This past week the legendary Fox Theater in Boulder celebrated fifteen years of bringing exceptional music to Colorado. The year was 1992 when Don Strasburg and his associates decided to turn the once rundown movie theater into one of the country's most popular music venues. Since then, such celebrated artists as Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Widespread Panic, Sheryl Crow, Radiohead, and Public Enemy have graced the stage with their art and presence.
To mark the anniversary the venue hosted a week of musical acts that represented the diverse and eclectic artists that the Fox has been known for presenting, which concluded with the first band to ever hit their stage: The Funky Meters. Other acts throughout the week included hometown favorites Big Head Todd and the Monsters, newcomers the John Butler Trio, perennial visitors Robert Randolph and the Family Band, and prog-rock kings Umphreys McGee.
Prior to last week's performances, Umphreys McGee guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss had this to say about the Fox Theater: "The first time we sold out the Fox....we came downstairs, and they gave us champagne. Everybody at the Fox and Don Strasburg were just very cool, it had a family kind of feel. We love the Fox and it was very humbling to be asked to play the 15th anniversary" (from The Colorado Daily News).
The Chicago-based jam outfit has been pushing the boundaries of rock, jazz, and metal for years and they show no signs of taking it easy. Last year they released the well-received album Safety in Numbers, and will be unleashing another collection of songs from those sessions entitled The Bottom Half next month.
After two sold-out nights on the bill, it was the audience rather than the band that was left humbled. Whatever expectations fans might have had going into these shows were not only met, but exceeded. Long-time fans were dazzled; fresh fans were hooked and blown away.
Monday's performance was stellar from the beginning, as concert staples "Words", "Blue Echo", and "Thin Air" highlighted the first set. The band was also joined by local music whore and mandolin phenom, Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band, on the song "Great American" before concluding with the new song "Eat".
The band came out firing for the second set with the instrumental anthem "Miss Tinkle's Overture", which led into the trilogy of "Uncle Wally>Jimmy Stewart>Wife Soup". The latter saw more local favorites, Doug Baker of Mumbouli and Bill McKay of Leftover Salmon join the boys for the jam session. In keeping with the celebration of the Fox (and Boulder for that matter), it was great to see all of these Colorado musicians perform with their Midwestern friends.
Scorching renditions of "All in Time" and "Believe the Lie" closed the show and left the crowd screaming for more. The wait would not be long, as the following night's performance proved to be even better that the first. Prior to the show, you could feel the buzz in the air as the Fox quickly filled to capacity.
This evening's festivites began with a spirited and lengthy version of "The Bottom Half", with "Space Funk Booty" sandwiched between the jam. An even tastier morsel followed with a very guitar-heavy "Der Bluten Kat" filled with "Prowler", "Passing", and topped off with "Morning Song". A massive guitar jam between Bayliss and Jake Cinninger closed this amazing first set of Umphreys' originals.
After a long and much needed break, the boys returned to the stage on a mission to leave the first set in the dust. An enthusiastic "Bridgeless" lent way to concert favorites "Plunger" and "Glory", all of which were anchored by the unappreciated percussive mastery of drummer Kris Myers.
Finally stopping for a breath (whew), the band then proceeded with the new original "Alex's House". A raw version of this song will appear on their soon-to-be-released The Bottom Half. This groovy tune will be sure to make the concert rounds in the coming months.
The remainder of this set tested the endurance of both the band and crowd, as a very beat-heavy version of "The Triple Wide" segued into a very gritty "Jimmy Stewart", then right into a weighty "Walletsworth". Bassist Ryan Stasik and keyboardist Joel Cummins were having fun trading off dance riffs throughout these sections.
A rousing "40s Theme" finished off the final set of the evening, and showcased mind-blowing guitar work by Cinninger along with heart-pounding percussion jams by Myers and Andy Farag. Jake continues to wow audiences with his quick finger work and precision jams. He was recently named (along with Bayliss) to Guitar Player magazine's list of "Best Unsung Guitar Heroes", and they couldn't have been more correct.
The band returned for an encore presentation that began with the celebratory "Partyin' Peeps". This reggae-rock tune would have been an appropriate finale; however, the band went out in true rock fashion by covering Ozzy Osbourne's popular solo hit "Mama I'm Comin' Home". Complete with lighters in the air, the fans all shouted the lyrics along with Cinninger. It was truly an amazing finish to a performance worthy of toasting the Fox's fifteen years of musical exhibition.
Afterward, one fan outside on 13th Street was overheard saying "that was one of the best Umph shows I have ever heard since I started going to their concerts years ago". The group's musical progression, tireless work ethic, and growing popularity can no longer be ignored by mainstream music. These two Boulder performances only solidified the fact that Umphrey's McGee is arguably the greatest touring band in modern rock music.