The Aragon Ballroom in Chicago was a storm of rock and roll energy on the second to last day of 2009 as hometown heroes Umphrey’s McGee laid musical carnage on a few thousand lucky ears. This New Year’s run marks the 12th anniversary of the momentous three days of fury that is to Umphrey’s fans the Super Bowl of this band’s incredible musical season. With over 100 shows a year since 1999 (and some years closer to 150), these guys have proven time and time again that indeed “we have yet to really see their best” as the process of honing their craft has brought them to pinnacle after pinnacle, only to rise up and seek beyond all expectations and stretch their repertoire of musical prowess as far as it can go.
These intense supermen of rock and roll are really a bunch of Clark Kents who met in the modest Indiana town of South Bend at the not so modest Notre Dame University. At the time most of them were studying music and have all had extensive musical training. The original line-up included the crafty lyrical and musical flair of guitarist and lead singer Brendan Bayliss, the ear tickling piano mastery of Joel Cummins, Ryan “Pony” Stasik’s tight and funky low end thumps and rumbles, the detail and precision of Andy Farag’s percussion and former drummer and break beat superstar Mike Mirro. Within a couple of years of party and bar scene success the addition of Jake Cinninger a metal, rock and country guitar whiz kid and one of Michigan’s humble sons joined the young crew, adding soulful melodic brilliance and creating the dual guitar adventure that is now definitive of the Umphrey’s sound. On New Year’s Eve 2002 Mike Mirro played his last notes as Umphrey’s drummer in order to pursue another dream and was seamlessly replaced by an up and coming Chicago jazz jammer turned progressive rock robot, Kris Myers. With this finalized line up, Umphrey’s has grown from playing smoky midwest bars to playing every major festival in the U.S. during the summer and hitting the main theaters and auditoriums in every U.S.. market. As they emerge night after night from their backstage phone booth, equipped with their metaphorical super hero capes and literal musical super powers, they prove beyond any shadow of a doubt why they are the tightest, most exciting show on the musical circuit.
On this December 30th night they kicked the ceremonies off with an exciting rendition of the smooth 90’s rap-esque “Push the Pig” complete with a synthesizer a la Dr. Dre. The song builds in intensity as it follows variations of the groovy theme but on this night segued into a substantial jam that breathed fluidly off of Stasik’s thick bass line. Without even a moments notice they dropped into the epic dual guitar saga “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” which lives up to it’s title as a rock and roll take on a song whose roots can only be defined as classical. The song had a small jam that was more of an introduction to the driving, energetic finale. To the cheers of the amazed crowd, they answered with “Got Your Milk (Right Here)” a rock tale of the less than glorious side of show biz as the audience joined in to add their own vocal harmonies to the mix. Without breaking the boys, using their extensive language of hand and body signals, and of course their impeccable ears, crafted another jam that rose and fell in intensity until finding itself in the opening notes of “2x2.” Another improvisational journey was formed in between the first section, an emotional tale of hard work and struggle, and the impressive instrumental second section.
The next selection was an example of their ability to cover songs to perfection as guitar champion Jake Cinninger joined Andy Farag in his percussion world to ring in the fitting Lionel Richie classic “All Night Long” to the warm response of the crowd who played sing along as they danced to the infectious pop beat. Afterwards, Cinninger returned to his throne to take on the nearly impossible to catch variation of Beatles’ hit “Norwegian Wood” in their own progressive rendition called “Resolution.” Long time friend, trumpet player and leader of Mad Dog’s Dirty Little Secret who has been Umphrey’s NYE horn section for a number of years, Mike “Mad Dog” Mavridoglou joined the stage to lead the band in a Simon Says style exercise where his gestures conduct the music as he took the band for a ride up and down their musical capabilities, building to a massive peak as he danced wildly around the stage before his final jump landed in the end of the set.
After a short set break, the boys returned to the roar of an excited audience. Dance-rock party “Wappy Sprayberry” shot off like a rocket before making a u-turn at the first chorus into “Spires” from their 2009 release ‘Mantis’. Cutting off the spaced out second half of “Spires,” they segued into “Hangover” which was almost word for word the story of the day for everyone at my own base camp. Saxophone legend Jeff Coffin (now of Dave Matthews Band fame) took his customary place on stage as with a near replica of the previous year’s performance of another Mantis track “Made to Measure” before doing something completely new as they played another Beatles hit “Lady Madonna” and, as with any good play in any Super Bowl... the crowd goes wild! The nearly reggae introduction of “Higgins” followed before releasing it’s demons in the second half of the song and blew the roof off the building as the band cheekily jammed on Rolling Stones’ masterpiece “Start Me Up” before dropping back into “Wappy Sprayberry” to complete a most delicious musical sandwich. Without a breath they dropped into 80’s style party song “Bright Lights” as lighting guru Jefferson Waful, making his second New Year run appearance, gave the crowd a taste of what magic is to come for the main event.
Finally, after a very short leave, Umphrey’s McGee returned to the stage to drive home one of the first songs that got it all started so many moons ago, “All In Time.” The final nail was hammered into the coffin with the song’s enormous classical finish of Luigi Boccherini’s ‘Minuet from String Quintet in E major, G.275’, a nod at Rockumentary legends Spinal Tap, as the Umphrey’s train pulled into the station for the night.
Tonight will be Umphrey’s McGee’s fourth New Year’s show at the Aragon and your humble narrator’s 50th time witnessing their truly amazing rock and roll spectacle. Needless to say, the excitement level is through the roof.