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Umphrey’s McGee, Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, IL- 12/29-31

D vu was running again as Umphrey’s McGee returned to Chicago for their sixth straight New Year’s Eve. The first three night run since 2003 had Umphrey’s with three quality opening acts, North Mississippi All-Stars, Los Lobos, and Taj Mahal, joining them each night at the Aragon Ballroom.

The first of the three shows opened strongly with “Ocean Billy.” Right away, guitarist Brendan Bayliss’ voice was shining, carrying heavily in the open hole that is the Aragon Ballroom. The energy grew as “Nothing Too Fancy” started. Planned or not, guitarist Jake Cinninger seemed to jump the gun slightly, slamming into the signature riff a few measures before the whole band.

After losing a little bit of flow, Bayliss had one of his best solos, patiently waiting and meshing perfectly with everything around him. Cinninger’s solo started slowly, with soulful pulling notes. As he sped up it led into one of the top transitions of the run, as the segue into “Much Obliged” split hairs, starting off the last note of Cinninger’s solo flawlessly.

“August” was a true highlight of the first set. Keyboardist Joel Cummins teased some of the “Linus and Lucy Theme” early, twinkling on the baby grand. A jam in the middle had a chasing feeling to it as Cinninger and Bayliss riffed off each other. Towards the end, Cinninger, Cummins and bass player Ryan Stasik were all on their respective Moogs toying around. Genesis’s “Abacab” was played for the first time to close out the first set.

Second set highlights included a bass breakdown, as Stasik jammed on “We Want The Funk.” A “Jimmy Stewart” in the middle of “Blue Echo” had a jam on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Funky Monks” that made for a very danceable interlude, and a set-closing “Nothing Too Fancy Reprise” brought the energy to a peak.

For an encore, The Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” found North Mississippi All-Stars guitarist Luther Dickinson on slide guitar for the Abbey Road classic. The three part harmonies synced up sublimely between Cinninger, Bayliss and Cummins. After “Glory,” the last half of “Ocean Billy” ended the first show with Bayliss belting out the final notes.

“The Fuzz” opened up the second night and was complemented nicely by “Dear Lord,” which has a 70’s classic rock feel (the song appeared for only the second time this year and fourth in the past two years). “Takin’ It To The Church” made for some fun, as the crowd testified in the middle of “Ringo.”

The heart of “Hurt Bird Bath” was a showcase for the Moog once again. Sometimes when the tiny keyboard gets that Star Wars laser sound, it crosses over into annoyance. However, “HBB” featured some great work by Cummins before falling into a downright nasty slow funk, which was great, aside from the laser chirps briefly coming from Cinninger’s Moog. Everyone finally revolved around the funk riff, slowly transforming it back into “HBB.”

“Der Bluten Kat” sat squarely in the middle of the second set, and was split by Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” The last half of “DBK” was fueled by Bayliss’ impressive opening solo. Indeed, throughout the entire weekend Bayliss’ solos were well executed and had a beautiful tone. Saxophone player Jeff Coffin sat in on “Intentions Clear” and took the reins with some free-flowing soloing of his own. Another first timer, John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” closed the set with drummer Kris Myers on vocals.

Coffin joined again for the encore with a jam on Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun” that formed out of “In The Kitchen,” which never was finished. Supertramp’s “Bloody Well Right” had Cummins and Cinninger sharing the vocals to cap off the second night.

The 31st was a bit of an odd show, fun, but different nonetheless. Certainly not the best musically of the three, it still had its stellar moments, but it was about having a good time. “Jajunk” had Cinninger leading with an interesting riff that fused and transformed with heavy slide and wah, along with accents by Cummins on piano.

The transition from “Out Of Order” slammed quickly onto the reggae beat of “FF,” and left the crowd screaming. Coffin was back again to play on “Bright Lights,” but it was Cinninger on the last half of “Jajunk” who was playing on another level. Cinninger’s wiry frame was an extension of his guitar as he wrenched the final notes of “Jajunk” to finish the set.

The second set was a bit of a slowdown as a whole, but a “Wife Soup” opener had Cummins taking full advantage of the baby grand, along with the four-piece horn section. Taj Mahal sat in for two consecutive tunes, “You'll Need Somebody On Your Bond” and “Farther on Down the Road,” while Steely Dan’s “My Old School” left the crowd inches from midnight.

Umphrey’s strolled out for their third set poised to send everyone into the New Year with the progressive tune “Bridgeless.” An extended ending and the four-piece horn section slowly built to a crashing climax as the crowd jumped and the countdown melted away 2006. Balloons dropped and “Auld Lang Syne” ushered in 2007 with confetti and hugs all way. Revenge of The Nerds banter accented the beginning of “The Triple Wide” but soon it became an all out boogie down, with Stasik starting a bassline that popped off his strings, while Cummins Moog laid over it. A trance version was in the same vein as a Sound Tribe Sector 9 jam, heavy with keys and bass as the focal point. Mahal joined again for “She Caught The Katy,” and after “The Bottom Half,” “Mail Package” found Coffin back onstage again to close out the show.

For an encore, percussionist Andy Farag came out to join Bayliss on vocals, for a skit taken from a recent Saturday Night Live, “Dick In A Box.” It made for a funny sing-a-long, if an odd way to ring in 2007. All jokes aside, “Pay The Snucka” followed and it was Cinninger back to business, shredding the metal tune, with Bayliss covering his eyes. Coffin was back again and a jam on Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” peaked out in “Snucka.”

It was nice to see so many new covers thrown out for New Year’s. Eight first timers, as well as a few songs that hadn’t seen the light of day in a while both made for some fun. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” lent itself perfectly to Umphrey’s, and Dickinson’s slide guitar was a nice touch. As far as originals, the versions of “August,” “All In Time,” “Hurt Bird Bath,” “Jajunk” “Der Bluten Kat,” and of course “Bridgeless>Auld Lang Syne” are all worth a second listen. Also extremely impressive was the new lighting rig that was shown off by lighting designer, Adam Budney. With a new triangular can lighting rig and a field of lasers, Budney’s lights were again a highlight of the New Year’s Eve experience.

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