I decided a few months ago to go wherever Umphrey's McGee was playing on New Year's Eve in 2003. I have added incentive to go to Chicago, where I knew the show would be, as my girlfriend lives there. Three nights at The Vic Theatre were announced, and I made plans to go to the city for at least NYE. I had no idea what would materialize in the weeks to come.

The String Cheese Incident had long announced their own three-night stand at the Auditorium Theater, but just weeks before the event they began adding openers. When Garaj Mahal was announced to open the show on the 30th, it sweetened my trip even more. Still, the closer the big days got the more shenanigans were planned. I learned that Garaj would do double duty on the 30th, performing a late show at the beloved Boulevard Cafe. With my year-ending plate now full, I was blown away when a special jam was announced just a few days before my departure. The enigmatically named all-star collective Xoanon's Heartbreak would test the boundaries of music and pronunciation at The Bottom Lounge on December 29th, just after my plane was scheduled to land at Chicago's Midway Airport.

Xoanon's Heartbreak by Jeremy Welsh
I was supposed to arrive in Chi-town at about 11 pm, departing from Raleigh with a brief stop in Nashville. Not so fast! Stranded in Nashville for reasons still unclear, each passing minute at the airport signified a minute of Xoanon's Heartbreak that I had missed. I finally got on the ground at about 1 am Central time, grabbed my bag and hopped in the car with Esther (who was gracious enough to leave the show and come get me). We got to the venue just as the band was sparking up their final number of the night, a drastically textural version of "The Chicken." Looking at the guys onstage made me very disappointed at what I must have missed, and I was so worn down that I just leaned against the wall very near the stage and soaked up what I could. The band consisted of Joel Cummins (Umphrey's) and Eric Levy (Garaj) on keys, Alan Hertz (Garaj) on drums, Jake Cinninger (Umphrey's) on guitar, Jon Paul (Fareed Haque Group) on bass, and Mike Mavridoglou and Wes Chihosz on trumpet and sax, respectively. Needless to say, the real "heartbreak" was that I missed out on this show. The things they did to "The Chicken," one of my least favorite cover songs, were simply incredible. It was over in a flash and I just had to suck it up and get ready for the next two nights.

By Adam George
I was happy to be part of the crew for Garaj Mahal during their busy night on the 30th. The band was going to be in British Columbia for New Year's Eve and needed to save as much energy as possible, so they assembled some of their local folks to help with merch and loading/unloading gear and I figured, hey, free gear-moving. When we got to The Auditorium, the acoustically perfect venue was already enveloped in a haze of stage smoke and the SCI crew was in full prep mode. Laser lights ricocheted as I stood awestruck at the lip of the stage and absorbed my first glimpse of Chicago's oldest theatre. The only venues I can compare it to are the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, the Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC, and perhaps the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans. It is at the other end of the spectrum as far as color though. The whole interior is awash in a classic off-white. Esther said she had seen many operas there and it was quite a thrill to be standing on the stage, much less getting ready to see Garaj Mahal there! In the dressing room areas, which sprawl below the entire building in a maze of tile floors and beige walls, the SCI guys wandered around and waited for their sound check. We even got to have dinner with them when both bands were done setting up. Bonus! It was also clear that collaboration was brewing between the two bands, as members of Garaj intermittently journeyed to SCI's practice room.

By Adam George
The 4,500-person theatre was more than half full when Garaj took the stage, but the crowd was definitely not that interested in what the band had to offer. For our group, and anyone else in attendance that may have been a Garaj fan, it was overwhelming to see the guys on such a magnificent stage. Scattered folks danced, some just stood, but most of them sat, waiting patiently for the String Cheese Incident. The band was in great spirits and opened with a slow, chunky take on the main melody of "Be Dope" before finally charging head-on into the composition. The stop/start feel of "Be Dope" was a great way to get going. The crowd was then treated to a positively epic version of "Massive," as energy zipped back and forth through the theater with each pulse of the song's trance-inducing rhythm. "Massive" collapsed into a brief bass soliloquy by Kai Eckhardt before the band joined back in for a version of the bassist's own "Have No Fear." Kai's compositions are typically positive lyrically, and "Have No Fear" is no exception. The band then went for the gusto by breaking out drummer Alan Hertz's "Celtic Indian," one of the definitive Garaj Mahal songs. As always, the familiar structure and comforting movements of the song provided a mutable environment for the band to do some serious interlocking. Guitarist Fareed Haque repeatedly breached the ceiling of the jam with spiraling passages that, had they contained just one more note, may have opened a wormhole. This version was simply stunning, from the delicately intertwined chiming of one early section to the careening, cymbal-soaked madness of the climax. Eric Levy's keyboards dripped lovingly over the song's percussive meltdown.

The band thought they had played through their allotted space, but upon finding out that they had more time proceeded to fire off two funk/fusion cannonballs that shook the theater. "The Shadow" was one of the most unique versions I have ever heard. "The Shadow" has a particularly fiery section that involves the band members saying, "Hit Me!" at certain moments. This version featured some extra sprinkles that made it special. Eckhardt added some of the band's trademark rhythmic verbal "scatting" (for lack of a more descriptive term) before each "Hit Me!" to amazing effect. It then became clear to me just why Auditorium Theatre is considered a landmark venue with regard to acoustics. Never ear piercing; the sound was liquid and tangible. Rounding out their set with an irresistibly fun, mountainous performance of "Guitar Slut," the band bid farewell to one of the biggest audiences they have performed for.

By Adam George
The backstage preparation I spoke of manifested itself in a long, winding "Lonesome Fiddle Blues" about halfway through SCI's first set. All four members of Garaj joined, with Hertz using a minimal drum set that was perched on SCI bassist Keith Moseley's riser. Levy and Kyle Hollingsworth shared the keyboard nest while Haque and Eckhardt set up amongst the rest of the band. With nine musicians on stage, the action got a little muddled. But overall there was a lot of musical space and every player got his chance to step forward. In a moment it was over and we were loading the white van (affectionately known as "Heidi") and motoring over to a much different venue.

The Boulevard Café is known as one of Chicago's friendlier establishments, and you know you don't get truly friendly unless the place is packed, which it was. We unloaded a little less equipment due to space constraints. The restaurant was already half filled with anxious Garaj fans and people just having a few beers or some of the Boulevard's famous hot wings. By the time the band started, there was nowhere for me to go! I hung out at the merch table all night, fading in and out of attention. The long day had begun to catch up to me.

After working through a tune that was essentially the sound check, Garaj embarked on a journey of a show that would find many pleasant stops. The band had clearly begun to warm up during "Break Out," and they kicked it up a notch after that with a gorgeous "Blueberry Cave." The transition from opera house to minimalist bar changed the sound of the music as they went along. Funking it up with "Survivor," the ever-present "Chicken," the rare "Party People," and the moody shuffle of "Uptown Tipitina's," they presented what I consider to be the antithesis of the earlier show.

By Adam George
During set break, the Boulevard Café was absolutely insane! Michael Kang and Michael Travis showed up with many of the SCI crew in tow and ready to party. The resulting set, which started around 1:30 am, was full of favorites and incredibly loose. This late-night Chicago show was certainly a holiday treat for the fervent semi-hometown fan base! "Ivory Tower," another great song from Eckhardt's arsenal, opened up the set. The bass runs in this song are a perfect introduction to Eckhardt's sound: silky, robust, and scholarly. Diving into "Poodle Factory," the band quickly entered a realm of jamming that inspired a quick detour into "We Want the Funk." Kang and Travis made their way onto the Boulevard's cramped stage to add vocals and drums to "We Want the Funk" and the resulting return to "Poodle Factory." Despite their imminent departure for British Columbia, the band played long into the night, wrapping things up around 3 am. Patrons had long since been turned away and doors locked by the time the band got around to "Jan Jan." Credited to "Davies/Davis" but popularized by Grant Green, "Jan Jan" is a frantic jazz tune with more peaks, valleys, and precarious perches than a mountain range. With Michael Travis still on drums, the band broke out an electrified-bluegrass version of Prince's "Kiss" that brought a smile to everyone's face. Instrumental except for the short "Kiss!" during the chorus, this song chugged along with joyful purpose. The band somehow still looked awake during the final two numbers, "Meatless Patty" and "Semos," both definitive Garaj songs that were happily lapped up by the thinning crowd. As we set off into the freezing night, people hailed cabs or jogged to their vehicles, revitalized by their shivering.

After two days of hectic city crawling, I was psyched to get some rest and get pumped up for the big show--Umphrey's McGee at The Vic Theatre on NYE. Having read several Internet posts about how horrible the security was at The Vic, I even left my trusty set list pad behind based on fears of irrational pen confiscation. All hail text messaging! After dealing with the pat down and making our way to a nice spot right beside the soundboard, I was relieved to see that the theater was not overly crowded. It was packed, but not to the point that we were sardines. Despite the high drink prices and overzealous staff, I was amped! Nothing could bring me down this night, and Umphrey's would deliver what I consider to be their finest performance that I have witnessed.

By Jeremy Welsh
Guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss would tell us after the first set, "pace yourselves, it's going to be a long night." The band took it easier than usual during this set, which benefited from their poise and patience. Opening with "Resolution," which I thought was hilarious and appropriate, they wasted no time in getting into some thick jamming that wound its way into a fairly new instrumental, "#5." The foreboding atmosphere of "#5" set a different tone than I was expecting, but they were just warming up. The next song had me fooled. I thought we were in for a Bob Marley cover, but it turned out to be my long-awaited first version of "FF." One of the first Umphrey's songs ever written, "FF" predates two of the current band members. It has been a favorite of mine for years but I had never seen it live. To see it at my first Chicago show was a real treat. Settling in more and more, they followed with the beloved instrumental "Professor Wormbog" complete with "Motownphilly" vocal break. The wistful "Hajimemashite" was next, and while this song has some haters I think it is quite beautiful. Bayliss changed the lyrics a bit to reflect the occasion, singing "one more year past" instead of "all things must pass." The fairly old-school set list continued with "Phil's Farm." A consummate Umphrey's song, "Phil's" is always good for a noteworthy jam or two. On this night drummer Kris Myers took one of his powerful solos, drawing amazed looks from everyone in attendance. The band kicked back in with a serious jam on The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army," tipping their hat to the Detroit duo (who were also in Chicago for NYE, opening for The Flaming Lips). The ferocious "Phil's" jam is one of the defining instances of the UM sound, and its increasing rarity in setlists made this version extra special. "Water," another heartbroken Bayliss song, was next and featured the first "Auld Lang Syne" tease of the evening amid its tenuous jam. The floaty first set was upended by the closing "Mail Package," one of the band's newest offerings. Guitarist/vocalist Jake Cinninger pulls no punches in this song, growling about how "the damn mailman" always brings him the wrong packages. This was one of the most unique sets I have heard the band do and my anticipation just swelled as the second set approached.

Elliott Peck on Vocals by Jeremy Welsh
"Round two!" exclaimed Cinninger as the band took the stage for set two dressed in snazzy suits and armed with a four-piece horn section. During the first set, when I saw the stage draped in feather boas and Bayliss and Jake showing off their new wireless guitar setups, I thought we were in for a glam-rock NYE. Not so! Motown was the toast of the evening. They then played the classics "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and "Shotgun," the latter of which eased into a bluesy, upbeat jam with hair-raising horn blasts. The rest of the set was everything you could ask for if you are an Umphrey's freak. The sneaky syncopation of "Prowler" dropped into "The Fuzz," which I think is one of the band's most underrated songs. The "Prowler" > "Fuzz" powder keg went up like a fireworks factory when "The Fuzz" began to take on martial arts tendencies and gloriously melted into the deadly glee of "All Things Ninja." Keyboardist Joel Cummins was absolutely KILLING it during "Ninja!" The heavy hitters just kept on coming! After the smackdown of that three-song combo, they put me on the mat with "In the Kitchen." Already a beloved song partly because of the Chicago reference ("It's cold in the kitchen and the lights are low as winter wraps around Chicago"), this version was so well-placed, incredibly played, and satisfying that I consider it one of the best moments of the year. The already perfect set was further augmented by the return of the horn section for "Signed Sealed Delivered" (which featured Bayliss' fiancée Elliott Peck on vocals) and "Alright Uptight," which was definitely all right! I was sure that "Uptight" would end in normal fashion, but instead the band held on to the root of the song and produced one of the best segues of the year by any band. The telltale piano lines that start "Thin Air" crept into the mix and the crowd went wild. It is amazing how 30 seconds of improvised music can spin a permanent web from one side of your brain to the other. Inconceivably, Umphrey's kept the pedal to the floor and ended the set with a starry version of "Glory" that wound into the rich, languid depths of "Ocean Billy."

I fought alongside my friends to get down to the front for the midnight countdown, and found it surprisingly easy to set up camp right in front of Bayliss. The venue hummed with the anticipation of 2,500 eager music fans ready to welcome the first minutes and music of 2004. DJ Poser (who I don't think any of us actually laid eyes on and may not really exist) had whipped the crowd into dance mode with some classic hip-hop tracks, and as the people gyrated to Outkast's "Hey Ya!" the energy was palpable. The track wound down and it was finally time for the third set. About 12 minutes to midnight...

By Jeremy Welsh
The familiar 808 thump that starts "The Triple Wide" resounded through the theatre and it was on like Donkey Kong. Halfway through the song the band began to work toward a climax, first laying down a thudding rock noise that pumped forcefully in 4-on-the-floor style. Cinninger and Bayliss then began a war of teases involving Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher" and "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," the latter of which got a full techno treatment for a moment. They then began yelling "I brought my pencil!" and other madness culled from the Van Halen teases. As it always is for me, the passing of midnight was blurry and dreamy. With a countdown and a large "FOOM" sound, the whole theater was ablaze in lights and smiles, and a gigantic load of confetti fluttered down like psychedelic snow covering the theater and its inhabitants. Entrenched in a kiss, I did not actually see what the band was doing at midnight. Opening my eyes from the echo-filled blackness to see the still raging fire of midnight blazing throughout the room, I saw that the band had their significant others out on stage for a bit. The horns returned for the obligatory and often rickety "Auld Lang Syne," and after that things got very interesting.

By Jeremy Welsh
Ask any serious Umphrey's fan who was at the NYE show, and their highlight would likely be the song that came next. "Wife Soup" is a somewhat new song that immediately got the attention of everyone who follows the Umph. Insanely catchy and full of delicious, shifting rhythms, it is well liked. But I don't think anyone expected it to be played in the coveted after-midnight slot, and I don't think anyone expected that it would be so amazing with the horns. Drummer Kris Myers reportedly wrote the horn chart for the song, and his work is probably going to end up being a landmark moment for Umphrey's fans. Just get this show and listen to this song (available for download at archive.org). There is no way to describe the collective gasp that rushed through the Vic after "Wife Soup" was over. The casual weightiness of "Wife Soup" was complemented by the last horn-spiced song of the night, "Tell Me Something Good." With Elliott belting out the verses and the whole band joining in on the jubilant chorus, this slinky classic was a perfect party tune to match the atmosphere.

By Jeremy Welsh
After that, it was time for the band to get back to business for the rest of the night. The rest of the third set was absolutely outstanding in song selection and performance. The quirky changes of "Ringo" funked nicely into a roaring version of "Kimble." This instrumental says more to me than any song with lyrics. The melody is so typically atmospheric of an Umphrey's song. It sets off explosions of images behind your eyes. "Hangover" was gussied up with a full call-and-response section that is now familiar to Umphreaks: "Break out the booty wax, it's New Year's Eve!" "Mullet Over" was next, and this version went above and beyond any other in tightness and energy. "Pay The Snucka" could be the most unique of all Umphrey's tunes with its self-referential lyrics and thrashing metal ending. There is no better song to end the third set of an NYE show with! During the course of "Snucka" I laughed so hard I had to sit down and then wound up with my fist in the air like someone at a Metallica show.

I don't know who could have actually needed an encore, but the show approached four hours in length during it. The Beatles' "I've Got A Feeling" was played for the band members' parents in attendance. "Mulche's Odyssey" was next. Debuted in October 2002, "Mulche's" is usually preceded by "Miss Tinkle's Overture." The band wowed those present for all three shows by opening the 29th with "Tinkle's" and psuedo-closing NYE with "Mulche's." The crowd would not let that be it, and the band returned for a second encore with the "all time" favorite "All In Time." The band was clearly running out of gas, but they still delivered a memorable version of this essential song. I sat awestruck on a bench by the soundboard. The first thought I had was that I wanted to do it again.

When all was said and done, I had experienced the best NYE since the magical Big Cypress Phish shows. I had seen one of Chicago's finest venues from the inside out, visited several of the city's live music landmarks, and seen three and a half ridiculous concerts, all in the company of the coolest Chicagoans. For NYE 2003, the Windy City had it all!

Bryan Rodgers
JamBase | Chicago
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[Published on: 1/21/04]

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