It’s a Sunday night on Denver’s hip Colfax Avenue, but it still feels more like a Saturday because it’s the second night of a New Year’s Eve run for most of the bands that are playing around town. There are a lot of them, due to how the thriving local music scene can support multiple acts with many quality venues and more than enough fans to fill them all.
The Denver Fillmore lies at the heart of the scene. There are a plethora of bars, restaurants and shops up and down the avenue, making this one of the most happening places to see a show in the nation. There’s a unique indie flavor to many of these establishments, such as the Cheeky Monk Belgian Beer Cafe up the street. The stylish pub offers a vast collection of some of the finest beers in the world, making for an excellent pre-game spot.
But fans don’t want to linger too long because New Orleans-based Dumpstaphunk is warming up the stage for progressive jam rockers Umphrey’s McGee. Dumpstaphunk always brings a funky party vibe, as Big Easy bands are all but preordained to do. Keyboardist Ivan Neville leads the band through an energetic set, highlighted by “Dancing to the Truth”, the groovy single from the band’s strong new album Dirty Word. The double bass lines from Tony Hall and Nick Daniels pack a punch, while guitarist Ian Neville riffs some melty wah-wah over the tight beat from drummer Nikki Glaspie. The band’s rootsy sound is far different from that of the headliners, but Dumpstaphunk knows how to get the party started.
Umphrey’s McGee usually does its New Year’s Eve runs in the Midwest, the band’s native region. But as Denver continues to surge to the top of the list of the nation’s best music scenes, it seems that more and more bands want to get in on the action. The Umphreaks (as the band’s hardcore fans are known) are out in force, with some having no doubt traveled many a mile to get here. The band’s improvisational skills make every show unique, yet UM is hardly a typical jamband. The group’s instrumental prowess and prog-rock chops give it an edgy and often harder rocking sound than many jam rock groups that focus more on groove. UM can groove too, but the band is just as likely to melt faces with searing guitar pyrotechnics from the tandem of Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss. UM is also capable of covering almost any song at any time, so fans never know what might pop up next.
Tonight’s show promises to have something extra, with virtuoso sax player Joshua Redman billed to join the band, but the first set is just UM setting the stage. “Plunger” is an early highlight, inciting the crowd into call and response “woos” in the hard rocking tune. The song features a gorgeous jazzy interlude on which keyboardist Joel Cummins takes the lead. There are few bands that can blend styles like this in a set, much less in the same song.
“No Comment” showcases the band’s funkier side, with a catchy riff over some danceable piano and soulful vocals from Bayliss. He later references the band’s first gig at the venue opening for Leftover Salmon, where it only got 45 minutes to perform, and thanks the fans tonight for giving them more minutes. The set closes with “Dump City”, a high energy rocker that receives a boost from Ivan Neville, who comes out to jam on piano with Cummins. Drummer Kris Meyers and percussionist Andy Farag are dialed in here on the complex composition, while bassist Ryan Stasik holds the challenging groove together.
“Thank you all very much, we’re Joel Cummins and the Frequent Fliers. We’re gonna take a very short break and we’ll see you in a few minutes”, Cummins says satirically at the end.
The 3,000-capacity venue is jammed now and it makes for a tricky situation. Many fans tend to gather around the soundboard, but it’s so crowded that there’s little elbow room, not much of a view and way too many chatty cathies more into socializing than listening during the set. Fans who are anxious to see what the band will do with Redman on hand have little choice but to make their way closer to the front.
The band doesn’t give Redman anytime to warm up, opening the second set with “Der Bluten Kat”, a typically progressive and rocking composition. But Redman jumps in like he’s a member of the band and the ensemble is off to the races. Redman’s sax adds a jazzy flavor, but one that fits right in with the band’s progressive sound. “Amble On” features more tight playing all around, although it is perhaps a bit lacking in the groove department. This isn’t quite the dance party that many of UM’s peers are known for, yet few of the band’s peers dabble in such a level of prog rock composition. Many fans are simply enraptured watching Redman trade licks with Cinninger and Bayliss, a dazzling showcase of 21st century music fusion.
“Wife Soup” has Redman’s sax out front on another guitar-driven tune before a spacey sequence in the middle that sounds influenced by some of the Grateful Dead’s jazzier “Dark Star” jams. But as usual, UM is taking the concept to a proggier place. “Ringo” gets into a funkier space, with a toe-tapping yet laid-back groove that makes for a sublime effect. Redman delivers some of his best stuff here on one of the night’s higher level jams. The surprise bustout comes in the form of Weather Report’s “River People” to close the set. It seems hardly anyone recognizes the tune, yet the tight jam is another winner.
An encore of UM fan favorite “1348” hits all the right buttons, giving Redman a chance to dazzle one more time. The jam recalls Branford Marsalis making magic with the Grateful Dead in a handful of collaborations in the early ‘90s, but it’s all the more impressive with the advanced level of composition here. Umphrey’s McGee are quite simply occupying a musical space where few dare to tread, and Redman is an intrepid traveler of the sonic landscape.
Many fans just walk across the street afterwards for post-show libations at Sancho’s Broken Arrow, quite possibly the ultimate Deadhead divebar. Every bit of wall space is decorated with framed concert posters and there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else, not even in San Francisco. Ninety percent of the posters come from the Grateful Dead and related side projects. The rest come from the top next-gen jambands such as Phish, Widespread Panic, the String Cheese Incident and quite possibly Umphrey’s McGee. Such placement indicates a truly honorable status in the Denver music scene.