There is just something about the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver that brings out the best in Umphreys McGee. The Chicago prog-rockers have made this exalted venue a mainstay each year since 2005, and each performance has outdone the last. This should come as no surprise to those who know the band, since they are performing brilliantly these days and have yet to even reach their full potential after 14 years together.
As if two monstrous sets were not enough for the Denver faithful, the band even brought their first Stew Art Series (S2) of 2011 to the Mile High city and treated a small handful of fans to this unique, interactive musical experience.
Denver fans gave back the love on this Valentine's Day weekend by selling out the performance, and put forth energy so bold that the band could not help but reciprocate with a powering, funk-driven rock show that only they are capable of providing.
One hundred lucky fans got to begin their evening early by participating in the Stew Art Series, which also took place at the Fillmore prior to their proper performance. The premise of the S2 series is for attendees to send in text message requests that are promptly displayed on a large video screen for all to see. From those suggestions the band will improvise jams and songs accordingly, making this a totally fan-driven show experience; complete with full lights and sound.
Some examples shown this evening included "We're Busted", where the band proceeded to jam out to the Cops TV show theme while mired in blue and red flashing lights, courtesy of lighting director Jeff Waful, as well as "Praying Mantis" that birthed a gospel version of their progressive title "Mantis".
Other S2 highlights included "James Brown Meets the Beatles" which saw the band performing the classic Beatles' tune "Baby You're a Rich Man" funk-style, "En La Cochina" which was sung with Spanish lyrics by Brendan Bayliss to the tune of "In the Kitchen", and "Myers Def Leppard" in which drummer Kris Myers stuffed one of his arms into his shirt and played with his other to mimic Rick Allen while the band belted out its best "Hysteria".
Throughout the show, the band even took breaks to answer questions directly from the audience. Afterwards attendees were fed pizza and snacks, and joined in on an informal meet-and-greet session with the band members for pictures, autographs, and tall tales. For any fan of Umphreys McGee, this was more than worth the extra $99 for the chance to interact with and meet their heroes like never before.
With another successful Stew Art Series in the books, the band retreated to rest up for a few hours and the Fillmore officially opened its doors to let the festivities begin. As an added bonus, fans who arrived early were treated to an excellent opening set by the String Cheese Incident's Kyle Hollingsworth and his band. The group consisting of Hollingsworth on keys, Garrett Sayers on bass, Ryan Jalbert on guitar, Dave Watts on drums, and beat master DJ Logic on turntables ripped through an hour long set of songs that focused mostly on Hollingsworth's solo catalog including "Way That It Goes", some originals from his Soulside project, and even a Cheese tune here or there such as "MLT".
Maybe it was the addition of DJ Logic to the fold, but this set of music leaned heavily on a disco-funk sound. Though normally groovy and jazzy, Kyle and his band mates channeled the dancey stuff and proved to be a meaty warm-up for the evening's headliners.
Around 9:30 Umphreys entered the stage in lighter fare with the classical "Ride of the Valkyries" playing over the PA, and shortly thereafter their two-set performance was officially underway. The band opened with an excellent, thirteen-minute rocking version of "Higgins" before busting out the fan favorite "All in Time". Though usually reserved for later in shows, its placement proved to be key in keeping the upbeat vibe heard throughout the first set.
A reggae jam during the middle of the song slowly moved into churning, rock madness and segued almost flawlessly into one of their newer tunes "The Conduit". One of their signature "Jimmy Stewart" jams ensued and slowly immersed itself into the breezy instrumental "End of the Road".
The rest of the set carried on with a notably more funky-than-usual, improv-oriented "Resolution". Though probably not one of their strongest songs in their catalog, they stretched it out to fourteen minutes of pure jammy goodness thanks to Joel Cummins' be-bopping key solos. The end of the tune then flowed right back into the conclusion of "All of Time". The set could have ended on this high note, but the band added extra flavor by concluding with a spirited cover of Steely Dan's classic "Peg".
After a thirty-minute break to cool the jets, the band returned to the stage to display their gritty, prog-rock masterpiece known as "JaJunk". Ten minutes of guitar chugging by Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss went unfinished as the band ripped into their classic "Bright Lights, Big City". This normally beat-heavy tune was anchored by more rock and funk riffs, and the band let their jam legs stretch magnificently on this crowd pleaser. The energy displayed by the audience could not have been stronger, as the entire venue was going balls-out nuts during this extended segment (for a video, go to the band's blog "The Floor" and watch the debauchery unfold).
The heady, dub tune "Mantis Ghetts" followed and segued into the feel-good song "Gulf Stream", complete with another "Jimmy Stewart" jam. The tension in this song just kept building and building, all the while Cinninger was giving out tons of Denver shout-outs. The jam turned trancey and psychedelic, highlighted by Kris Myers' thundering yet melodic drum beats.
The set continued on with the debut of a new Cinninger original, a slow-burning and funk-inspired song called "Deeper". Thick and dark bass lines by Ryan Stasik anchored what is sure to soon be a concert favorite. The ragga-funk jam turned into classic rock flair, showing off Jake's vocal and guitar chops.
The culmination of set two came with the subsequent "Hurt Bird Bath", which was downright nasty. It was sixteen minutes of serious attitude, and that includes the manic lights displayed by Waful (especially during the running guitar segments). A trippy, improvisational jam built itself into darker territory, led by deep percussive beats by Myers and Andy Farag, and eventually melded into cohesive insanity.
The second set ended in similar fashion to set one in that they busted out another cover song, albeit this one a hard-rocking rendition of The Who's Eminence Front. This classic beast was an excellent way to close the show. As the band thanked the crowd they walked off to the sound of Will Ferrell singing "Something to Talk About" from the movie Step Brothers over the PA. Hysterically brilliant!
With the time passing 12:30, the group returned for a short encore that began with the gem "Plunger". Part-way through the jam they fell into their instrumental rocker "Glory", and even teased the opening lines from the Yes tune "Roundabout", before dropping right back into the hard-hitting conclusion of "Plunger".
Another classic Fillmore show for the books. The band continues to impress with each exhibition, and Colorado residents have to feel blessed that they get to witness such greatness every year. The band will shower even more love upon Colorado in 2011, as they announced at the end of the show that they will be returning to Red Rocks again this summer, reprising their Red Rocks and Blue event on July 3rd. This time they said they will do two full sets, and if this evening's concert was any indication of what can be expected then you better mark your calendars for what is sure to be a must-see performance.