Anticipation builds as we wind through the mountains along highway 70 from Denver to Aspen on the way to see arguably the best live band on the circuit today: Umphrey’s McGee. It is somewhat trademark of Umphrey’s to not just play these remote venues, but to make everyone who came all the way out to the middle of nowhere feel glad they came and to make everyone who didn’t wish they did. The Belly Up in the posh ski resort town of Aspen held host to one of these very intimate shows.
Last year around this time Umphrey’s released their labor of love, an album entitled ‘Mantis’. The songs off of this album have gotten a lot of play as the band has tweaked each aspect of the new songs for their live shows. Because of this, many older songs that have stood the test of time with the fans have taken a back seat to give the new ones a place to grow. This night however, far away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world, Umphrey’s broke out those older and lesser played jams, dusted them off, and then treated the capacity crowd of 450 to a groovy, somewhat mellow, but nonetheless incredible show.
The night started appropriately with winter’s theme “In the Kitchen” as the band and the audience began to warm up from the frosty Aspen night that saw the band members mingling with fans across the street at Bad Billy’s Bar. Without hesitation, “Kitchen” grooved into a somewhat mellow funk jam which evolved and picked up speed giving dual guitar master minds Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss a chance to lock in for some back and forth staccato licks before melding together to play them in harmonized unison. Cinninger took the lead belting out feel good riffs over the funky beat before adding a metal aspect to it with some heavy, distorted power chords. The metal jam wound down before racing back into the energetic dissonance of another classic original, “Padgetts Profile.” After ripping through the metal disharmonies of “Padgett’s,” the band members took a moment of break, accepted their ovations and plunged into the opening of “Rocker pt. 2,” the thundering sequel dedicated to the memory of a friend and fan who passed before his time. An up tempo rock jam ensued featuring more guitar majesty by Cinninger until Bayliss again stepped up, perfectly harmonizing his lines note for note before delicately discovering the beginning of “Dear Lord” which was served in a portion just big enough to taste before settling perfectly into the opening of another rare fan favorite “Uncle Wally.”
The band promenaded through the jazzy feel of “Wally” and at the end segued right into the instrumental bliss of “Great American.” This song had two distinct jams beginning with a drum off between percussion past master Andy Farag and human(?) drum machine “Kris Myers” before morphing into a lounge feel via the tonal triads of Cinninger’s guitar. The lounge jam swelled into a funkier, more upbeat feel with hints of the main line of “Great American” as it teased back into a moment of the tune before setting sail again, this time led by Bayliss with some grungy, punk power chords which Myers and Stasik quickly picked up on creating a steady base for the rest of the band to build upon until returning back to the end of “Great American.” Bayliss thanked everyone for coming out, getting in and jamming down out in the middle of nowhere before releasing Cinninger on the funk guitar intro of “Syncopated Strangers,” the second half of which he lit a fire under with feel good fill after impeccably placed fill. The end of “Strangers” carried with it the end of “In the Kitchen,” taking the set full circle as it came to a close.
Returning to the stage, Cinninger took the mic momentarily, dedicating the second set to those in attendance as Myers counted off and the band swarmed into the syncopation of “Professor Wormbog.” A bluesy jam led by Cinninger built up from it’s humble beginnings before rocking back into “Wormbog.” Next, the band paid homage to one of their influences and rock predecessors in “Runnin’ with the Devil” which features the vocal stylings of former choir boy Myers as the one and only David Lee Roth. “Thin Air” followed, resurrecting the mellow vibe of the first set. Expanding upon the idea, the band slinked into a groovy dub jam with some jazzy lines by keyboard campeón Joel Cummins before Myers took the next step, progressing the jam into a decidedly Latin feel where Bayliss absolutely took off exploring the sonic space with his trusty Paul Reed Smith axe. Deciding it was time to make another appearance, Cinninger stepped in to initiate a funky face off with Bayliss until a little look between the members returned “Thin Air” to it’s “Hall of the Mountain King” based conclusion.
“Phil’s Farm” came next on the agenda, adding a healthy dose of country twang to the mix before flowing into a steady, creeping jam in the vein of Conspirator which drove back to the farm for a big solo finish on guitar by Bayliss. The proggy “#5” followed after a quick breath which gave way to “Mail Package” featuring teases of the American Gladiators theme song. Nearing the end of the set, the band broke out another big number, “The Haunt” which, after a few moments of jam segued into the only ‘Mantis’ track of the night, the dance party of “Cemetery Walk II.” Bayliss started the song without a guitar, facing Joel Cummins in his keyboard world and playing a synthesizer before being prompted by Cinninger to wield his axe and finish out the song and the set in an audible sound scape led by the wah of Stasik’s enveloped bass lines.
A final number “Sociable Jimmy” was stapled to the end of this early era Umphrey’s show which finally reached it’s conclusion in Bob Seger’s “Hollywood Nights” spearheaded by Cinninger on the vocals. This was not the dance party or the rock show that are so widely appealing to the mass audience that Umphrey’s sees on an average Friday night. And as we wind back through the mountains, this time in the dark of night, I look back over the set list and realize this show was special, showcasing a side of the band that many listeners and casual fans won’t be lucky enough to know or appreciate.