“Happy birthday America!” exclaims Brendan Bayliss, lead singer and co-lead guitarist of all-American proggy tonk boys Umphrey’s McGee after a captivating, full band a cappella rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at the Denver (area) Gothic Theatre on Independence Day 2010. Yes, the fledgling 13 colony British territory of yore has certainly come a long way in the last two and a third centuries and, even though we all took the liberty to have our celebrations on Saturday the 3rd at Red Rocks, the hair raising feeling of that emotional tune was untarnished. The Gothic sweatbox/sardine can was packed to the brim with music lovers and of course, the usual suspect die-hard fans that make up our traveling Umphamily. Hugs and rock hands flew in appropriate communal shock of the previous night’s spectacle which, I had a feeling would completely overshadow the evening’s show. Of course, it’s pretty unreasonable to believe that Umphrey’s would let something like that happen; especially in such an intimate place overflowing with positive energy.
Instead, Umphrey’s lit a theatrical blaze within the small theatre that could probably have been felt for miles. After the National Anthem, the band manned their instruments to start letting the real fireworks fly. As I had quietly predicted, the funky summer anthem ‘Ringo’ opened the show as six-string shredder Jake Cinninger sang about our “...midsummer’s trip on the 4th of July.” ‘Ringo’ dialed into a nasty funk jam before returning to it’s ferocious hard rock finish. Next, piano master Joel Cummins led the group into the fanciful ivory tickler, ‘Kimball’, named after the type of piano the tune was written on. The newer, quite progressive ‘Conduit’ followed showcasing the band’s direction over the past year. The end of ‘Conduit’ gave meter monster, drummer extraordinaire Kris Myers the spotlight as he laid down a slow, dirty funk which classic ass shaker ‘Space Funk Booty’ rolled over the top of. It eventually settled into the poppy reggae piece ‘FF’ where low end thumper Ryan Stasik laid down a deep dub bass line on his Lakeland and, before long, the band was off and running into improvisation land. The ‘Much Obliged’ that followed was one of three tunes cut from the previous night’s set list; it was a welcome addition to the evening’s show. Finally, ‘Words’ struck me at first as a peculiar choice for a set closer but, as the song drew to it’s peaking Cinninger finale, we were completely in it.
It was a cluster fu... um... err... well, it was busy at set break. The masses poured towards the doors to get a breath of fresh air, or less fresh smoke as I made my way to the prime time spot, directly in front of sound caresser Kevin Browning’s soundboard. The kids poured back in and the place was bursting with the kind of energy that would prompt the band to open the second set with Lionel Richie’s ‘All Night Long’, fueling the party surrounding me. A screaming ‘40’s Theme’ followed with a Bayliss solo so incredible, I had to pinch myself to make sure it wasn’t all just a dream. Smiles adorned the faces of the whole band; it was turning out to be a beautiful night. Stasik laid down the punchy bass line to one of their newest tunes, the slinking “Linear”. It is a special tune, written over the course of ten shows with the pre-determined decision to keep the song as it was after the tenth show. It led charmingly into the barn burner known as ‘Phil’s Farm’. The country funk of the tune slowed to a near halt as the band teased “A Love Supreme” with small hints of the Jake-eriffic ‘Glory’ that was about to light up the building. Cinninger’s lightning fingers viciously belted out the truly epic masterpiece before the band rumbled back into the (errrm....) Philthy twang of the ‘Farm’.
At this point I was looking at my watch, wondering when my request of a month earlier was going to be played. I decided to tell everyone during this break in the music that I had made a request for a song that I’d been chasing for the entire year (15 shows) and that I was curious if it was going to be played. In that moment, and truly to my own surprise, they broke into a no huddle version of my old favorite (and another cut from the Red Rocks set list) ‘Hurt Bird Bath’. The raging dance party that ensued can only be described as historical and even today as I write this, that twelve minutes of bliss is still holding property in my mind. At the end, Stasik gave the crowd a beautiful solo version of ‘America the Beautiful' on his bass guitar before flowing into the opening riff of the soulful ‘August’. Again, another Bayliss solo tore the roof off the place before percussionist Andy Farag took center stage to give the audience a sexy rendition of The Honorable Frank Zappa’s ‘Dirty Love’ to end the set in style and truly giving meaning to the hulking sign in the balcony reading “Farag for President.” For what it’s worth, I’d probably vote for him (as long as Jake wasn’t running too).
The band returned shortly to the clamor of the excited audience and soon were back in action with the 80’s-esque ‘Bright Lights’. The synthy ‘Bright Lights’ gave way to the Marshall Tucker classic ‘Can’t You See’. Again, the gorgeous tune had me holding back tears as the audience sang along fervently. As I listen to it now, the goose bumps return in full force and I’ve put my shades on to hide any possible residual flow that Cinninger’s soulful croons and guitar licks might pull out.
In all, this was perhaps the best Independence Day weekend I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t want to spend it with anyone more than Umphrey’s McGee and my community of Umphreaks that I live with, talk to every day or see many times each year. This music has truly been a blessing in my life; I will never forget these beautiful experiences that it has given me. If he’s out there, God Bless America, and may he even further bless Umphrey’s McGee and their heavenly music.