is wonderful about this band.  Every jam was executed perfectly and you could really tell the whole band was actively listening to each other that evening.  Friday’s show was definitely the highlight of the weekend.

 

Set 1: A Mild Sedative > Plunger, Passing, The Crooked One, Cemetery Walk, Comma Later > Preamble > Mantis Ghetts > Mantis

Set 2: All In Time, The Triple Wide, Hajimemashite > Glory > Hajimemashite > Glory[1], Prowler > Intentions Clear -> Dance Hall Days, Hangover[2] > Voodoo Child[3] > HangoverEncore: Comfortably Numb > 1348

[1] with Hajimemashite teases
[2] with La Grange (ZZ Top) jam
[3] incomplete

Saturday

Saturday felt like I was seeing a completely different band.  After the debut of Umphrey’s newest intro, “Bathing Digits,” a massive “Phil’s Farm” circled in and out of a back woods jam that wouldn’t let you forget its twangy roots.  The rest of the set was nothing to tell mom about.  The beginning of “Miami Virtue” almost fooled me into thinking it was “Nothing Too Fancy”, which was kind of a let down.  I was waiting for that epic, jaw on the floor moment but, for some reason, this set never hit it.  “2nd Self,” “Thin Air,” and “Red Tape” weren’t as tight as they could have been and it felt uncomfortable.

“Bad Friday” was probably one of the most anticipated songs of the weekend, but it just didn’t hit the level awesomeness it did when it first debuted this past New Years Eve. Check out the Tourgigs footage:

Overall, this part of the run lacked the free flow of energy that existed on Thursday and Friday. The second half of the first set featured Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger on acoustic guitars.  For a band with such high energy live shows, this type of breakdown is usually saved for special occasions.  I have to admit, I actually started to cry during Bayliss’s touching delivery of “The Weight Around.”  To top it off, the band was joined by a spunky singer named Daphne Willis for backup vocals on another acoustic rarity: “Bullhead City.”  Overall, Umphrey’s acoustic treatment was very personal and salvaged what was left of the set, which finally came to an end with a short cover of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.”

Whatever took place during the first half of the Saturday show was most definitely overshadowed by the five song second set that power houred through to the end of the Chicago run.  lighters during DBK-001The jam of the night, maybe even the whole run, was a 27 minute DBK that invaded the galaxy.  “Just What I Needed” was a quaint cover before “Divisions” dove deep into a sea of slow paced progression.  It was followed by a strange version of “Believe the Lie” that started out sounding like a Zappa cover.  I’m pretty sure this trickery was part of the show because shit just kept getting more and more weird.

Overall, the theatrics that weekend pushed the boundaries of Umphrey’s stage show. Wireless guitars allowed members to utilize their stage space like never before.  Mix in Waful’s strobe lights and you could barely see Stasik and Cinninger wandering around the back of the stage and messing with the other band members.  The second set came to a close with an overly controlled “Puppet String” that was stripped down until right before the song’s raving peak.

For the final encore, drummer Kris Myers sat behind his kit only to admit he didn’t know how to play the next song on the setlist.  Conveniently enough, Myers found the Smashing Pumpkins’ drummer, Jimmy Chamberlin, on the side of the stage.  Chamberlin then took over Kris’s drums so Umphrey’s could cover the Pumpkins’ classic, “Cherub Rock.”  The audience was overjoyed to share in this authentic home town experience.

Set 1: Bathing Digits[1] > Phil’s Farm, Miami Virtue > 2nd Self, Thin Air, Red Tape[2] > Bad Friday, The Weight Around[3], Bullhead City[4], Night Moves[3]

Set 2: Der Bluten Kat, Just What I Needed[5], Divisions, Believe the Lie, Puppet StringEncore: Cherub Rock[6]

[1] debut, original
[2] unfinished
[3] with Brendan and Jake on acoustics
[4] with Brendan and Jake on acoustics, and with Daphne Willis on vocals
[5] debut, The Cars
[6] with Jimmy Chamberlain on drums and Kris on percussion
 
setlist-001
So the highly anticipated Chicago run finally came to an end.  Overall the weekend was extremely relaxed and controlled.  Friday definitely stands out as the most successful night of the run and I would highly recommend you give it a listen.