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Umphrey’s McGee, Riviera Theater, Chicago, IL- 12/30

Umphrey's McGee is a Chicago band, and Chicago is where I live. I've seen them 2 times before, but not for a while. They've gotten pretty big lately, huh? Signs of bigness abounded as we got to the show. First off, an impressively big line, nearly encircling the theater, with two complete turns and very BIG security persons strategically placed. Secondly, many many people with Buddha-optimistic squints and smiles traversing the big line with solitary finger in air. What a tradition! Such warriors! Nothing dispirited them. Girls in patched dresses with arms locked, chirping "Who's got my extra?" Mute, collegiate boys with rock-steady fingers and profound glances. I almost gave my ticket up for FREE! God Bless Amerika! We only need a heady capitalist to invent the one-finger Miracle Glove for Midwestern New Years shows and peace would reign on Earth. Anyway, all of this bigness made me think that maybe, just maybe, Umphrey's McGee is the next big thing. People don't wait in line forever and act beautifully in preparation for NOTHING, do they?

So we finally got in and got lots of drinks and went to the balcony where the view and sound were fantastic. People screamed very loudly when Umphrey's took stage. My senses perked acutely. The first song sounded great to me. Down-home metal funk which slowly transformed into majestic major key happiness groove much different than the prog-frat-rock I thought they did. It made me dance and guitar lines thickened into open air bridges only after having spiraled through damp caves. In fact, the whole place was dancing AND being enlightened I'm talking about that feeling where your head is turned upwards, contemplating the gothic cracks of plaster, while your body has borrowed rhythm from someone who can actually dance well. Blissful, to say the least. And when things couldn't get any better, a real live setlist writer appeared next to me, with a real live pocket-sized notebook, and I think I even saw him pen that glorious ">" as Umphrey's sort of segued into the next song. That BIG stench of marijuanapatchouliB.O. rose in clouds and I was nearly convinced.

The next two numbers weren't quite as good a balladish song (Nemo) and a proggy death metal guitar workout that strangely resembled "I'll Be Watching You" (Padgett's Profile). Phishesque all-fall-down' secret language announced the next song (Much Obliged), which was a real rocker that sprouted a Pagey piano solo, which turned into a spacey techno ascendant groove with lightning fast guitar peaks, which made me and everyone else of legal age simultaneously spill our beers on our sneakers as we bounced and bounced. Sneaker cleaning, however, was delayed because a 6'7 freak with a bucket on his head glided on stage. We had missed Buckethead's opening set while in line, but I was irrationally exuberant (to the point of full-on embrace of the previously unknown setlist writer) at Bucket's appearance. In a haze I had seen the end of GnR Behind the Music last week, and consequently ate KFC almost every day since X-Mass. What a hero is this Buckethead. The jam began with SULTRY licks from Bucket, the kind that make women want to take everything off him but the bucket. Steamy metal love slowly turned into speed-freak mosh metal, which got faster and faster with mashing chords and baroque high pitch metal licks. Then something amazing happened. A completely new genre was invented before our eyes. Free-jazz metal. I saw Ornette Coleman on stage with Colonel Sanders atop his mug. He taught us about the metaphysics of cartoons and patiently debased our notions of greed. Beautiful existential death music. Transcendence with a side of mashed potatoes.

After the Bucket jam, I wasn't really able to hear the last two songs of the set. Too much. The 1st set was definitely big, but Bucket was MORE of everything. Framed against such a Being, Umphrey's didn't seem as special or new or big as before. How could they? And how could my experience of the second set not be tinged by this thought?

The second set started slowly, but those licks that sound like they came from Mozart's time at the San Dimas music store in Bill and Ted's got me going (Der Bluter Kat). The subsequent space-funk journey had some serious stereo guitar work that confused my ears pleasantly, then a peaking solo with long organ sustains and big drum fills that did have me freaked. Things slowed down and another bass player came out and did that dueling bass thing that isn't ever really exciting. It got going after the other bassist left and the Umphrey's guitarist did a cool metal strut around the stage that got everyone up again.

The rest of the second set wasn't too memorable for me (although I do remember a cool Peanuts theme jam and people screaming "break out the booty-wax") maybe I had enough by then, maybe it was Bucket withdrawal. But it was still a great time. Everyone there was having a great time. They did a Van Halen cover (Panama) for the encore, which was both a joke and a blast. I found out that Umphrey's does big arena-rock stuff well, all the while retaining that adventurous and intimate thing the effect of which is a lot of really happy and devoted peoples. So, I have no idea if they're the next big thing it seems like a lot of people think they are, and who am I to disagree? The big thing trappings miracle seekers, set list writers, special guests, pop-culture quotes were there, and so was some serious energy, and the vibe of growth was undeniable. The music supported and propelled the vibe it felt really good throughout. What more could you ask for on the day before New Year's?

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