Umphrey’s McGee, Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, IL- 12/30 & 12/31
Umphrey’s McGee were back in their hometown of Chicago for the sixth year in row for two stellar New Year’s Eve shows at the Aragon Ballroom. After an opening set from Keller Williams (this year Umphrey’s decided to get an actual opening act with as opposed to last year’s Mini Kiss), Umphrey’s came on and started opened the 30th with long chaotic crashes of “Wife Soup.” What I thought was going to be a stellar opener, (based on the assumption that keyboardist Joel Cummins would be playing on a grand piano) ended up being an average “Soup” but maybe my disappointment was getting the best of me. However, what followed would one of many highlights of the two shows. Bring on the sandwiches. “Dump City> “Jimmy Stewart”>Hajimemashite>Dump City.” After the opening half of “Dump City” Cummins slides over to his Moog Synthesizer for a long “Jimmy Stewart” bouncing between Cummins’ Moog and Cinninger’s bending riffs. The “Stewart” trickles slowly into “Hajimemashite” with guitarist Brendan Bayliss changing lyrics to “one more passed again, I didn’t know” “Haji” peaks hard before crashing back into the end of “Dump City” with rousing approval from the sold out crowd.
After some banter “Passing” echoes in the cave that is the Aragon Ballroom. The Aragon ended up being kind to some songs; “Passing” is one of them. After Miles Davis’ “In A Silent Way” “Utopian Fir’s” reggae bounce summons Williams from back stage for little bit of octave jam until “Women, Wine and Song.” Williams adds vocals to the choruses of “WWS” and some mouth trumpeting. “WWS” gives way to very triumphant feeling jam to close the first set very well with a ton of energy.
The second set, I could feel it before it even came. “Plunger.” Ah, however, yes finally “Plunger” is starting to get jams out of it! A very solid “Stewart” builds from the ending riffs of “Plunger” with Cummins again bringing out the Moog for some spacey rumblings. Williams comes out again to close the “Stewart” into one of Williams’ tunes “Play This.” Williams scratches over the chords before (in the words of the guy next to me) “turning Umphrey’s into String Cheese” as he left for a beer. All jokes aside “Play This” had a lot of energy and was very upbeat.
“Der Bluten Kat>Atmosfarag>Der Bluten Kat” worked the crowd into a frenzy with all of “DBK’s” starting and stopping. Although it was not as good as last year’s “DBK,” it was still very good. The middle jam built around percussionist Andy Farag’s woodblock and was very choppy with a calypso feel to it. “DBK” segues into “Atmosfarag” which similarly to “Passing” sounded very good in the echo-heavy Aragon. The end of a short “Atmosfarag” signaled right back into the end of “DBK.” The second set slowed with average versions of “Walletsworth” and a short “Great American,” finally closing with “Andy’s Last Beer” with Bayliss trying to start “a new dance craze: The Duck” with minimal success.
For an encore Williams joined for the first full version of David Bowie and John Lennon’s “Fame.” “Fame” had Williams starting a vocal jam to end the song with everyone joining in and finally filing offstage leaving Williams alone on stage to end the night.
New Year’s Eve, time for the heavy hitters. I went to the heart of the huge Aragon floor for the 31st to weather the three sets. “All In Time” starts things off with a bang. “AIT” usually pulled out as a closer or encore gives a jolt to start off the show with tons of energy. Bassist Ryan Stasik shines with some slap bass, and Cinninger and Bayliss are fantastic, feeding off each others harmonization all over the fretboard, before the classical “Minuet In E major” ending. “Kabump” starts off extremely slow, almost as if Cinninger’s guitar is talking on a slow southern drawl. A “Jimmy Stewart” builds out of “Kabump” and it slowly turns into a “Stewart” similar to April 14th’s (Pay The Snucka I-II>Stewart>Part III) the lyrics from the April show are absent but the metal riffs are the same. The “Stewart” builds some great momentum before losing it to “The Bottom Half.” Next a new song “Got Your Milk (Right Here)” makes its third appearance. “Milk” is a cover from Ali Baba’s Tahini’s new album Rockstars and Lawnmowers and has ska/country feel to it. Two forces I didn’t think would be combined, but the song is very catchy. “Professor Wormbog” comes next with some calming piano by Cummins and then Williams joins again for more of his patented mouth trumpeting and skatman-ing. “Turn In Difference” doesn’t go over as well as the Williams tune the night before and Williams makes his exit. NYE proved to be a less “Keller Heavy,” he was not in the spotlight as much and when he came on he tended to stay off to the side instead of right in the middle of the stage like he did on the 30th. After his departure “Hurt Bird Bath” closes the set with heavy contributions from Cummins on the Moog in a short, but heavy hitting, techno oriented “HBB.”
Second set, the night is still young. A three piece horns section (with Michael “Mad Dog” Mavridoglou on trumpet, Chris Near on saxophone, and Brent Sanders on trombone) adds even more of a punch to an already bass heavy “Bridgeless.” The horns sound great, fitting in very well with lots of great background crescendos and very good fills. What comes next is truly a pleasure to listen to over and over again. The opening distorted notes that Cinninger smacks out of his guitar gives me chills each and every time I listen to it. “Ocean Billy>Glory>Ocean Billy” was absolutely stellar. Bayliss’s voice generates soul with every word in “Ocean Billy” and does nothing but elevate his energy and overall aura. You can feel “Glory” inching up your spine as Cinninger dances around the notes of the glorious instrumental. “Glory” is great song at any show but is especially nice right before you celebrate the New Year. Cummins keys twinkle back into the end “Ocean Billy” and Bayliss belts out the last lines with some pure Midwest soul. Some monkeys join the stage for some running around and yelling during a fun “40s Theme.” After the high energy from “40s”, “Anchor Drops” comes next for a nice calm moment in the high-energy set. The horns return for “Last Man Swerving” adding perfect swerving background notes before all contributing consecutively with small solos. One of which evokes a little “Johnny B. Goode” from Cinninger. Everything comes back together for a powerful end to “Last Man Swerving.” Stasik slaps some funky bass as Chicago native Paris Delane comes out for a medley along with Williams. The medley went something like “P Funk Wants To Get Funked Up> One Nation Under The Groove(Parliament Funkadelic)>Kiss (Tom Jones)>Amazing Grace> I Need You Tonite (INXS)> Stairway To Heaven.” The medley has Delane dancing and hoping all over the stage in excitement repeatedly yelling to “JAM!” After Delane makes his exit Stasik starts a bass heavy funk jam with Cummins doing a brief “I Need More Love” (Robert Randolph) tease. Cinninger hops back to the drums and drummer Kris Myers leaves the stage only to come back dressed in sharp pinstripe suit, hat and cane in hand for Brammer/Caesar/Casucci’s “Just A Gigolo.” After last year’s lounge version of “Panama” a New Year’s tradition is starting form with Myers coming out for David Lee Roth-style shenanigans. “Just A Gigolo” ends the second set with nowhere to go but up for set three.
Alright, the New Year is upon us, two of the better set openers in their repertoire already out, there is nowhere to go getting fancy. “Nothing Too Fancy” opens the third set to ring in the New Year with Williams and the three piece horn section. The “N2F” builds slowly but surely to a spectacular peak that the crowd goes nuts for. The groove starts and Williams acoustic guitar fits in oddly well on the high energy “N2F,” adding a nice touch. The jam from “N2F” slows a little bit losing a little momentum as Williams and Cinninger go back and forth with octaves. Cummins brings in his melodica for a different sound to accompany Williams’ acoustic guitar for a humming, hollow and slow jam. The horns pick the pace and the crowd back up, along with Stasik thumping some deep basslines to get us to the countdown. Bayliss starts the countdown at 20 and counts it down as the jam rages behind him right into the New Year. The horns belt out the Auld Lang Syne as the balloons and confetti fly. After some hugs, pictures and champagne spray, Bayliss thanks the crowd for coming and “Resolution” appropriately starts 2006. “Norwegian Wood” teases in “Resolution” are short, and the horns really stand out in the first song of the year. After a slow build “Miss Tinkles Overture>Higgins>Miss Tinkles Overture” is the last sandwich of the two night run with stellar contributions from the horns especially during “Higgins,” a relatively new song. “Higgins” segues seamlessly back into the fast ending of “Tinkles.” The third set continues with homage to their recently converted Umphreak Huey Lewis with the first full version of Lewis’ “I Want A New Drug.” Herbie Mann’s “Memphis Underground” makes only its second appearance with Chris Near on the flute, and to end the show Williams returns to the stage with more skatman to start off “Partyin’ Peeps.” The horns section really adds a bang to the potent ending to “Peeps” in one of the most high-energy versions to date. Without stepping on anybody’s toes, the horns truly added a lot to “Peeps” to close out the show.
As Umphrey’s returns from backstage for the encore the echo effects go on and Cinninger and Bayliss trade off “I’ve always been mad” and “I’m not afraid” to start off a reggae dub version of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe.” A reprise of “Breathe” goes into “Great Gig In The Sky” with Michelle Hallman on vocals. Hallman belts out the vocally challenging Floyd tune with some effort and a little bit of straining that was more apparent on disc than at the show. After Hallman leaves with the applauding crowd it is time for the Bush administration’s song of the New Year “Believe The Lie.” After “BTL” everyone comes back out on stage for Ray Charles’ “Night Time Is The Right Time” with Delane and Hallman sharing the lead vocals to cap off an amazing night of entertainment.
As for the sandwiches some of the tastiest I’ve heard and were a very nice way to ring in 2006. My personal favorite had to be the “Dump City>Jimmy Stewart> Hajimemashite> Dump City” from the 30th, but the “Ocean Billy>Glory>Ocean Billy” was a very close second. All in all it was a great show that had last year’s show beat without question. Also a big star of the night was lighting designer Adam Budney, who lit up the Aragon with an amazing light show, probably the best of the year. As long as the shows keep getting better Umphrey’s New Years will get my vote for the place to be every NYE.