While I'm sure many bands played great shows this past Thursday, April 19th (the eve of a major holiday to many), how many of these bands had the privilege of having JamBase's Andy Gadiel on hand to introduce the band onto the stage? Gadiel was present in Chicago, IL to do just that for Umphrey's McGee, as they made their first appearance at the legendary House of Blues in Chicago, IL: "JamBase is proud to present, from right here in Chicago, Illinois, please give it up, a warm welcome for Umphrey's McGee!"

It should be noted that Chicago blues legend Sugar Blue opened things up with a great hour-long set. Having recorded with the Rolling Stones, and jammed with numerous bands (yes, including Phish), Sugar Blue has been called the Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica, and this was certainly evident as he made his way from the stage, into the crowd, and back to the stage, without missing a note. He had a full band to back him up, and he ripped through a range of rock/blues numbers, including a couple Stones songs, and "Messin with the Kid" on the harmonica and vocals.

After Gadiel's enthusiastic introduction, Umphrey's McGee opened with "The Fussy Dutchman," a fantastic instrumental that had crowd of over 700 dancing immediately. The song's cascading guitar lines, shared by guitarists Brendan Bayliss and not-so-new addition Jake Cinninger, were complimented nicely by the beautiful piano work of Joel Cummins. Quite simply, this song has it all, and was a great opening selection. "Second Self" followed, and as the song morphed into a jam, Bayliss could be heard introducing some "Prowler" teases. This jam soon dropped into some very interesting territory, with Cinninger and bassist Ryan Stasik taking the lead. This passage had more of a funk feel, somewhat reminiscent of a lot of UM's earlier funk-based material. Soon, drummer Mike Mirro gave "the signal" (a few quick hits on his cymbal) for the next song, and the band instantly dropped into "Space Funk Booty." This song is an instrumental written by Cinninger, and can best be described as equal parts dissonant and jazzy--Cinninger plays raw, conflicting riffs, followed by jazzy interludes which are more pleasing to the ear.

The band stepped it up a notch by launching into "2 x 2" next. This is perhaps the band's most "epic" song, and it works quite well during first sets, as it traversed a number of peaks and valleys, with the crowd swaying along. Instead of bringing the song to an end, however, Cinninger began playing a subdued but upbeat riff on his guitar, and Mirro followed on the drums by picking up the pace to something more frantic. Finally, this dropped very nicely into "Nothing Too Fancy," a song that, among other things, represents UM's primary foray into the ever-popular "club/electronic/house" genre of music. This version of "NTF" soon promised to be nothing like its predecessors, however, as Sugar Blue took the stage and began with some swooping harmonica riffs that were quite refreshing to the ears. Meanwhile, in the background, the band could be heard migrating into and out of and back into a heavy blues jam, under Sugar Blue's frenzied harmonica. Once everyone was back into this blues jam, Sugar Blue took to the mic for "Born Under A Bad Sign," a Jimi Hendrix song (Hendrix, also known as the Sugar Blue of the guitar).

Sugar Blue was quite the entertainer on stage, even beyond his harmonica playing and singing. At one point, he prefaced a harmonica solo by demanding of the sound crew: "Gimme some reverb, turn this mother f***er up!" It was certainly like nothing I had ever seen on UM's stage before, and I was loving every second of it. Just as Sugar Blue departed the stage, the band rifled back into the furious conclusion of "Nothing Too Fancy," capping off what will surely go down as a version for the ages. However, the band did not leave it at that--rather, keyboardist Joel Cummins took over with a short piano solo and then Mirro shifted over to a brand new marimba rig, and the crowd was treated to a lengthy marimba solo, of all things (the marimba is similar to the xylophone). The crowd was certainly being treated with some interesting "tricks" up to this point.

"Slacker" followed, and again, things soon got very interesting. The band gradually brought the jam down to a slow, loping funk groove, and Bayliss welcomed two members of Topaz to the stage, who came out with horns in hand: Topaz himself on tenor sax and "Squantch" on trombone. They assisted in driving the jam towards another new cover, this time, Donald Byrd's cool "The Emperor," which is the first track on Topaz's CD, Listen. Topaz soloed first, followed by Squantch. This tune was followed by a relatively new UM original, "Last Man Swerving," which also featured the two members of Topaz, playing the tune's horn lines with ease.

The logical conclusion of the set, of course, would be to get all three guests onstage at the same time--and that's exactly what happened, for a take on the funk standard "Cissy Strut." This was a lot of fun, especially for the guests involved, as it was clear that the horns were excited to share the stage with Sugar Blue, and vice versa. The song came to a rousing conclusion, much to the delight of the packed crowd. With the first set lasting nearly 2 hours, another was still on the way.

While the first set featured some fantastic guest performances, set II was simply Umphrey's McGee at their very best, and personally, I was very excited by this. I suppose I'm in the minority on this, but I was glad that the guest appearances occurred during the first set--this left Umphrey's McGee, and only them, to blow the roof off in set II, and this is what happened. The set actually opened with Bayliss wishing everyone a happy holiday (it was now after midnight), and another cover debut--"Rastaman Chant" by Bob Marley. I had never heard this song but it had the crowd very excited. It was in fact a very cool song, eventually leading into some mellow jamming, with an interesting instrumental bit towards the end of the jam, but I'm not sure if that was an Umphrey's creation or just how Marley wrote it. Also of note during this jam was a very pronounced tease of the allegedly-retired Umphrey's nugget, "Bob." I could have gone home happy at that point, since that song is an old favorite of mine (and many others), but I elected to stay and hear more music.

The band segued this excellent jam into "The Fuzz," another relatively new song. A standard "Phil's Farm" was next, and then Jake and Brendan took to their folding chairs for the night's foray into acoustic music, in the form of "Uncle Walley." Thankfully, such acoustic mini-sets have become more frequent since their debut this winter, and although this acoustic interlude only consisted of one song, it was nice that they chose "Uncle Walley," an original that has become a favorite of many fans since its debut. It's got an easy-going, rolling bass line, and some great singing and lyrics by Bayliss... your basic acoustic smash hit.

The band resumed their electric playing with the song "Water." All I can remember about the first time I heard this song is that it seemed to have about 38 different parts. After hearing it a few more times, it certainly is beginning to grow on me. It is rather complex, but its different parts get more and more interesting each time I hear the song. Plus, it's another chance to hear Bayliss sing some nice lyrics.

The next segment of the set was "Prowler" > "Andy's Last Beer" > "Professor Wormbog." I think it was around this time in the show that I began to notice how good a night Jake was having on the guitar (and various other instruments, for that matter). "Prowler" is another big-time UM instrumental, tonight segueing into a cacophonous din, which slowly melted away, leaving Stasik playing the bass line to "Andy's Last Beer." I was with my younger sister at the show, and this was her first time seeing Umphrey's McGee. She truly enjoyed "Andy's," both for its vocals and the infamous trick clapping segment, which had her completely fooled, among others. Also during "Andy's," one could see that Cinninger was really spicing things up on stage, at one point singing his guitar lines, much to the delight of Bayliss, who seemed to appreciate his efforts. However, it was after they segued into "Professor Wormbog" that Cinninger really tore things up. This is a jazzy song that is typically rather straightforward, but on this night Cinninger simply rocked, and the entire band seemed to revel in the energy. What was even better was that they maintained this energy for the duration of the show.

Next up was "Front Porch" which is clearly becoming a crowd favorite. I suppose it's been a crowd favorite for a while, but I guess I didn't realize it until everyone around me cheered wildly when it began, and sang along to all the words. I guess it was one of those pleasant surprises that happens once in a while. After the conclusion of "Front Porch," the band went right into "Kabump," a song adopted from Jake's old band, Alibaba's Tahini. This is a fast-moving, funky instrumental that has a sweet bass/drums core and tremendous jamming potential. This version went into another recent crowd favorite, "40's Theme." This is another Cinninger song that has, quite simply, taken the Umphrey's scene by storm. Cinninger was, again, on fire for this song. His playing was simply phenomenal. Unfortunately, as this song wound down, it was just past 2am, which was apparently the curfew at the House of Blues. The curtains were drawn closed, but not before Bayliss thanked everyone for coming out. I'm fairly certain that everyone went home extremely happy, even though they were not treated to a much-requested encore.

John Joyce
JamBase Umphreak!
Go See Live Music!

Thanks to Jen Stanson for the photos!

Umphrey's McGee | 4.19.01
House of Blues | Chicago, IL

Set I: Fussy Dutchman, 2nd Self > Space Funk Booty, 2 x 2 > Nothing Too Fancy > Born Under A Bad Sign* > Nothing Too Fancy > Piano/Marimba Solos, Slacker > The Emperor**, Last Man Swerving***, Cissy Strut****
Set II: Rastaman Chant$ > The Fuzz, Phil's Farm, Uncle Walley@, Water, Prowler > Andy's Last Beer > Professor Wormbog, Front Porch, Kabump > 40's Theme

* 1st time played, with Sugar Blue on vocals and harmonica
** 1st time played, with Topaz on sax and Squantch on trombone, a Donald Byrd cover
*** with Topaz on sax and Squantch on trombone
*** with Sugar Blue, Topaz and Squantch
$ 1st time played, Bob Marley tune, with "Bob" tease
@ with Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss on acoustics

[Published on: 4/23/01]

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