Red Rocks Amphitheater was built for Umphrey’s McGee. Well, more likely, in their 12th year as a band, Umphrey’s has meticulously groomed themselves to the point that the fruits of their labor are best understood within the walls of the naturally acoustic canvas provided at The Rocks. Nestled away in the outlying mountains of Denver, this sonically and visually perfect temple is one of the natural wonders of the music world, boasting cavernous monolith walls that act to make every note, every tone and every effect stand out distinctly: a sound caressers dream. And, these same bare, rust colored walls beg to be bathed in the sweet vibrance of L.E.D. tie dye: a lighting designers dream. On top of it all, with the shimmering Denver skyline in the background, the perfect seating arrangement for incredible sight lines of the stage, fantastic weather and of course the organic beauty of the Rocky Mountains, it is most definitely a live music lover’s dream. The sum of all that must certainly add up to be a band’s fantasy land; especially a band as diligent and painstaking about offering perfection to their fans as is Umphrey’s McGee.
Independence Day is, to different people, a celebration of many different things. Of course, it all stems from America declaring itself as an independent nation. However, over the years, as hard work by so many men and women even half as rigorous and selfless as Ben Franklin and Clara Barton the infrastructure of the country has blossomed and flourished into the dynamic, bustling community that it is. Nothing is perfect, but nothing is set in stone either, there is always room for change, growth and improvement. Similarly, Umphrey’s McGee is not any sort of over night sensation or a product of luck, marketing or chance alone. Over a decade of work has been put into the organization of ‘Umphrey’s McGee’, not to mention the combined decades of dedicated musical practice that the members undertook before even realizing the genesis of the UM dream. If nothing else, Umphrey’s McGee is a realization of an original American dream. They are a small successful merchant class business, built from the ground up, whose most important attribute to success is the dedication of the employees to their customer’s satisfaction.
July 3rd, 2010 was truly a celebration of so many things up in the canyons of Red Rocks. The American sovereign turned 234 years old, Umphrey’s played their first headlining performance at The Rocks and five of my friends and I experienced our first breath taking awe of the most incredible theatre I’ve ever stepped into to witness my favorite band play the most incredible show that I’ve ever been lucky enough to see. For a sea level dweller as myself, hiking up the steep road from the box office made me feel as if I had truly earned the right to step into the grand bowl. Already out of breath and with a swirling belly of beer after a party bus ride to the top I laid for a moment in the stands, taking in the clouds and the scene of the place as my breath returned and before long, made my way to the top to truly understand the magnitude of the place’s splendor. It wouldn’t be long until the main event.
After a thrilling set by Galactic that had the audience grooving in a solid sea of molten movement, Umphrey’s arrived on the scene with the usual impeccable timing. Without hesitation or question, at the behest of the roaring audience, they dropped into their masterpiece ‘Mantis’ and it magically coincided perfectly with the first barrage of Denver’s fireworks. Within the first 30 seconds, it was clear that this show was going to be something very special. At the halfway point of the song, they stopped, took a drink and a breath, played the ‘Preamble’ which usually starts ‘Mantis’ and this time introduced a blistering version of their variation on the theme ‘Mantis Ghetts’. A sizzling ‘Ghetts’ made it’s way back into the Floydish section of ‘Mantis’ which accelerated into screaming overdrive before plummeting into ‘Ocean Billy.’ It was already pretty evident that the band had tailored the set list to showcase lead vocalist and songwriter Brendan Bayliss’s booming voice which was given extra depth by the cave that they were staged in. After a fervid solo by guitar avatar Jake Cinninger, the band settled into a funky jam that built from a slow groove start to a energetic peak before returning to ‘Ocean Billy’ with a music box toned tease of their dance party classic ‘Cemetery Walk II’ by key master Joel Cummins over percussionist Andy Farag’s twinkling chimes. The fireworks continued through the end of ‘Billy’ but the fireworks that lighting designer Jefferson Waful would be launching on the stage throughout the night were another beautiful story altogether as he sported somewhere around 30 of his Mac III LED cannons and dozens of other flashers and strobes.
The swelling intro to ‘Wappy Sprayberry’ came next as it expanded from the catchy lead bass line started by Ryan Stasik, layering piece after piece until it was a fully symphonic force, giving guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss a chance to lock in with Cummins on his Moog synthesizer. There couldn’t have been a single body in the place that was not dancing. Again, Stasik laid down a new riff for the band to expand on for an improvisational ‘Jimmy Stewart’. Cinninger, practicing his freedom, left his side of the stage to join Cummins on the keys for a down tempo layered jam that really tested the limits of the venue’s sound stellar sound. Jake returned to his rig where the boys plowed through a glitchy dance jam that led to the ending of ‘Wappy’ where they dropped into the dirty groove of ‘Booth Love’. Again, the layering of falsetto vocals and flanged guitar over enveloped bass and down tempo drums were all, of course, mixed in perfect harmony, but also each enjoying their own spotlight.
“Booth Love” flowed nicely into the single off of their 2009 release Mantis, ‘1348’. Another funky jam ensued which resolved into a thundering majestic jam that seemed to truly capture the feeling of being in such a monumental place as rhythm master Kris Myers’ quaking double bass rocked the foundation. ‘Hajimemashite’ followed, again showcasing the vocal range of Bayliss and the soulfully ripping guitar of Cinninger. ‘Haji’ settled back into a country tease that led into the fiery outro of 1348. Bayliss dedicated the next tune to “tomorrow” which was the fitting and funky ‘Hangover.’ The end of the syncopated ‘Hangover’ brought the beginning of the raging, orchestral ‘Mulche’s Oddysey’ which features lyrics followed along the same theme of the perils of the morning after. With gusto, the six headed music monster barreled into the revving climax of ‘Mulche’s’, building the intensity as always to crash back into the screaming end. However, instead of actually ending, they reminded us all why they are the best. Without skipping a beat, an LED lightning strike thrashed them straight into the finale of ‘Mantis’ which even the relative veterans had forgotten about. “Had you thought about it?” sings Bayliss heartily. Honestly, I had not, and the surprise made my heart laugh wildly. And, within a moment, the two hour set of near perfect, was over. Unquestionably, Umphrey’s first headlining show at Red Rocks was a complete success. I feel as if I can even call it the best show I have ever seen.
The band returned the stage to a wildly cheering audience and quickly remanned their instruments, dropping into a ‘Triple Wide’ dance party as if to make sure we would definitely all sleep well. After ‘Triple Wide’ the crew returned all of Galactic’s equipment back to the stage to perform a variable mash up of Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough’ and Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Crosstown Traffic’ laying down a massive jam and assuredly, everyone went home happy.
2010 has certainly been a huge year for Umphrey’s McGee. They have toured across this nation and beyond, throwing down incredible shows in city after city, night after night. Dedicated fans and newbies alike have been raving about the tightness of all six members on their musical instruments combined with Waful’s truly spectacular light show and masterfully crafted set lists. Umphrey’s McGee was a band born to play in beautiful places like Red Rocks. They put so much effort into what they do, into making each night special and making the really special nights exactly that. If there was ever a lapse in the idea of ‘standard Umphrey’s greatness’, where it could counted on that, no matter what, it was going to be a great show; that notion is most officially in full force this year. Umphrey’s has played 2010 with a new luster, an excitement at every show; they are always laughing and smiling on stage as well as off and are always hungry to go bigger, different, new; to make people say “Wow!”. They, like their fans are having the time of their lives and to have a job like that no matter who you are is the American dream.