Umphrey's McGee | Red Rocks | Review | Pics

Words by: Bryan Tobian | Images by: Chad Smith

Umphrey’s McGee:: 07.03.11 :: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: Morrison, CO

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Umphrey’s McGee @ Red Rocks by Chad Smith
The sweltering July 3rd afternoon wanes and behind a dramatic veil of fluffy gray clouds the muted sun gleams copper on heaps of titanic boulder formations as a line of cars stretches down Colorado State Highway 40 in both directions. For many in the procession, this is a pilgrimage to a musical mecca - hallowed grounds, a one-of-a-kind wonder of the world that has been among the most charming chapters in live music lore since its 1906 inauguration. Named after the burnt cinnamon color of its swirling, eroded, desert-dry sediment, Red Rocks Amphitheatre is an undisputed American treasure and may represent the be-all-end-all of outdoor music venues. Inside, it hosts perfectly sloped seating for excellent views of the stage, enclosed by its reverberant, canyoning walls that make for a most acoustically vibrant tone palette and a vividly psychedelic canvas for mind blowing light shows. The backdrop view behind the stage - the twinkling Denver skyline - and the perfect geographic location for pristine summertime weather make it the epitome of Rocky Mountain majesty. As with its geological cousin Stonehenge, the amphitheatre itself is a testament to the ingenuity of the people whose vision transformed it from a piece of Mother Earth into a musical shrine. Just as historic as the venue is the all-star cast of musical acts who have graced its stage throughout the years, a who's who of rock & roll starting with The Beatles in 1964. This night, the eve of our nation's 235th birthday, would be the second headlining visit for a band that has upheld the integrity of live music in a most awe- inspiring way, a band qualified and talented enough to milk every musical nuance and visual subtlety of the Rocks.

Brendan Bayliss & Joel Cummins by Chad Smith
Umphrey's McGee lead singer-guitarist Brendan Bayliss jokes that they have the worst name in the music business, but their work ethic, technical prowess, synchronicity and encyclopedic mastery of popular music has made them one of the tightest, most versatile bands on tour today. A year before, to the day, these Chicago-based, progressive (jam) rock champions gave a most stellar headlining debut alongside the bursts and glare of Denver fireworks. This year, however, the band's polished fury was accompanied by Jefferson Waful's seizure-inducing light-storm was a ballistic, frenzied force, overpowering the otherwise unnoticeable pyrotechnics that accompany the Independence Day celebration.

That has been the trend of 2011 for Umphrey's McGee: taking every technical aspect of sound, visual spectacle and flow to the extreme. Their concept is an emulsion of silken sheen and volcanic eruptions, effortlessly weaving in and out of mountainous peaks, swerving through crawling valleys and gloriously soaring ether. Like the early pioneers, there are no limits to the musical trails they are willing to traverse Like America, they are a melting pot, giving fair play to everything from metal to jazz, techno, funk, country, Latin grooves and old fashioned rock and roll. Like our society, the lines between seemingly different styles and backgrounds are oftentimes blurred to obscurity.

At the twilight's last gleaming, as the expanses of weekend warriors and Umphrey's faithful are stretched solidly up the channel created by the namesake colossal red rocks, anticipation has reached terminal velocity. The stage lights dim and the whir of the audience turns into a feverish roar. A pre-recorded piano progression starts and the band triUMPHantly saunters onto the stage as the roar becomes deafening. Within a moment, Kris Myers' thumping toms and Ryan Stasik's low rumble join the recording, slowly building tension into a metal-infused release led by Jake Cinninger's snarling guitar, and the second annual Red Rocks and Blue celebration blasts off in high gear.

Umphrey’s McGee by Chad Smith
The jam develops patiently into a bellowing peak featuring a host of menacing Cinninger licks before dropping on a dime into one of their most technically challenging songs, “Bridgeless.” The progressive, note-heavy tune eventually evolves into a fast-paced, blues-rock dance party as the audience undulates in flowing waves of musical ecstasy. Again, the jam is elevated to turbulent levels and, leaving off the tail end of “Bridgeless,” the Umphrey's train screeches to a slow, dropping into the funky fusion of “Professor Wormbog.” The song explores the depths of funky syncopation and, giving a little challenge to music trivia geeks, even teases a Boyz II Men vocal riff in harmonious specter.

After “Wormbog's” conclusion, the ever calm and candid team captain Brendan Bayliss takes a moment to give thanks to the expansive crowd that has finally gathered to full strength as the final stragglers trickle in. Over the months prior to this event, Umphrey's has been working hard in the studio to create fresh, new material as they continue their evolution and growth as a band. And, always excited to show off their wares, they begin the slinky intro to “Puppet Strings” follows, giving a taste of what has been happening in the studio. The tune starts with a graceful intro of cymbals and guitar harmonics that gives way to Stasik’s creeping slap-bass riff that the full band builds on to create a platform for chilling Bayliss lyrics. The chorus and the end are pure rock ‘n' roll a la mid-nineties crunch with laser-sharp Cinninger solos on top. After absolutely slaying one of their newest tunes, the six-cylindered musical missile launches ferociously into one of their most intense sonic adventures, “Hurt Bird Bath.” The “Bath” wanders far into a quirky, break-neck reggae jam, returns seething into its dark, rampaging theme, and then again explores the far reaches of improvisation. After squeezing every last tone out to near silence, they aggressively fire back into its climaxing finalé with Waful's light tornado strobing every mind into oblivion.

Umphrey’s McGee by Chad Smith
To follow, the creeping, dirty R&B funk of “Deeper” gives the audience a moment to breathe as the dance party changes gears from unwavering shred into sexy hip ripples. The reprieve is short lived though, and once again, without warning, the band propels into a driving “Plunger.” The traditional jam in the middle of “Plunger” is replaced with another new ditty, “No Comment.” It is smooth, clean and poppy accompanying relatively melodic Bayliss vocals. Once again, not a breath was taken as they faded out of the new jam back into the Latin-esque groove of “Plunger,” driving fiercely through its syncopated ending to close the set.

If the first set was a showcase of Waful's ability to blind and stun the audience against the backdrop of an intense musical assault, the second set would be a seminar in musical and visual expressiveness. The band once again walks out proudly to a pre-recorded jam called “Nipple Trix,” which they immediately join, taking it to a towering peak before settling abruptly into one of the oldest songs in their catalogue, “Divisions.” The 1998 born track features some of Bayliss’ most challenging vocal work as he belts out cosmically operatic line after line, sending shivers through spines throughout the great, open space. In the midst of this, drummer boy colossus Kris Myers and percussion prodigy Andy Farag hold a quaking drum jam before sending the song hurling back into its zealous completion. “Forks,” another new 2011 creation, starts with swirling synthesizer that releases into Zeppeline-sque guitar stabs and has the feeling of some of their early 90s rock & roll roots. It simmers to a close and the band takes a moment to breathe before inviting some horn toting friends from the opening band, Easy Star All-Stars , to the stage.

Umphrey’s McGee by Chad Smith
Without much explanation or hesitation, the extended Umphrey's team took off into Peter Gabriel's classic “Sledgehammer,” giving rock and roll justice to the tune and driving fans into a rowdy frenzy. The 2009 track “Red Tape” from the Mantis album came next. With it, Waful opens his bag of tricks, presenting a 15 minute visual display with the jam, painting the rocks with Technicolor precision. He skillfully matches hues and shapes together in spinning and flurrying matrimony for a dazzling, shape-shifting, psychedelic masterpiece. At points, the walls of the illuminated cave seemed alive, like a pulsating brain, perhaps the mastermind of the whole operation.

Another new release follows with the unapologetically jazzy instrumental “Day Nurse,” where Waful's light eruption continues to tie-dye the whirling textures of the walls. To end the set with gusto, Bayliss steps up to the plate again with a masterful rendition of “Hajimemashite.” And, as he belts out the final words, holding out with all his migh for those last few seconds of beautiful tone, Cinninger steps in with his nightingale voiced guitar, driving the song home with a burst of soul piercing notes and the Umphrey's mile high flight glides ever so gently back onto the runway.

Finally, as Umphrey's McGee returns to the Red Rocks stage for the last time of the night, Bayliss takes the opportunity to fulfill one of his rock and roll fantasies, stepping into the shoes of the legendary Eddie Vedder. With the Earth quivering “Release,” the crowd joins in as his choir, nearly 10,000 strong, many in tears, as our voices become one. Once again, no time was given for anyone to take in what had just happened before the band slyly returned to the feverish end of “Bridgeless” with Waful breaking out every firework left in his little book of magic, flooring the audience with strobing wizardry.

Umphrey’s McGee Backstage by Chad Smith
As we file down the side of one of the world's most beautiful places to be a part of the live music experience, there is nothing left to do but smile and appreciate the fact that we are here, right now. Many of us will be up until the dawn's early light, basking, glowing, and feeling the freedom that music brings to our souls. And, despite any of our given political differences, we all know that there are very few places in the world where the freedom from oppression and poverty could ever give us something as special as a night on the Rocks with Umphrey's McGee.

There may be no better place in the world than Red Rocks Amphitheatre to see Umphrey's McGee. There has certainly never been a better time for Umphrey’s McGee as they continue to set blazes in every venue they enter this year. In their 13th year together, they have found a way to keep their life on the road, their music, their fellowship as a band, their devotion to the fans and their love for the job as fresh as it's ever been. With new music constantly being released and new chances being taken all the time, Umphrey's McGee is at the top of their craft. They are riding high, perhaps even living out their glory days in front of us. To anyone who witnessed the Red Rocks performance, there is no question that the work they have been putting into this for so long is paying off dividends for both the band and their fans. The next ventures include a new album to be released in September and their first New Year’s run outside of Chicago. With the roll that they are on today, there is no doubt that both of these will lead them to even further deserved success.

Red Rocks Setlist
Set One: Jazz Odyssey > Bridgeless > Professor Wormbog, Puppet Strings, Hurt Bird Bath, Deeper > Plunger > No Comment > Plunger

Set Two: Nipple Trix > Divisions, Forks, Sledgehammer^, Red Tape > "Jimmy Stewart" > Red Tape, Day Nurse, Hajimemashite

Encore: Release > Bridgeless

^ = with Curtis Fowlkes and Jennifer Hill (Easy Star All-Stars) on horns

Umphrey’s McGee Tour Dates :: Umphrey’s McGee News

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[Published on: 7/11/11]

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