Umphrey’s McGee & The London Souls 1.2.16

Fillmore Auditorium
Denver, CO

Words By Coleman Schwartz
Photos By Kevin Hahn (Split Open & Shoot)

On a cold Saturday evening, thousands of fans gathered at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium to witness do-it-all jam aficionados Umphrey’s McGee get down for the final show of four consecutive nights at the venue. Guitarist Brendan Bayliss and drummer Kris Myers were fresh off their ridiculous encore sit-in with the String Cheese Incident the previous night, which helped to rocket expectations into the stratosphere. The band enlisted NYC-rockers The London Souls for support. This was my first time seeing the London Souls, and I was really impressed with the duo.

Their stripped-down instrumentation features Tash Neal (guitar/vocals) and Chris St. Hilaire (drums/vocals). As soon as they took the stage, I was reminded of the White Stripes because of this. As they began to play, this comparison gained legitimacy. Their sound was gigantic for a duo, mainly due to the thick, fuzzy guitar tone from Neal. The vocals were a balanced mix of bluesy and psychedelic, with even contributions from both members. They warmed the crowd perfectly so that Umphrey’s could come out and get right into it.

The band took the stage for their first set and launched straight into dual-lead rocker “Miss Tinkles Overture.” The main riff to this song sounds like the final boss battle of a video game; this choice of opener made it clear that the band was not messing around on the final night of the run. The jam section saw peaks getting bigger just when it seemed impossible, until the song exploded into its epic conclusion.

After a lengthy, intense opening song, the band took a step back with reggae-influenced original “FF.” This song has become relatively rare for the band to perform in recent years, and I was stoked to see it for my first time in my 53rd UM show. A short, exploratory jam featuring great synthesizer work from keyboardist Joel Cummins gave way to him teasing their epic, jazzy original “The Fussy Dutchman.” As the remainder of the band joined in, the energy in the venue went through the ceiling. Everyone in attendance was powerless but to stare on, slack-jawed, for the duration of the song, which features death-defying triple leads from Cummins and guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger.

As the band paused, the crowd went wild. The band took this chance to play “Domino Theory,” from 2012’s Death by Stereo. This odd track features abrasive, confusing vocals from Bayliss over soaring, metal-inspired guitar riffs. I’ve heard from many fans, both new and old, that they just don’t get or enjoy this song, but one thing nobody will deny is that the track gets top-notch improv treatment every single time it’s played. This time was no exception, with a jazzy groove giving way to a four-on-the floor dance party to Cinninger’s octave-pedal guitar part.

The next section, “Nemo” > “Sweetness” > “Nemo,” yielded a cool jam based on “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin, which added depth to an otherwise standard setlist pairing. Prior to the next song, the band replaced Bayliss with fourteen-year-old Colorado legend, Jaden Carlson. The new outfit ran through one of the band’s funkiest tracks, “Soul Food I.” This tune features tons of space for nasty funk guitar battles, and Carlson delivered admirably. Keeping up with Cinninger is no easy task, but the young girl seemed to have no trouble. The two guitarists took turns pushing each other to play faster and more creatively, with the crowd eating it up. After the battle concluded, Bayliss switched back in for Carlson as the band continued playing. They jammed into “Ocean Billy,” which perfectly closed out a great first set with an epic peak.

The second set opened with heavy-hitter “Plunger.” This classic original delves into jazz, metal and rock influences, and definitely stands out as one of the most complete tunes in the band’s catalog. Bayliss sounded great as he tackled the lead vocals, which deal with indecision about the band’s future back when late drummer Mike Mirro left the band in 2002. After crushing the second composed section of the song, bassist Ryan Stasik propelled them into a dark, groovy jam.

Their confidence level was through the roof as the jam took on a jazzy, Latin flavor. Eventually this developed into “No Comment,” an original that I saw debuted at Summer Camp Music Festival back in 2011. The crowd began salsa dancing as Cummins came to the front of the mix for a wonderful keyboard solo. Stasik’s perfect pocket playing led the band into NYE-run staple “Slacker,” a massive original number that reminds you that you have yet to witness the band’s best. This quintessential UM song saw tasteful improvisation with great organ work from Cummins, more standout playing from Stasik, and Cinninger effortlessly channeling Eric Clapton on his solo.

The band took a brief pause to let the crowd recover from that insane set-opening segment. The next track was a debut cover of Mark Ronson’s “Daffodils.” This was a song I had not heard before, but it was a heavy funk tune with great falsetto vocals from Myers. While watching, I thought that the vocals were some of the more psychedelic in the band’s catalog. As it turns out, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker sings them on the original version, which explains that perfectly. The softness of Myers’ vocals reminded me a bit of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James as well. This cover debut was exceptionally polished and made for a diverse addition to their repertoire. I can’t wait to see the band grow more comfortable improvising with this one.

After another pause, Bayliss announced that they would be playing a song that had not been performed by the band in Colorado in thirteen years. The crowd was ecstatic as the band began “Front Porch,” an out-of-rotation original about trying to change your life by moving to a new place, only to fall back into your old ways and meet similar people. This song was the uncontested highlight of the show, featuring three distinct improvised sections and topping out just over twenty minutes. Each section featured the same type of confident, dark, evil-sounding playing that has made the band famous. This type of stuff is the reason why you can’t play Umphrey’s for your grandmother, or even some of your parents. The music was simultaneously disruptive and terrifying, and shows off the band’s ability to elicit a vast array of different emotional responses in their listeners. The third section contained a tease of the band’s “There’s No Crying in Mexico” introduction from Cinninger.

The set closed out with a great rendition of their most metal-influenced song “Wizard Burial Ground.” This odyssey was the perfect way to end a set full of intense heavy hitters without lowering the energy level. The crowd was straight-up raging as the improvised section saw more delay work from Cummins, as well as a crunchy, Pink Floyd-influenced section towards the end. Top to bottom, the second set of this performance was my favorite set I have seen the band play in over a year. The band did exactly what they do best, which is put on the hardest-hitting rock show in the business.

Prior to the encore, they announced their first-ever two night run at Colorado’s esteemed Red Rocks Amphitheatre, scheduled for July 2nd and 3rd, 2016. The band then busted out rarity “Uncommon” for some fans they sat next to on the flight out. This transitioned perfectly into “The Floor,” which featured more metal-inspired thrashing and helped to end the show in appropriate fashion.

After seeing the last four consecutive UM New Year’s runs, I have to say this run was one of my favorites. This was the first of these runs where I have seen the band really save their absolute best for the final performance, something that helped the flow of the run tremendously. Each run I have been lucky enough to see has been a great one, but this one stands out as special to me. The band did an awesome job of rewarding those who chose to spend their holiday with them, especially in an uber-competitive Denver market.

Set One: Miss Tinkle's Overture, FF > The Fussy Dutchman, Domino Theory, Nemo > Sweetness[1] > Nemo, Soul Food I[2] > Ocean Billy

Set Two: Plunger -> No Comment > Slacker, Daffodils[3], Front Porch[4], Wizard Burial Ground

Encore: Uncommon > The Floor

[1] with Over the Hills and Far Away (Led Zeppelin) tease
[2] with Jaden Carlson on guitar
[3] debut, Mark Ronson
[4] with There’s No Crying in Mexico tease

Kevin's Photo Galley


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