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DVD Review: Umphrey’s McGee Wrapped Around Chicago – New Year’s Eve at the Rivera Theatre in Chicago

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Written by guest reviewer Fumo Verde

There’s no better place to see a band than in their hometown, and for the boys of Umphrey’s McGee this show proves that axiom to be true. Out of the great city of Chicago comes a sound somewhat familiar but not. UM–Umphrey’s McGee has a sound all their own and an energy that only rivals their fans. The blending of music and the weaving of songs is carefully constructed, yet quickly blown away by the amazing talent these men have. This two-DVD set contains three hours of high-energy performance leaving those who were there exhausted and ecstatic. Although I live in California, seeing this DVD made me inquire about plane tickets to the windy city for this year’s bash.

UM always puts on a great show, this I know, because El Bicho and I have seen them three times, and are always willing to see them again. Their sound is distinctly different, though you can hear the influences of “Steely Dan”, “Yes”, “Led Zeppelin” and other genres such as Reggae (another one of my favorites, which I’m sure is a surprise to no one who). These strong sounds echo their tenure as UM casually rolls from one song to the next. They are considered a jam band, and like their forefathers, the Dead and Phish, UM starts a song out in one direction and can make a 90-degree turn onto the path less traveled, which they will often do more than once in a song, and then bring you right back to where the journey started. These guys have the talent. It isn’t raw; they have it wired.

The lead-off song is “Divisions” which like most of UM’s songs starts out smoothly, Brendan Bayliss’ vocals and guitar with the percussions of Andy Farag and drums of Kris Myers. The song revs itself up into a charging, rock groove. This part of the song gives the boys legitimacy to being a “jam band” for it rolls on for eighteen minutes or so before the soft gentle touch of Joel Cummins keyboards and Jake Cinninger’s guitar brings it back to its starting point.

It’s followed by the instrumental “Great America”. Now it is Andy and Kris’s turn to start the engine. Starting off somewhat exotic and mystical, the guitars are the instruments that push the energy level up a notch on this one. Most of UM’s jams and songs start out quiet, unabated only to roll into a heavy “jump up and down in your seat” rock jam. These boys know how to improvise and they aren’t afraid to experiment either.

One of my favorite songs is “Anchor Drops” which starts out with Ryan Stasik bass dropping the notes while Myers lays down the beat. Here the voices of Bayliss (lead), Cinninger, and Cummins harmonize, and though there are only a few words in the song, they carry a thoughtful message, “breathe easy/the less you have to offer, the less you have to loose.” UM has that kind of wit that runs through their tunes. Bayliss once said “If it’s not fun, it’s not gonna get done.”

After “Anchor” the next song to drop is “2nd Self”, which has a somewhat political edge to it. The DVD cruises along, as images of the audience dance and shake to the beats that are being laid out by Farag and Myers. Here, Cinninger and Bayliss let it all hang out as Stasik keeps thumping with his bass. The close-out song just before intermission is “Partyin’ Peeps”. Stasik, Cinninger, and Bayliss throw down a reggae vibe. It’s a simple song that recounts the tales of the trails that they have been on since they have begun.

The second DVD starts out with “Ophelia”, a Robbie Robertson song. Joel and Brendan belt this one out as a four-piece brass section adds some good old Chicago blues that have influenced this band in more ways than one. Next is “Mail Package” as Myers and Stasik thump out a rock-steady beat, Cinninger taunts with trippy, space-like riffs while the brass adds more flavor. This song recants the encounters Cinninger has had with our postal service. Although the beat to this song has an ominous thump grinding it out, the words here have a lighter side to them.

They replay “Nopener”, but with a twist. They played a rock version in the first set, but now they give it a lounge treatment this time around. Myers comes out from behind his drum set in his best Sinatra outfit. Yes, UM’s drummer even gets to take center stage. His Frank impersonation isn’t the best, but he does have a crooner style of voice. The house lights go to a film noir look, and we’re talking Rat Pack, baby.

It’s not all jamming and traveling down exotic paths at rocket speed; the band loves to have fun and their interaction with the crowd is great. Yes, crowd; an audience sits down. James Brown will tell you that people at UM shows, like all great rock shows, “got ants in their pants and need to dance.” Wiggling their shit in what from the upper rows must look like a stoned, drunken, sweaty amoeba that undulates with thump of a cord, or a bang on a bongo.

Umphrey’s McGee is a band one must see, their power and energy comes driving on stage like the cold hard winds that gave the nickname to that grand old city. If you can’t get to Chicago, or might not have a chance to see them live, this DVD duo will take you there…sit back, fire one up and let da boys of Umphrey’s McGee show you what a good jam can do for one’s soul. For those of us out on the west coast, the skinny is the band may be back in April…and possibly a new album next year.

Both these DVDs have all sorts of extras. A couple of songs, Nemo and Padget’s Profile, performed at the previous evening’s show, a drum lesson from Meyrs, Farag’s “Atmosmenu Music” and some UM claymation. There’s even footage of Huey Lewis rehearsing with the band at 2005’s Jammys. I told him this band was it.

This is Fumo Verde….until the next time Sister Moon is in full.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
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