January 15th held a mellow afternoon in San Diego with just a small layer of hazy clouds in the sky, almost 70 degrees and no sign of rain. However, in the San Diego House of Blues, weather fronts collided unleashing a powerful musical storm called Umphrey’s McGee.
This six-headed, twelve-armed monster of progressive rock ended their epic touring season of 2009 with three nights at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago for their annual New Year’s run only two weeks prior to this event; but everyone in the band (and the die-hards who can’t part with this obsession) seemed well rested and ready to rock as the band took the stage on this Southern California evening. Quite noticeably however, keyboard wizard Joel Cummins was missing from the line-up as they started into the funky, driving ‘Syncopated Strangers’. He was absent the night before due to a family emergency which apparently made for a very unprecedented show for the rest of the band and those lucky enough to witness it. Within a few moments though, he strutted across the stage, rolling suitcase in tow, and manned his position at his keyboard universe.
After a couple thanks you’s and jokes about Joel which could barely be heard over the buzz of the audience, the band embarked on a new voyage through ‘Der Bluten Kat’, a rock anthem of sorts which includes a blistering tease/solo from the main theme of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. About five minutes in, they switched gears completely as rhythm nation champion Kris Myers laid down the opening drum beat for the funky and somewhat jazzy ‘Muscle Shoals Nitty Gritty’ by Herbie Mann which led right back into another section of ‘DBK’ that segued very nicely into one of their improvised segments they call ‘Jimmy Stewart.’ This ‘stew’ (as it is commonly referred to) seemed to do just that as it simmered slowly before reaching a clear boiling point where guitarist Jake Cinninger took off with a furious barrage of notes before returning, once again, back to the ‘DBK’ to finish it once and for all.
Being the talented musicians and all around friendly folk that they are, Umphrey’s makes a lot of other talented musician friends along the way who they like to include in the fun whenever possible. This rang especially true in San Diego as they invited guitarist Mike Keneally to the stage. He is especially known for his stint in Frank Zappa’s band in the late 80’s, but tonight, he was all Umphrey’s. The band (plus one) grooved into the sulking ‘Push the Pig’ before launching off into another ‘Stew’ that featured a dual guitar alliance between Keneally and Cinninger as they belted out nasty synchronized riffs in harmony with each other with such ease that one might have thought it was either practiced or a product of their mind melding abilities. In either case, it wowed the excited audience as they smashed back into the end of ‘Push the Pig.’ After a short country guitar romp by Cinninger, the opening of the exciting and stirring ‘Ocean Billy’ ended the set leaving the eerie echo of the last wail by Brendan Bayliss to ring out to the anticipating crowd.
As if to celebrate the return of Joel to his throne over the piano kingdom, he shot the first notes of ‘Cemetery Walk,’ closing the gap between the sets in a dramatic fashion before segueing into ‘Cemetery Walk II’ which is a bona-fide dance party based on the main theme of ‘Cemetery Walk.’ After a few minutes of the theme, the band, grooving on the dance party beat builds into another deep ‘Stew’ and explored the sonic depths led by the steady dub thump of Ryan Stasik’s bass, before mellowing out into the opening organ chords of Pink Floyd saga ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond.” As people began to recognize what it was and what they were about to see, cheers and shouts, high fives and rock-hands filled the room, eliciting the greatest audience response of the night. Of course, note for note, they faithfully marched through the song as the House of Blues Audience Choir chimed in to make it a truly special performance. Without hesitation they zoomed into Bridgeless for an unprecedented repeat from the night before and left it unfinished to jam into the decidedly pop ‘Alex’s House’. Mike Keneally was invited back to the stage to jam more for a while before finally taking their only break of the set. Keneally joined Joel on keys for a portion of the creeping funk of ‘Dump City’ before returning to guitar to finish out the set.
The jesters of jam came back to rip through the ultra funky ‘Super Chargers Theme,’ a nod to the local NFL playoff contenders before launching into ‘Glory,’ a song that certainly lives up to its name every time as Cinninger shows why he is the best at what he does. Umphrey’s treks up the California coast to San Francisco for what should be another amazing night followed the next day by a night in Reno which we will be covering right here on Kindweb.