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!
JamBase | Chicago
Go See Live Music
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)