This fall has been an important one for Umphrey's McGee. They did a 3-week east coast tour in September, they continue to expand their following in the Midwest, and best of all, they've got a new album coming out early next year. The band spent the first two weeks of November recording a new studio album in Ohio, and this was followed by some time off during the Thanksgiving holidays. So, it was pretty clear that they were ready to go once again in front of the hometown crowd assembled in the nicely-decorated and maintained House of Blues in Chicago, their second show at the House of Blues this year.

At the appointed hour, the curtains of the House parted, revealing the band already on stage, in their respective places. Rather than starting out with a conventional song, they started with a mellow jam that worked around a few simple themes, mostly bass-driven. These days, the band frequently opens shows with impromptu jams, sometimes referred to by the name "Jazz Odyssey," a nod to a Spinal Tap jam of the same name ("on the bass, Derek Smalls, he wrote this..."). I would suppose that each of these "Jazz Odyssey" jams is unique, and that's the neat part about them--no matter how many Umphrey's shows you've been to, you've got a good chance to see and hear new UM material unfold right in front of you. In any case, this opening meandered around for a few minutes and then dropped right into "Roulette," a song that debuted this summer. This song seems to be about what is apparently one of the band's favorite pastimes, gambling. This is a welcome addition to the UM rotation--it features some nice vocal work, and of course, some very nifty guitar work. Overall, it seems like a melancholic song--at least that's the feeling it gives me. It's fairly complex, too, as is much of UM's recent output, with grinding riffs contrasted against lighter guitar work played by Jake Cinninger. It is certainly catching on with UM listeners.

As "Roulette" ended, the band segued right into a portion of "You Never Give Me Your Money," which is a Beatles song, played in reference to the death of George Harrison, which had occurred the day prior. The particular part played here went something like "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, all good children go to heaven." Because I am not very familiar with the Beatles or their music, I had an interesting time quizzing folks at the show, trying to determine the name of the many Beatles references that appeared throughout the night.

After this brief reference to Harrison, the band continued the show's opening sequence by starting up with "Get In the Van," an instrumental that guitarist Brendan Bayliss describes as a "true story." This is a fierce and fast-moving song from the start. Its core is built around ascending and descending guitar riffs, but it has two other sections. The beginning soon resolves into a softer, less-fierce section, which in turn goes into an intense little rapid-fire reggae-ish jam that just has to be heard. This third section goes back into the first that again resolves into the softer second section. This time through, Cinninger lays down some glorious guitar lines as the song slowly quiets down into a very slick and soothing ending. Really, it is a song that touches on many different emotions; torment, happiness, calm, all one after another. It's no wonder that tonight's version was greeted by jubilant screams from the audience when it began.

Next up was "...The Best of What's Still Around," a fairly new cover by The Police, from their 1980 Zenyatta Mondatta release. For whatever reason, UM does fairly well in covering The Police, and tonight they used the jam in this song as a launch pad for one of their own, the epic "Der Bluten Kat." First appearing on UM's 1999 Songs For Older Women live release, this is a brilliant composition and an absolute guitar tour-de-force. Moreover, this song keeps getting better with age. For many fans, the highlight of this song is Joel Cummins' delicate keyboard work, which is nice while it lasts, but inevitably, it is suddenly interrupted by a thunderous return to the main theme of the song--the favorite part for many other fans. Tonight's version had the band play the second delicate part together, and again, at a given point, they roared back into the song's main theme--certainly one of the most spectacular moments one can witness at an Umphrey's McGee show.

"Blue Echo" came next, a great way to come down from the intensity of "Der Bluten Kat." This is a mellow song with a simple melody, and I am surprised by how many fans are so fond of this song, everyone seems to be especially hopeful that it'll be on UM's forthcoming studio release. Frequent UM collaborator Josh Quinlan came out on stage with his saxophone for the next song, "Professor Wormbog." This is a very jazzy song, making it a great candidate for guest horns. Next up during the first set was "Syncopated Strangers," originally an Alibaba's Tahini song, which Jake Cinninger imported into the UM catalog when he joined the band in September of 2000. Much like "Roulette" and "Get In the Van" from earlier in the set, this song has contrasting parts, a fast and raw beginning versus a loungy and pleasant ending. Likewise, whereas Jake sings the beginning parts, it is Brendan who takes over the vocals for the ending of this one.

Saxophonist Josh Quinlan returned to the stage for "Computer G," which is a song by "the other Kenny G." Kenny Garrett, an alto and soprano saxophonist. This is an upbeat jazz number that featured the traditional guitar, keyboard, and saxophone solos. This selection contrasted nicely with the guitar-heavy tunes that preceded it. Finally, set I closed out with another new UM original, "Hurt Bird Bath," which just debuted this October. This is another outstanding addition to the UM rotation, thanks to its fantastic composition, in which several contrasting but related sections of music are joined together one after another. This brand of songwriting is fast becoming one of the primary signatures of UM's sound, and I believe it to be a great sign of things to come from this band. Moreover, this is especially exciting in that these songs are ideal for the studio environment. Their many intricacies can be accurately captured in the studio, whereas these bits and pieces are often hard to hear at live shows, and even harder to play, I suppose. The anticipation for this new album is killing me!

Set II started out with "YYZ," which is a Rush song that reminds me a lot of the kind of stuff UM is writing these days, thus making it a good cover. After "YYZ" came "Hajimemashite," among the oldest and most loved UM songs. Here, Brendan's tremendous vocals made for one of the night's highlights. This song was an excellent choice at this point, making for quite a mix of new and old, originals and covers. "Ringo" followed a short jam out of "Hajimemashite." This is a reworked Alibaba's Tahini original, another such AT song adopted by UM. It's got a loungy feel with Cinninger on vocals. After a few minutes of traditional verse-chorus-verse, the song abruptly veered off into a short jam, perhaps this is what was reworked from the original version. No sooner did this happen than the jam veered back into a funkier section, with original vocals. Overall, this one worked, as its smooth, funky ending had the wooden floor of the House of Blues bouncing up and down under the weight of the dancing crowd assembled on the floor.

Ron Haynes, who plays trumpet for the Chicago-based band Liquid Soul, came onto the stage at this point along with Josh Quinlan and joined the band on "Big Heart," a Lounge Lizards song with, you guessed it, a loungy feel. Haynes, a first-time guest of UM, wowed the crowd with his ferocity on the trumpet, and he, Quinlan and Cinninger shared solos during this extended jazz jam. At the conclusion of this song, another improv ensued, still with Haynes and Quinlan on-stage. This was "Jimmy Stewart," which is really just a codeword for an extended exploration. The version on this night was interesting in that it was centered on the horn players, making for an interesting experiment in improvisation. By this time, Quinlan had switched to the flute, and the jam stayed rather low key, with Haynes soloing on top, and Quinlan in the background. It picked up in intensity as it moved from theme to theme, dissolving and rebuilding, before eventually moving into the ending of "It's About That Time," a Miles Davis song from 1969's In A Silent Way (which, incidentally, was just re-released in a "Complete Sessions" box set last month). This entire exercise gave the guest horn players a chance to really blow the roof off of the House of Blues, and that they did. They were downright awesome at this point. This whole sequence was excellent, in that it was real improvisation with guest horn players, rather than just another jazz standard. Likewise, this jam gave the rest of the band a chance to really provide some solid rock backing, since the "Jimmy Stewart" and "It's About That Time" were equal parts rock and jazz. Miles would have been proud.

The UM classic "All In Time" followed this extended jazz/rock segment of the show, much to the delight of the audience, which was treated to an outstanding rendition of this song. "All In Time" gave way to "Garbage Man," which in the past was frequently covered while sandwiched inside of "Hangover." However, tonight, it was given the stand-alone treatment. Following the unusual choice of "Garbage Man" was another rarity, this time a UM original; "Kimble." While this song usually begins with Cummins alone on his piano, this rendition began with the entire band getting into it. This song is a Cummins/Mirro original and can be found on UM's first studio album, 1998's Greatest Hits Volume III.

The frantic beginning of "White Man's Moccasins" was next. This is another recent addition to the UM rotation, and again, here is a song that traverses 4 or 5 different sections, all quite interesting, with some tricky time changes and sweet vocals along the way, more evidence of the band's current approach to songwriting. We can only hope that this song will find its way onto the new album, it is another song that would certainly shine in a studio setting.

The second set ended with an extended sequence sandwiched by "Nothing 2 Fancy," UM's primary "club/electronic/house" composition. Since its introduction to the rotation a year ago, this song has grown and grown, both in popularity and length. Tonight's version was long simply because it spanned two separate jam's and another extended Beatles reference, "Flying" in this case. The first jam started out of nowhere as the band was jamming away in "N2F" and then sort of took a big step back, and went down into this slow groove, to which many seasoned setlist-takers are still trying to put a name. However, the best we've come up with so far is just plain "jam," even though there seemed to be a recognizable bass riff present here. This piece picked up its speed and volume and soon found its way into "Flying," to which UM has alluded before. After "Flying," the band kept with a rather funky groove, and at one point, Bayliss could even be heard mumbling the words to Nirvana's "In Bloom!" Soon, however, the band launched back into the ending of "N2F," much to the delight of the crowd, who stuck around this late into the night for good reason.

For an encore, the band did "Last Man Swerving," which is a much more easy-going, funky tune than the other new stuff showcased on this night. I guess you could even call it a crowd favorite, as the floor began to bounce again, definitely a good encore choice.

Overall, it was an excellent night for an Umphrey's McGee show, primarily thanks to a good dose of their newest and best material-the new album has the potential to be monumental thanks to these songs. The guest horns, of course, were another bonus, especially when they were allowed to stretch their legs so to speak during "Jimmy Stewart" and on into "It's About That Time." Last but not least, I should even commend the House of Blues, which is a venue that is really starting to grow on me. Even though it's downtown and miles removed from the "action" which takes place on Chicago's North Side, it's certainly nice being inside of a theater that has been renovated at some point during the past 50 years (this HOB was just built in '96). See you on New Years' Eve!

John Joyce
JamBase | Chicago
Go See Live Music Setlist
I: Jam > Roulette > You Never Give Me Your Money* > Get In the Van, When the World is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around > Der Bluten Kat > Blue Echo, Professor Wormbog^, Syncopated Strangers, Computer G^, Hurt Bird Bath > Something**

II: YYZ, Hajimemashite > Ringo, Big Heart, Jimmy Stewart^ > It's About That Time^#, All In Time > Garbage Man, Kimble > White Man's Moccasins, Nothing 2 Fancy > Jam > Flying > Jam## > Nothing 2 Fancy
Encore: Last Man Swerving^

The Baldwin Brothers opened
* only the end (the counting)
^ with horns - Josh Quinlin on sax and Ron Haynes on trumpet
** first time played, George Harrison; only the end
# only the ending
## with Brendan quietly singing "In Bloom" (Nirvana)

[Published on: 12/8/01]

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