What has become an annual winter pilgrimage to Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium for progressive rock stalwarts Umphrey's McGee should now be considered a must-see event for area music fans. Judging by the variety of ages, fashions, and general enthusiasm shown by those in attendance, coupled with the fact that the performance sold out weeks in advance, it would appear that word has already gotten out.
The band has seen a slow but steady rise in their popularity over the years. Their consistently explosive live performances and ever-evolving sound reels in new fans each year. A slightly younger crowd was seen at the Fillmore this round, likely due to the more beat-driven, dance jams that have crept into their improvisations as of late. Although this show was peppered with such jams, the band managed to gracefully tip-toe the line somewhere between dance and metal, as only they can do, and essentially satisfied all tastes of their vast catalogue of creative original songs and carefully picked cover tunes.
The evening got a fiery warm up set by newcomers Jimkata. These youngsters from New York have nowhere to go but up, coming off of their first LP Ghosts and Killers (with another album underway) and they really got the crowd moving with their upbeat mix of pop-rock, indie styles, and progressive jamming. Those who came early seemed general enthused by their set; however as the Fillmore crowd began to tighten up you could feel the tension and excitement building for the night’s much anticipated headliner.
After a short intermission the lights came down, and an instrumental jam known as “Gurgle” began playing over the PA as the stage remained void of any musicians. Midway through the song the band shuffled into their respective positions and began playing in sync with the song, before taking it over entirely. This is a newer trick the band has been showing off lately, and it serves as a wonderfully unique method with which to start a performance.
Now fully warmed up, the boys launched into a blazing rendition of their party anthem “40s Theme”. Guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss took turns rifling off wicked solos during this rousing version. It was followed by another older original, “Ocean Billy”, which clocked in at almost 23 minutes. The band nailed the numerous changes and wove sonic textures throughout this fan favorite.
The set continued on with one of their new songs off of their recent album Death By Stereo known as “Miami Virtue”. The live version of this rivaled its excellent studio counterpart, and was full of transient, pounding, rhythmic improvisational jams. It transitioned smoothly into “Morning Song” before lending way to another concert staple “In the Kitchen”. ITK barely got moving before the band switched gears and dished out a raucous presentation of the instrumental beast “Glory”, which was by all accounts, well, glorious. It was highlighted by exquisite and mind-blowing guitar solos laid down by Cinninger, and also saw a bit of a dance jam emerge led by drumming extraordinaire Kris Myers. After this extended and sweaty version of “Glory” concluded the group transitioned masterfully back into “In the Kitchen” and properly finished off the first round for the evening.
While the first set of music was more light and playful, set two would prove to be more heavy and progressive. It started with a trio of newer songs; two from Death By Stereo and one that frankly would have fit on that album well, that being the prog-metal tune “Puppet String”. The heavy guitars and thick bass beats on this opener got everyone to stop what they were doing during the break and re-engage with the band and the music.
As noted some DBS originals followed, first a great version of the grunge rocker “Domino Theory” that was complimented by an excellent jam, and the second a scorching throw down of the funk track “Booth Love”. The latter was accompanied by local saxophone player and Big Gigantic front man Dominic Lalli, whose big horns made this track downright sexy…or better yet, saxy. This 1-2-3 punch to start off the set may have been the most engaging and exhilarating music of the evening, judging by the response the band was getting from this ravenous audience.
However, more was in store as UM continued with a spirited version of the classic song “August” (Bayliss displayed a great solo here), as well as the hyper-progressive number “The Linear” which featured some Pink Floyd-esque jams mixed with some cool trip-hop beats.
The heavy theme of this set marched on with a new instrumental called “Go To Hell”. Appropriate title maybe, as this dark metal monster presented grinding guitars and chest-rattling beats. The “devil horns” were abound during this beast, and those fans who dig the heavier stuff Umphrey's has been creating over the recent years couldn’t get enough of this new song.
Though the set was winding down, the energy put forth by the band and attendees was not. Next up was the old school original “Ringo”, which featured a great funk jam anchored by bassist Ryan Stasik. Fans could not help themselves and collectively began shouting “We want the Umph…..gotta have that Umph!” over the group’s throbbing funk vibrations.
Somewhere in the middle of “Ringo” the band switched gears and segued into an instrumental dance jam dubbed “Voyager”. Thanks to Myers’ and Andy Farag’s percussive mastery, there wasn’t a still (or dry) body in the house throughout this interesting new groover. As the jam winded down the group brilliantly crashed back into “Ringo”, and officially ended the main portion of the performance.
Umphrey's McGee always gives the Colorado faithful what they want, and usually more. The more would come during the band’s encore. Rather than the standard one-song encore, the boys dished out three more tunes. Transcendent interpretations of the vintage numbers “Hajimemashite” and “Triple Wide” eventually gave way to a superb and crowd pleasing of cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. It was hard to tell whether the song was planned or not as it transformed out of the “Triple Wide” jam; nevertheless the crowd lapped it up while singing and dancing along. The band nailed it, and it was a perfect song with which to end.
Once again, Umphrey's McGee wowed Denver. The Mile High City and its surrounding region have become a bit of a home away from home for the band, and their fan base has steadily grown with each performance. There is a resounding, mutual love and respect between the group and their fans; maybe nowhere more apparent than in Colorado.
The band continues to prove that the more you put in the more you get back, and the band will be giving lots more to Colorado this fall. They announced shortly before the show ended that they will be returning to what keyboardist Joel Cummins’ proclaimed “the greatest venue in the world”, which of course is the famed Red Rocks Amphitheater in the foothills of Morrison this September 14th (with opening set by Railroad Earth). The collective headlined the magnificent outdoor venue the last two years for a holiday gig on July 3rd for what they billed as Red Rocks and Blue, but appear to be abandoning that format for the more traditional weekend performance.
Fans snatched up tickets early and sold out the Fillmore performance before the day of the concert for the first time since they started playing there. Could this be the year they finally sell out Red Rocks as well? With their popularity on the up-and-up, it would be no surprise. They certainly have earned it.