Just over 48 hours away from the first night of the 11th annual Umphrey’s McGee New Years Eve celebration. Facebook statuses and fan forums dedicated to the band begin to flood with requests for tickets after the release of an official notice that long awaited event at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre has sold out the second two of its three night run. A decade ago, the event was a single night held at The Cubby Bear, a tiny Northside Chicago bar, but has since become a staple production in the Gold Coast to ring in each new year as the band’s fan base has swelled exponentially. Just a couple months before this moment, the band announced that, for the first time since the New Year’s show at the Cubby Bear, they would not be returning to Chicago for it next year.
In the next two days, trains, planes and automobiles carry Umphreaks from far and wide through the treacherous winter, reuniting friends (who feel like family), some for their fifth, seventh, even tenth Umphrey’s New Years in a row. This year, the celebration was scheduled for the Riviera Theatre, a venue nearly half the size of their five previous New Years celebrations and is the stage where they filmed the 2005 DVD release Wrapped Around Chicago. The news was bitter to some who were left in the cold, but the sweetness could not be measured in teaspoons, cups or even words for those who were lucky (or perhaps conscientious) enough to purchase their tickets in time as another piece of news was announced: the band would be recording this run to create a another DVD.
Unquestionably, 2010 was not only the year of the bull or the tiger, but without a doubt, it was the year of the Umphrey. As the band romped around the country, headlining major festivals in the summer and selling out venues, halls, auditoriums and amphitheatres throughout, they made good on a promise given by singer, songwriter and guitarist Brendan Bayliss at the end of the previous New Years show that we hadn’t seen anything yet.It was clear throughout 2009 that the band had hit a new stride, began a new era, were even creating a new heavier but somehow more rounded, smoother and even more dynamic, more explosive sound alongside their newly hired Lighting Designer, Jefferson Waful whose artistic visions could be witnessed blossoming from show to show. However, as the newly released Mantis material celebrated its first birthday, it was clear even in January of 2010 on their West Coast tour that they had matured from a group of surgically precise musical chameleons and whimsical jokesters of jam, to a now virtuosic powerhouse, an exquisite machine whose nuclear sum is based on the musical mastership and nearly encyclopedic knowledge of popular music history possessed by the six men who make up its most impressive parts.
The year was one of major personal growth as well for almost every member of the Umphrey’s team as a few of them proposed, a couple were married and one very blessed, Jake Cinninger, six-string slayer extraordinaire, became the first parent within the crew as his wife gave birth in the fall to their son. This new maturity could be seen, heard and felt in the outlooks and demeanor of the band members throughout the year. Even the fact that they found a way to further polish their most pristine sound was evidence that the members of Umphrey’s McGee, all in their early thirties, have really come into their own as equal shareholders of their own musical brand, and giving themselves governance over their own fortunes. And, despite the fact that they could not (at this point) sell out Madison Square Garden or the Hollywood Bowl, their success in secondary and smaller college based markets throughout the country has been both deliberate and undeniable.
As the lights dimmed on the first night‘s show, the band looked well rested from their sparse winter schedule. And when they took the stage to the roar of their home town audience, it was clear that they had made the right choice to return to the Riviera and pack it full of the most die-hard fans they could find. The energy of the nearly sold out crowd was, from the gates, pure electricity and the band returned it by opening the New Years Umphtacular with the unmistakably raw and note-laden progressive voyage, Bridgeless. They continued for the rest of the night to drill their progressive rock roots to the very core with more highlights from the eerie Utopian Fir, along side their almost manic funk of Tribute to the Spinal Shaft, and a riveting Ocean Billy which left the haunting voice of Brendan Bayliss ringing through the operatic theatre. The band would even debut Steely Dan’s savagely smooth Peg during the second set before returning to encore with their thrashing oeuvre Hurt Bird Bath, that, with the cannon-fire assault of Waful’s strobing light rig made the place seem quite literally as if we were being launched violently into space. The room emptied like a balloon as excited fans were ready to drink and dance off the built up energy at one of the many official, unofficial and even informal after-parties around the city.
Night two started out just as spectacularly as the previous, laying down a fiery first set highlighted by one of the band’s most musically impressive numbers, JaJunk. This symphonic rock opus gives proper due to the incredible dual guitar proficiencies of Cinninger and Bayliss and the slamming rhythmic core of Kris Myers and Andy Farag’s machine-guns over the sonic booms of Ryan Stasik’s bass. The second set turned out to be one for the ages, featuring a wildly energetic Fussy Dutchman, giving Joel Cummins a chance to shine on twinkling keys. However, the undeniable MVP of the night was the man up front, Brendan Bayliss, whose ravaging solos in Dutchman, August and 2x2 were some of the most fiery moments of the night. Again, they introduced another never-played cover by their musical heroes Yes, with their song Roundabout. As would be expected, the rendition was simply flawless; a historical characteristic of the savant sextet. Once again, the ring of Bayliss vocals would be the last reverberation of the second set from the ever-jarring Floor. And, once again, they would launch the place into a frenzy in the encore, this time with the wildly metallic third section of Pay the Snucka. Recess was granted as hundreds of partying people took the streets, many of whom ended up at Kris Myers’ and Joel Cummins’ electro-jam based side project: Digital Tape Machine.
If the first two nights were astonishingly good shows, the third night was perhaps one of the best the band has ever played. Giving nods to their old digs at the Riviera, Umphrey’s returned to the stage with an almost noticeable sparkle as they broke ruthlessly into the instrumental Nothing Too Fancy. Of course, the tongue-in-cheek name of the tune did not reflect the fervor with which the band played it. And, right from the beginning of the show, it was clear that Mr. Waful had been only toying with us the first two nights as he unleashed a fury of moving, spinning, strobing lights that would continue to gain tempestuous force as the night raged on. The song would sandwich the first of the three sets, which included a funky In the Kitchen and Bright Lights, Big City, both most certainly a nod to their beloved Windy City.
The second set saw the horn section of Mad Dog’s Dirty Little Secret join the stage as the raucus Kris Myers left his thrown in front of his Olympian drum kit and, donning a slick charcoal suit and fedora, gave a most convincing tribute to James Brown with The Payback and Sex Machine; a most surreal performance. Two more extreme highlights were one of the bands oldest, but most energetic tracks, All in Time and one of their newest, but equally energetic ditties, 1348. Both invoked a strong musical climax as the beams of light, so in sync with the sound, were almost indistinguishable as two separate entities.
As midnight approached, the machine rebuilt itself one more time, as the band jumped into the tear-jerking ballad of Hajimemashite before releasing the tension with the funky Beck jig, Mixed Bizness as a last hurrah to the strongest, most productive year, Umphrey’s McGee has had as a touring band. And, as the balloons dropped, another year had raced by, leaving us all a little older, hopefully a little wiser and ever hungering to find that spark that makes each one of us believethere’s something here worth dying for. And, finding it, capturing it, that is what, in 2011, we should all strive to live for. After blazing through the darkest, heaviest Miss Tinkle’s Overture to date, along with the moody Radiohead cover National Anthem, and ripping holes in the cosmos with blazingly executed Higgins and Slacker renditions, the band returned to the stage for the final time of this perfectly executed New Years Run. Myers reminded us all about the importance of music with Stevie Wonder’s classic Sir Duke, before Cinninger seemed to quite nearly reveal the presence of God as his guitar screamed to the heavens in Glory and figuratively burning the Riviera Theatre to the ground. It may as well have been, because there will likely never be another show within those walls that could ever match the intensity with which Umphrey’s McGee played what, will be, their last Chicago New Year for some years to come.
Not many people will ever understand the sheer joy that Umphrey’s McGee has brought to the lives of its most die-hard fans for the past 13 years. Of course, to the uninitiated, Umphrey's is simply music, a great show, or maybe just something to do, perhaps your town's best option on a given Friday to let loose. However, to many, being a part of the Umphrey's McGee congregation is a bona fide love, a true obsession, a pure addiction, a cleansing ritual. And to some of us wandering spirits, it is a family, a guide, a purpose, an extension of our selves, intertwining our hearts and minds with our souls.
For better or worse, times must change. And, as the men of Umphrey’s age alongside all of us and begin to settle down, they are finding a patience in their musical relationship that has brought their craft to a new level. It seems most certain that Umphrey’s McGee will not likely burn out or fade away, but continue growing stronger over time as they reach new pinnacles and light new fires until they feel that their own ends of finally been reached. As for now, I truly believe what Brendan Bayliss says in one of their staple originals, Slacker: we still have yet to ever witness their best.