This Halloween the Chicago-based sextet Umphrey's McGee brought their progressive jam-rock to the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, and in turn paid homage to some of the greatest horror movies of all time. Not only did they feed the Colorado faithful two monstrous sets, but also synched their music with classic horror cinema.
The show was being billed as Umphreys McGee's "Terror in the Aisles!", and not since the days of Phish's Halloween shows had I been so excited to see a themed performance. The usual costume contest and spooky stage art was to be expected, but what followed throughout the evening was certainly very surprising.
Some fans of the band may recall that at the end of their Vegoose Festival performance just days before, a Grim Reaper appeared on stage and "killed" each member of the band in fitting slasher style. On this Halloween evening, they returned from the dead as zombies (complete with shredded clothes and pasty faces), slowing shifting along the stage and surely searching for their first helping of human brains.
While audio and visual scenes from the late 70's John Carpenter film Halloween played in the background, the band crept to their instruments and lethargically fell into their respective places. Just as a final, harrowing scream of "Michael!" (In reference to the character Michael Myers) blared over the PA.....the band kicked into the opening fireball, "Plunger".
It was a marvelous introduction, and the band carried "Plunger" through thirteen straight minutes of jazz transitions and heavy improvisation before moving into a spectacular presentation of "Higgins", a gem off of their latest studio release The Bottom Half.
More scenes and haunting audio clips from the movie Halloween followed, which led into the very appropriate rendition of the "Halloween Theme". Keyboardist Joel Cummins hammered through the eerie, high-pitched piano notes before the rest of the band joined in a boisterous cover of this classic movie soundtrack.
Superb versions of "Believe the Lie" and "Partyin' Peeps" brought the audience back to reality, which then led to an odd but proper interpretation of the "Star Spangled Banner". Though it may not seem fitting, it was performed just as the television scene from Poltergeist was beginning. Those folks familiar with the movie should remember that the character of Carol Anne is sitting in front of a TV as the Star Spangled Banner is playing, which then cuts to the "snow and white noise" as she quietly proclaims, "They're he-re".
Scenes from the film continued as the band ripped into a spacey, but focused arrangement of the rare "# 5". Weaving guitar structures and bulky drum sections anchored this instrumental treasure. Near its completion, scenes from the Kubrick classic The Shining began projecting on the screen behind the group.
The change of film sequence also led to a delightful transition into a dark, enigmatic version of "JaJunk". An extended jam highlighted this concert favorite, and it seemed to fit perfectly with the images of a deranged Jack Nicholson displayed behind them. Proving that the complimenting visual scenes were not just coincidental, the band ended the song right as the portrait of Nicholson's frozen face faded away on the screen. Brilliant!
A short break gave way to a whole new set, integrated with more horror movie classics and smoking jams. The set opener "Triple Wide" went right after it as pounding drum beats accompanied by wailing guitar solos by members Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss aroused the already stimulated Fillmore crowd. Zombies filled the streets as images from Dawn of the Dead played in the background.
A new song appeared soon after, and Bayliss playfully asked the audience to give it a proper name when it concluded. Adding to the shuffle, Cinninger jumped on the keyboard set to lead the band through a pumped-up rendition of "Push the Pig".
The meshing of audio and video continued as "Padgett's Profile" was interlaced with A Nightmare on Elm Street, complete with the "1-2 Freddy's coming for you; 3-4 better lock your door..." chant. The familiar tune "Much Obliged" carried scenes from Frankenstein before segueing into an insane "Robot World".
The set concluded with "Bridgeless", which appeared perfectly in sync with probably the scariest movie of all time, The Exorcist. "The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!" was masterfully interjected near the end of the jam. Then right as the band finished off the song, the priest hurled himself from the window. It was a supreme consummation for the band, and essentially the film indeed.
The group returned to the stage for an encore that included a spirited and soulful "Hajimemashite", along with the cryptic instrumental specimen known as "Wizard Burial Ground". The latter barreled through hard-core sections in its presentation and was accompanied by scenes from Stephen King's creepy clown saga, It. Seeing how heavy metal and Halloween seem to go hand-in-hand, I couldn't think of a more fitting jam with which to close the show.
Umphrey's McGee continues to play with fortitude, remarkable energy, and amazing creativity. With all the success they have shown over the last few years, there is no doubt they will continue to surprise their fans and impress the unimpressionable. It will be exciting to see what theatrics and musical oddities the band will have in store next Halloween.
Check out some pictures from Halloween