Umphrey's McGee 12.31.15

Fillmore Auditorium
Denver, CO

Words By Coleman Schwartz
Photos By Ben Wilson (Eye And Eye Photography)

There is only one rule when you are seeing Umphrey’s McGee, which is to expect the unexpected. At no time of year is this more important than when you attend their three-set New Year’s Eve show. To ring in 2016, the band delivered one of their best NYE performances to date, loaded with debuts and high energy improvisation. 2015 had been a great year for the band, and they made sure to close it out with an all-out rager in one of their strongest markets.

Devout fans arrived early to the sold-out celebration at the Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium and helped to pack out the dancefloor well before the band took the stage. Although conditions inside of the venue were cramped, the spirit and positivity of 3700 music-lovers gathered in one space was quite impressive to behold. The band took the stage and took hold of the room’s vast energy, getting things going with an epic opening segment of “Bathing Digits” > “Wappy Sprayberry” > “Puppet String” > “Mad Love.”

“Wappy” spurred a massive dance party inside of the venue, and gave lighting designer, Jefferson Waful, his first of many opportunities to showcase his gigantic new light rig. “Puppet” allowed the band to get a bit more serious, both lyrically and instrumentally, with the evenings’ first significant jam. A patient, Ryan Stasik-led effort eventually saw the band segue into the intense newer original, “Mad Love.” The fluid, dual-lead guitar parts helped the song to ascend into the stratosphere as drummer, Kris Myers, held things down with rock-solid double-bass pedal work.

Later in the set, the band brought out Mad Dog and His Filthy Little Secret horn section. Guitarist, Brendan Bayliss, announced that this was the tenth consecutive year that the band had rung in with the trio. The first song they performed was original “Women, Wine and Song.” This country-inspired song was perfectly augmented by the horns and turned out to be one of the better versions of the song I have heard. They finished out the set by debuting a new original, “Speak Up,” with the horn section. Debuting a song with horns during an NYE show says a lot about the band’s confidence in the tune, and after hearing it, I can see why they like it so much. This song clings to Umphrey’s quintessential style while delving into alternative rock influences, such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Bayliss sounded great as he exercised his falsetto to hit the harmony vocals, which reminded me of “Miami Virtue.”

Set Two saw the band open up with groovy original “Bad Friday,” a fitting choice as the song was debuted at the Fillmore on 12.31.13 (the last NYE show in Denver). The horns then returned for jammed-out takes on three originals of varying ages. The eldest, “Wife Soup” featured a slow, patient build to the chorus that had audience members singing, “You wouldn’t even believe your eyes, it’s all your circus now,” well before the band finally obliged and played the chorus in earnest. “Red Tape,” a prog-rocker from 2009’s Mantis came up next, which was a big surprise to see as the song has long-since been removed from rotation. This song normally features an interesting synthesizer solo from keyboardist, Joel Cummins, but mixing issues made it nearly impossible to hear this part live. The jam section helped to redeem this unfortunate mistake, with Cinninger facing the horn section as they flawlessly doubled his notes, followed by a great solo from Bayliss.

“Make It Right” was performed for only the 8th time ever, after seeing its debut at 2015’s UMBowl event as a “Raw Stewage” track. This means that the song was developed to its current version from improvised live material that was selected by the fans. This was my first time hearing the track live, and I really enjoyed its explosiveness.

After the horns departed the stage, we were treated to a stellar version of “Ringo.” The jam section saw Bayliss, Cinninger and Stasik all tapping simultaneously at its intense peak, before winding down into a stunningly beautiful full band tease of the Beatles “Blackbird.” Although Cinninger ran through several verses of the song’s guitar part, the vocals never materialized to complete the cover. Instead, Cummins pushed to the front of the mix with some spacey tape-delay effects before the band found their way into “Educated Guess.”

The conclusion to the set saw the horns return for takes on jazzy original “Example 1,” as well as the evening’s first cover, “Tempted,” by 1980’s Brit-rockers, Squeeze. Most of the crowd seemed to be familiar with the song and sang along, although it was the first time it had been played by Umphrey’s. The cover was well executed, with Bayliss capably handling the lead vocal part and the horn players executing to perfection.

As the eager crowd waited for the band to make their usual 11:50 pm return for the third set, a fierce debate sparked regarding which song the band might choose to jam into the New Year. I heard everything suggested, from “Miami Virtue” to “Slacker,” but the band surprised us by starting up “Bright Lights, Big City” as they took the stage (with the horns). This song’s lyrics discuss partying all night and getting into trouble in a big city, a remarkably apt description of the occasion at hand. A few minutes before the clock struck midnight, Bayliss pushed the band into an instrumental jam centered on the theme to Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” This took us right into the New Year’s countdown before transitioning to “Auld Lang Syne,” right as the clock struck midnight. As thousands of balloons rained from the ceiling and confetti fell over the crowd, the atmosphere was positively electric. Hugs were exchanged all around with friends new and old, and eventually, balloons had to be popped to allow room to move around freely.

After taking a pause to say "Happy New Year" to their families, the band got back to work. Cinninger began the next tune in half-time, slowly picking out the onomatopoeic main riff to UM mainstay “JaJunk.” As the rest of the band locked in and picked up the tempo, the room filled with jubilant vibrations. The easy groove of this song allowed everyone to get dancing, as each band member smiled brightly. This has always been of my favorite parts of watching Umphrey’s play; despite all of their success you can always see their genuine appreciation on their faces as they rock out.

The “JaJunk” jam made its way into slower original “Hajimemashite,” in what appeared to be an attempt to reign things back in. After Bayliss sang one verse, however, Cinninger began interlacing the riff to the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.” Eventually, this riff was played under the “Haji” vocals, and the “Haji” riff was played under the vocals to “Bittersweet Symphony.” This mashup, called “Bittersweet Haji,” was debuted in St. Louis, MO during the 2010 Halloween show. This show was only its fourth ever performance. Instead of things calming down, the audience went wild for this unexpected treat.

After transitioning back to complete part two of “JaJunk,” the band invited the horns back to the stage. “Push the Pig” was taken to the next level with an extended horn solo section in the middle of its jam. The end of the song seemed briefly uncertain before Cummins ushered the band into “Space Funk Booty.” The expanded instrumentation only added to the supreme dance-ability of this track, and the raging third set only kept building here.

The band paused, and Bayliss told the audience they were about to do a song that they “had always dreamed of playing.” What followed was perhaps the most surprising and genius cover debut I have ever seen from the band, in the form of R. Kelly’s “Ignition.” As Bayliss smoothly handled the vocals, he danced around the stage and made lots of hand gestures. Although his childhood dreams of being a rapper may not have come to fruition, he still seems quite comfortable in the role. The cover was well-rehearsed and an instant crowd favorite, prompting a massive singalong. I hope to see this song in rotation in 2016, it gives the band a great alternative to mix-in with their spot-on cover of Warren G and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate.”

A hard-charging “40’s Theme” closed out the set, complete with “Regulate” teases, which made me feel as if the band was reading my mind. For the encore, the band performed a great version of funky original “Much Obliged.” This song has one of the most infectious funk breakdowns of any Umphrey’s song there is, and I always enjoy having it stuck in my head for several hours after I hear it. This jam wound up with the band predictably concluding “Bridgeless” from earlier in the show, an ending that was so big that nobody could have complained if it wrapped up the show.

It was New Year’s after all, however, and the band had one last bombshell up their sleeves. Percussionist Andy Farag began by shaking his bells rhythmically, inspiring several audience members to shout “Jingle Bells!” As it turns out, they weren’t far off, as the band debuted a cover of Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis.” This was the perfect song to keep the weary crowd engaged for a few more minutes. Laughter echoed throughout the venue as the night ended on a great note.

As someone who has seen the last four consecutive Umphrey’s New Year’s runs, I was really impressed with this performance. I thought this was the most complete show I had seen them play on NYE. The cover debuts were strong and enjoyable, the improvisation was top-notch, the horn section integrated flawlessly, and the energy was easily high enough to get you through a three-set show. They pushed past their already high standard, which is exactly what I have come to expect.

Set One:
Bathing Digits > Wappy Sprayberry > Puppet String > Mad Love, No Diablo, Bridgeless > Puppet String, Women Wine and Song[1], Speak Up[1][2]

Set Two:
Bad Friday, Wife Soup[1], Red Tape[1], Make It Right[1], Ringo[3] > Educated Guess, Example 1, Tempted[1][4]

Set Three: Bright Lights, Big City[1][5] > Auld Lang Syne[1], JaJunk > Bitter Sweet Haji > JaJunk, Push the Pig[1] > Space Funk Booty[1], Ignition[1][6], 40's Theme[7]

Much Obliged > Bridgeless, Christmas In Hollis[1][8]

[1] with Mad Dog and His Filthy Little Secret horns
[2] debut, original
[3] with Blackbird (The Beatles) jam
[4] debut, Squeeze
[5] with Wanna Be Startin’ Something (Michael Jackson) jam
[6] debut, R. Kelly
[7] with Regulate (Warren G & Nate Dogg) jam
[8] debut, Run-D.M.C.

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