Umphrey’s McGee: 29 December 2009 – Chicago

Umphrey's McGee

I’m squeezed, smushed, sandwiched. Ventilation is seemingly being cut off to my vital organs, albeit for only a short time. My nuts hurt.

Here I am, jammed in the back of my buddy’s Kia Sportage, on the way to see Umphrey’s McGee perform at The Vic Theatre, a venue that surely finds members of the band harkening back to their days of youthful abandon. Umphrey’s headlined the Vic for a string of yearly New Years rendezvous’ from 2001-2004. Maybe the six Midwestern boys, upon remembering their younger days at the darkly lit, yet highly lauded venue, will still be longing for the days when playing music wasn’t such a business.

Me, well, I find myself longing for a cab, those unreliable hunks of yellow American metal that overcharge saps like myself. Yeah, cabs are overpriced, but what the hell. I am downright uncomfortable, and soon, Chicago will only be a memory. I want to cling to a recollection of this fine city, whether or not they charge me, before departing for the behemoth that is NYC.

I’m aurally assaulted as I step onto the icy wonderland that is a Chicago city sidewalk. Neo-hippies assault my ears asking for “a miracle.” I saunter over to the Will Call line, still coming down from the sub-par herbal remedy that is to make the sold-out, Umphreaks only, New Year’s weekend opener show at the Vic all the more blissful.

I could handle being packed in with the fine people that had waited outside in a 45-minute line to see their beloved hometown band—the affect of the bitter Chicago wind still likely to be stinging their beards, baby-faced smiles and crusty eye shadow as Umphrey’s tears into their set. I’m bent over a railing, from a private balcony, leaning downward with a perfect view of the stage, where Chicago’s Umphrey’s McGee will soon prescribe the jammy medicine for which I’m yearning.

The instruments sit alone, well not so much alone. The shimmering weapons of mass destruction are relaxing on a Persian rug, surrounded by a throng of anxious fans comprised of a spotty collection of rowdy youngsters that somehow make a shabbily dressed 25-year old like myself feel respectable. Purple lights, clouded by a smoky haze, swirl around the perfectly time-warped stage. Eerie fuzz blares over the PA as the six-man wrecking crew stroll onstage to a cacophony of epic proportions. Umphrey’s blasts into “Andy’s Last Beer”, a meandering rocker with a Black Sabbath, gruel-for-lunch repeating riff, that segues seamlessly into a teeter-totter of musical genres within the song’s slithery outro.

This opening jam, by no means an Umphrey’s staple, is at the core of what the band is able to do so exquisitely. Yes, Umphrey’s is a jam band. No, they are not Phish. Somewhere between these two realities lies the fact that six supremely talented musicians are able to create soundscapes that can be considered metal, perhaps reggae or even doo-wop. Yet, they are all seemingly classified as jam, in many critics’ and fans’ eyes.

For a band that has adopted Chicago as its pseudo hometown (much of the band hails from Northwest Indiana), it is no surprise when lead guitarist Jake Cinninger, a Doc Brown of the six-string, chisels out the murky intro to “In The Kitchen”, one of the band’s poppier varieties off 2004’s Anchor Drops—containing a killer hook describing “winter afterhours Chicago”.

Apparently, even the most innovative of bands can be cheesified in the lyrical galaxy. I notice bassist Ryan Stasik simultaneously managing to sneak in a killer abdominal workout as he robotically bops his head to some slick bass love, mid-song, before Cinninger steps back in with a guitar climax of Bruckheimer-ish proportions.

The band proceeds to tear through a caffeinated version of “Front Porch” which gives way to “JaJunk”, a two-part flamenco-metal stomper that closes out the first set.

“Man, I dunno what song they just played, but they sure were shreddin’ bro!” says my opera-box mate, a strung out twenty-something straight out of Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, as the first set nears an end. For a brief moment, I am no longer at the Vic. I am back at the Cow Palace in ’74, talking to a fellow Deadhead about Pig Pen’s sly keyboard accentuations on “Playing in the Band”.

Considering Umphrey’s had put out their fifth studio release, Mantis, only a few months earlier, the show, at the outset, surprisingly yields few tracks off the new album. I suspect this is done to appease the fans who were dedicated enough to purchase a three-day pass. Mantis, the title track of their recent LP, and a perfect way for any Umphrey’s newbie to sample lead singer Brendan Bayless’ nasally soaring voice, opens the second set, complete with its slippery slopes that jerk me out of my seat for the first time all evening. Perhaps I just needed a two-hour intensive recovery from the remorseless Chicago weather.

As the “Mantis” jam ensues, drummer Kris Meyers, clad in a trendy Muse graphic tee, rallies the troops with rousing fills, as Cinninger and keyboardist Joel Cummins bring the new song, greased in rapturous time changes, to a climatic apex. Maybe it is just paranoia from bad herb. But, here’s what happens next.

Brendan Bayless looks up into the abyss, and spots me trailing off. He can only chuckle. I had actually met Bayless a few months earlier, chatting with him for a few moments after a highly intimate Brendan and Jake acoustic show at one of Umphrey’s earliest stomping grounds on Chicago’s North Side-Martyrs’. Tonight, Brendan glares up into the foggy lights, catching my space cadet stare, and chuckles, as if to say ‘Wake the fuck up kid!” I smile back. He probably isn’t staring at me. He probably has no recollection of our past encounter and is likely staring at some chick with a voluptuous chest seated in the booth below me. Regardless, I laugh, shake my head clean of the fuzz and prepare to be locked in for the rest of the night. The remainder of the set is pure and gritty rock. Bayless tip-toes his fingers along Cinninger’s fret board during a thrashing version of “Pay The Snucka”, while percussionist Andy Farag hovers from behind, waving his hands above the leather hide of his steel drum, before they come smashing down.

Exhaustion seems to set in for much of the audience, as a multi-hour dance party tends to have that affect on the legs. Umphrey’s knows how to capitalize on these moments, however. They throw their audiences for a “What the fuck are they doing?” moment, just as they are coming down from their rhythmic high. Tonight, Umphrey’s mashes Queen’s “Fat Bottom Girls” effortlessly into Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times”. Impressive. Experimental. Graced with talent. Umphrey’s uses these adjectives, descriptors of their evolving sound, and then decides it’s not good enough, every night. Live shows aren’t simply a promotional tool for the six laid-back musicians from the Midwest. They are mechanisms by which to display their passion for music-plain and simple.

The show ends, as “Nothing Too Fancy”, an Umphrey’s epic, skids to a screeching halt, closing out the horsepower-fueled encore. I ‘m back outside, once again dampened by the thick Chicago snowflakes. I lift my right arm and hail a cab. My eyes roll to the back of my head as my ass hits the leather seat. Comfort sets in, followed immediately by sheer and utter exhaustion from the musical escapade I had just endured. I don’t feel so bad admitting I’m tired this time, though. Somehow I think Bayliss would approve.