Umphrey's McGee | 12.29 - 12.31 | IL

Words by: Cal Roach | Images by: Chad Smith

Umphrey's McGee :: 12.29 - 12.31 :: The Vic Theatre & Aragon Ballroom :: Chicago, IL

For many music fans, the only way to end a year is in the company of their favorite band. Champagne, balloons and "Auld Lang Syne" are the only guarantees, but you can generally expect some sort of shenanigans. Sometimes the gimmicky nature of the holiday run can leave fans wanting more, but 2009 has seen Umphrey's McGee continue to dispense with silliness and concentrate on music as the group's profile keeps rising.

12.29 | The Vic Theatre

Umphrey's McGee :: 12.29 :: Chicago
Night one at the intimate Vic Theatre was dubbed "Throwback Night," featuring only vintage merch, and only one song from the band's latest album, Mantis (SCI Fidelity), made it into the show, but the music was decidedly forward-looking in terms of performance. UM has roots in the technicality of prog rock and carefully orchestrated improv, but this year has seen more and more experimental jamming with less focus on the specific confines of the method referred to as "Jimmy Stewart."

To wit: the second jam of this first-set "Front Porch." Following a fairly standard yet high-octane blues rock guitar duel between Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss, the band dropped back into the song proper. Then, beginning as a mellow, tweeky jam, it built steadily and joyously without delay. Nothing complicated, but it was a thrilling full-band wave of fizzy, percolating energy, one of those swell-to-bursting jams (with some amazing light work by mastermind Jeff Waful), where nobody's the star but everybody's riding the same cosmic wave. Drummer Kris Myers couldn't even keep up with his own excitement at times, but it only added to the giddy suspense. It was creativity purely outside of any predetermined order, and it slew the crowd.

This show was full of highlights, from the charging disco-metal showcase of the first set (as Cinninger and Bayliss kept outdoing each other through "In The Kitchen," "40s Theme" and "JaJunk") to the segue madness of set two. Opening with a dizzying mashup of "Pay The Snucka," "Mantis" and "Mantis Ghetts," the band encapsulated virtually everything it's good at in one long stretch, drifting in and out of the different tracks with ease. Cinninger was on a Slash-esque tear, and Joel Cummins pumped out tons of spacey organ goo. "Nothing Too Fancy" was epic, the song drifting from Police-meets-The Orb echoscape to a "Don't Fear The Reaper" jam, after which Cinninger just tore the thing wide open in a fury. It then descended into a dub workout before picking up speed again essentially as Pink Floyd's "On The Run," or an obvious facsimile thereof. Here, Myers redeemed himself, switching between beats with astonishing speed and accuracy while holding the whole thing together. It was a thing of beauty.

The set closed with a second-ever take on one of UM's infamous Halloween mashups, this one a combo of "Fat-Bottomed Girls," "Good Times Bad Times" and UM's own "Nemo," in a move that underscored the band's ability to temper its predilection for calculated aggression with lightheartedness, but with much more resonance than playing, say, "Sister Christian." The encore was vintage: "Nopener," a sick, snarling puppy, and a debut of the Joe Higgs reggae standard "Steppin' Razor," which drifted into the reprise of "Nothing." Front to back, this was the best show of the run.

12.29.09 :: The Vic Theatre :: Chicago, IL
Set I: Andy's Last Beer, Walletsworth, In the Kitchen, 40's Theme, Front Porch*, The Floor, JaJunk
Set II: Preamble > Mantis Ghetts > Pay the Snucka > Mantis > Mantis Ghetts > Mantis > Pay the Snucka, Partyin' Peeps > Nothing Too Fancy**, Nemo's Fat Bottomed Good Times
E: Nopener, Steppin' Razor$ > Nothing Too Fancy
* with Little Drummer Boy tease
** with Don't Fear the Reaper tease
$ first time played, Joe Higgs (Peter Tosh)

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