Words by: Bryan Tobian | Images by: Brian Spady
Umphrey’s McGee :: 11.26.11 :: Aragon Ballroom :: Chicago, IL
Full photo gallery below review!
Still euphoric from the previous night's blazing wake-up call after a week of Thanksgiving gluttony and sloth, a shallow queue of zealous fans waited patiently in the alley next door to the expansive Aragon Ballroom. Telling jokes and favorite stories of the road, they braved the chill as the rain dumped buckets onto Chicago's North Side. An obvious consensus of the group was that this night's show was going to be something extremely special, perhaps even miraculous. Two hours after the first person showed up, the doors opened and sopping fans shuffled their way into the venue, vying for the best positions in the house. It would turn out to be unquestionably worth every penny, every second and every mile that it took to get there on an otherwise unassuming night in the Windy City.
|Umphrey’s McGee w/ Chicago Mass Choir by Brian Spady|
Nearly three years ago, Umphrey's McGee showed the true glory of their artistic vision with the help of their newly recruited lighting designer Jefferson Waful. The night has become a part of Umphrey's lore. Many fans recount their visit to the magnificent Chicago Auditorium Theatre, where the band capped off a stellar three day performance by inviting the Chicago Mass Choir out after midnight for the first set of 2009; effectively turning the performance into something more akin to a church service than a concert. Some will even swear they saw God appear in what is still one of Waful's most magnificent rigs to date. Three years later, breaking a decade long tradition, the band will be playing New Year's in St. Louis rather than Chicago as they take their biggest show of the year on an indefinite tour of locales beyond their frigid home turf. In an attempt to reconcile, they decided it was high time to give a shot at recreating the magic of that glorious 2008 night in a venue they've grown extremely comfortable playing over their many blustery New Year's residencies.
Twenty-eleven has been a crucially successful year for the band as they continue to elevate the level of their game with bigger, more spectacular live performances in some of the most notable venues in the country. The release of their newest album, Death by Stereo, has proven to be their most crisp, audience friendly, studio production to date. And, of course, their level of fan engagement has remained one of their calling cards with more fan-driven StewArt events, another spectacular UMBowl (the ultimate StewArt event), a remix contest featuring songs from the new album, the now annual Mayan Holidaze vacation shows in Cancun, and their newly announced sUMmerschool which will allow up to 150 devoted fans to participate in 3 days of master classes for musical instruments, lights, sound, business etc., taught by none other than Team Umphrey's.
|Umphrey’s McGee Fans by Brian Spady|
The crowd in the massive Aragon built much quicker for the second night's show as Cornmeal ripped a hole in the bluegrass cosmos, led in part by the Midwest grown, ever virtuosic, fiddling siren Allie Krall. A packed house danced wildly with delight, waiting excitedly for the main event to begin. It has been somewhat rare in recent years that Umphrey's even gets to come home and treat their roots to all of the music that they deserve. Many may not realize it, but the touring New Year's run gives them more contractual freedom to play their city by the lake more often. Hopefully it will lead to more special shows hosted in the city's warmer months and give Umphrey's the ability to explore some of the other epic venues in the Midway City. This chilly, but not frigid or hellishly cold evening represented the beginning of the experiment.
The room was thick with fog and anticipation as the six Horsemen of the UMpocalpyse filed onto the indigo-washed stage with their pre-recorded track “Nipple Trix” playing in the background. Rhythm technicians Kris Myers and Andy Farag joined the recording first with thumping kicks and sizzling cymbals. Brendan Bayliss and the newly hitched Ryan Fabec Stasik hit a heavily distorted rock chord over twinkling Joel Cummins keys to set a majestic, uplifting base. With all engines go, Jake Cinninger stomped on the accelerator, soaring quickly into the lead guitar heavens as the Umphrey's voyager rocket lifted off towards the outer reach of the rock and roll galaxy. Their manically progressive stinger “Bridgeless”, 80's pop party “Bright Lights” and frantic rock anthem “1348” all contained massive jams with the band firing early on all cylinders, reaching massive, quaking peaks in each exploration before moving onto the next tune. Somewhere in the “1348” jam, Allie Krall returned to the stage to help finish out a shuffling country-rock improv that left the audience roaring as the band flowed into the balladic “Hajimemashite”. It is an old track made new on Death By Stereo that features a heart wrenching vocal performance by Bayliss. As his wails resonated over the frantic audience, Jake and Allie tore into a spine-tingling dual over thundering drums from Myers and Farag. The stage sparkled wildly as Waful followed them every step of the way to the glorious climax. “40's” theme kept the energy alive as Bayliss seized his chance to open up on his nightingale-voiced PRS guitar before passing the lead to Cinninger to kick it into overdrive as the first set stormed to a close.
|Umphrey’s McGee w/ Allie Krall by Brian Spady|
The beginning of the second set showed the band continuing the fiery energy they exuded in the first set with monstrous versions of two more Death By Stereo tunes, “Miami Virtue” and “Booth Love”. “Virtue” contained a manic jam that saw Waful spraying the room with his colossal MacIII light cannons before the Umphrey's machine changed directions into the slinky “Booth Love.” The night was shaping up to be spectacular even with the noted absence of the evening's honored guests in the Chicago Mass Choir. However, as people began to wonder when those festivities would begin, Cummins welcomed the group's long awaited return to the stage. Cinninger noodled around on his blue diamond hued G&L Telecaster before playing the opening chords of “Bullhead City” to the surprise and excitement of the audience. The twangy chantey started softly as Cinniger and Bayliss sent charming lyrics back and forth with the help of the choir's lead alto. As the full choir joined the chorus, hairs raised, goosebumps formed and tears began to seep out of awe-stricken eyes. With the channels opened and positive energies flowing, the band relit an old candle as they jumped passionately into their mashing of “Amazing Grace” and their original instrumental “Glory.” The choir roared as the band transitioned with 25 extra voices ringing out over the vast Aragon Ballroom. With fervor, Cinninger's guitar licks called out blissfully, and Waful matched his intensity as the lights exploded in celestial radiance. The divine sonic energy flowed and the entirety of the sold out auditorium was once again taken to church within the first hour of Sunday morning.
|Umphrey’s McGee by Brian Spady|
With the buzz still riding high, the 70's era, jazz-funk jammer “Day Nurse” brought the crowd back to Earth, ending with a spooky tease of Pink Floyd's “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” while the stage glinted and glimmered accordingly. “The Floor” followed smoothly from the fake-out as Bayliss stepped up to the plate to sing the dark, emotive vocals which echoed eerily through the cavernous Aragon. A short “Much Obliged” flowed into the second half of “Bridgeless”, bringing the show back around full circle with the eruption of its rampaging conclusion. Barely a soul in the ecstatic audience left the floor during the break as “We want the Umph!” chants broke out, calling back the brightest stars of this Chicago night for one more solid performance before basking in the afterglow of this mystical experience.
|Umphrey’s McGee w/ Chicago Mass Choir by Brian Spady|
The chants were clearly heard as the band retook the stage to the bellows of their enchanted congregation. While many had been waiting three years for the return of the choir, the Umphrey's troupe is well aware that there are still many creative roads uncrossed. Even though the band does everything they can to make every night special, it is the ones where they go out on a limb, take chances and explore something new and exciting to the musicians themselves that make for the most memorable shows. With their finger always on the pulse of their fan base, they reminded us that they are working on it and that it will come “All In Time.” The wailing guitar twosome of Bayliss and Cinninger shredded through the finale of the song with equal parts force and grace. Their instruments sang out like the cries of cherubs as they locked into the blistering conclusion. Waful opened the floodgates seeming to have a set of lights that followed each member as the strobing mayhem flared into its grandiose, classical, finale inspired by Spinal Tap's use of Luigi Boccherini's 'Minuet from String Quintet in E major, G.275'.
Again, answering the unspoken calls, the band invited the choir back to the stage to close out the night. As they rang out the opening, operatic lines of The Rolling Stones' historic rock staple “You Can't Always Get What You Want,” for a moment nobody remembered that outside these walls there was still turmoil in this world. Instead, on this special night, four thousand of us were united into a single heartbeat as we sang, danced and rejoiced together through the power of music. We can't always get what we want but Umphrey's McGee has shown their fans time and time again through the years that, love, humility and ambition will undoubtedly get us what we need.
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