2016 was a year that much of the country would like to do over. Between deaths, elections and Kanye West, it was year of unremarkable lows. However, for Chicago, IL, 2016 was granted a hassle-free All Access Pass when the Chicago Cubs, the beloved baseball team from the North Side, broke a 108-year drought and won the World Series. Ringing in the New Year with a final blue-red-and-white balloon celebration (the color scheme of the Cubbies), Chicago-based improvisational rock-and-roll behemoth Umphrey’s McGee marked a similarly triumphant return home.
With a decade of New Year’s Eve shows in Chicago under their belt between 2000>2001 and 2010>2011, Umphrey’s McGee decided to take their New Year’s Eve celebration on the road – and as the demand for the band grew in new markets, Chicago was often left cold in the kitchen.
Before last year, 2011 and 2014 were the last times that the sextet – consisting of Brendan Bayliss, Jake Cininnger, Joel Cummins, Kris Myers, Andy Farag and Ryan Stasik – played within the city limits proper with multi-night runs at the Aragon Ballroom and the Riviera Theater, respectively. Bayliss is the only band member that still lives in Chicago – the rest are spread out and literally on opposite coasts.
But seven years later, they were more than ready to come home, stretching three nights of music across seven sets, two venues and with the help of a single opening act on the 30th. Umphrey’s started by performing a single, intimate two sets at a packed-house Riviera Theater on December 29 with no opener and on December 30 they enlisted Colorado soul-funk outfit The Motet as the only support of the run to help their return across the block to the larger, but equally as dense Aragon Ballroom. The next night, New Year’s Eve, was a three-set Umphrey’s McGee extravaganza.
Stretching three nights of music across two venues on opposite sides of the Red Line, Umphrey’s McGee proved one thing above all else: they are ready to play a larger Chicago venue. Several fans will attest that the bands’ distancing from Chicago has nothing to do with the fans, and everything to do with the crowds they do (and don’t) draw.
While VIP packages offering early entry were available for all three nights, those quickly sold out and left the majority of fans wrapped around either venue each night. On New Year’s Eve, fans were stuck waiting for nearly two hours, causing many to miss the entire first set of music. It also appeared that each venue was over capacity, leaving little to no room to breathe at the Riviera Theater and beverage or bathroom lines at the Aragon that carved up to an additional hour out of face-melting. The VIP beverage lines were more tolerable due to a smaller, more manageable sample size but there was only a single GA bathroom that quickly deteriorated into an anarchy that we won’t repeat.
But with minor grievances against the disproportionate amount of staff and facilities available to masses of people, it was an undeniable and utter success for the band and most of their fans. Musically, Umphrey’s McGee delivered. They brought their trademark hippie funk-metal guitar riffs and wildly atmospheric light show together in a way that no other improvisational group in the market does and they did it three times in a row without missing a beat.
I’m in my ninth year of being an Umphrey’s fan and this was not only my first opportunity to see the band play in Chicago, but it was also my first New Year’s Eve with them as well as my first time at either venue – and I was at or near the front of the line every day for my first shows at the Riviera and the Aragon.
On the 29th, I passed on the usual photo-pit privileges that covering an event like this earns a budding music journalist and found a comfortable place in one of my favorite positions: on the rail, as close as I can get to Stasik without being too far from Cinninger. I like being able to watch the band take in the energies on and off the stage and watch the musical Lego blocks that create each individual show’s magic.
The first set of the run played out surprisingly apologetic from a lyrical standpoint – ranging from the angry “Domino Theory” from 2011’s Death By Stereo complete with a solid ice-breaker jam to “Memories Of Home” off 2004’s Safety In Numbers, easily the largest bust-out of the run: it has only been played by the band 3 times prior and not in nearly 900 shows.
Bayliss’ apparent remorse came through extra thick in a solid “No Comment” > “Example 1” segment, ending with the newer tracks “Gone For Good” (possibly insinuating the return of the NYE run to Chicago may be nothing more than a one-time thing) and finishing with the promise that they will “Make It Right”. The highlight of that first set though, was definitely in the “Bridgeless” jam when Cinninger and Cummins introduced John Williams’ “Binary Sunset” from Star Wars in honor of the late Carrie Fisher.
One nice thing about set break at the Riviera was not having to move. I turned around on the rail to see a migrating blob of people, each of them edging each other out to try and get a step closer to a bathroom or a drink or a friend, but thirty minutes later when the opening notes of “Wappy Sprayberry” took off, every step turned into a bit of a shimmy, melting away most of the tension.
They ended “Bridgeless” and laid out a menacing version of “Remind Me”, the UMBowl track that gets more outrageous and deceptive in its berth with every play. It may have been my outright favorite track of the night if they hadn’t moved next into “Ringo” with a complete throwback to the ZZ Top classic “Cheap Sunglasses”. Just when the jam petered out and it felt like they were about to knock back into the final section of “Ringo”, the band threw me sideways with “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” complete with a dark and almost industrial-techno jam.
Umphrey’s managed to make each individual evening of the run stand out. On Friday, the 30th, the band featured their only opener of the run to mark the first return to The Aragon Ballroom since a 2011 Thanksgiving run.
The Motet played to a consistently growing crowd as fans slowly filed through the entrance, dancing their way down the hall and up the ornate staircase and warming up with the heat of The Motet’s soulful funk.
Umphrey’s took the stage without missing a beat from the night before, jumping right into the heavy tempo of “Mulche’s Odyssey”. The one-year anniversary of “Speak Up” passed and the new tune saw 30 plays in its first year, giving way to “Anchor Drops” and “Phil’s Farm”.
Halfway through the first set, the band debuted a brand new instrumental original titled “North Route” that bled into “Nothing Too Fancy”, officially ending the version they started the previous night. A sinister, yet brief run through of “Walletsworth” led into a funky throwback of “Kula”, a track that has been seeing more and more play after being on the shelf.
Following teases of “Roundabout” by Yes, “Kula” transitioned into Rage Against The Machine’s “Bombtrack” featuring The Motet’s bandleader Dave Watts take over on drums. Kris Myers let out from behind the kit to take over lead vocals and brought a new level of energy to the front of the stage to close the first set.
“The Floor” gave way early in the second set and a great percussion showcase from Farag and Cummins to wrap “Much Obliged” neatly into a “Hurt Bird Bath” for the books. From teases of “Bombtrack” to another Star Wars jam, playing with the melodies from “Binary Sunset” again as well as “The Force Theme”. A middle of the pack “Conduit” charged up a “1348” sandwich around “Slacker” and “Miami Virtue” to close the set ahead of a standalone “JaJunk” encore.
On New Year’s Eve, the excitement was through the roof and even from the first moments of entering the Aragon Ballroom, fans were thrown for a loop by a full mariachi band entertaining in the main lobby at the bottom of the stairwell.
The first set began simple enough with “Attachments” and segueing into “The Fussy Dutchman”. A false “Wife Soup” start in the intro to “Puppet String” made the first set feel like a triple decker sandwich when they actually moved into the soaring crescendos of the Anchor Drops track. Enter a wobbly and warped “Dump City” before closing the soup kitchen.
The last two songs of the set continued the NYE tradition of inviting Mad Dog’s Filthy Little Secret horn section on stage. Consisting of Michael “Mad Dog” Mavridoglou on trumpet, Chris Ott on trombone and Josh Quinlan on saxophone, the trio was also joined by saxophonist Jeff Coffin. They helped Umphrey’s debut a brand new original tune called “Cut Off” and then they closed the set with the first and only “13 Days” of 2016.
Set two opened with Mad Dog and horns on the stage. A wide open, loose “Booth Love” got things rowdy with only their second-ever take on Steely Dan’s classic “Kid Charlemagne” since it’s San Francisco debut in 2011. “The Triple Wide” broke down into a no-holds barred dance party before snapping to attention in “The Bottom Half”. The also jammed on “Binary Sunset” and “The Force Theme” for the third show in a row.
The UMBowl V favorite “Mad Love” led to a monster “Hangover” – but without the crowd participation we’re afraid to report that the booty wax was in fact NOT broken out on this Saturday night, potentially robbing stat-warriors of a full tally mark. The closed the second set with a surprising dip into outlaw country with 2016 Grammy Award nominee Sturgill Simpson’ “Call To Arms” courtesy a suggestion from Stasik. One thing that blew me away was how country it still sounded, even though Coffin, Mad Dog and Co. had returned to the stage a song earlier during “Comma Later”.
Fifteen minutes to midnight, the band returned with horns in tow to ring in the new year proper. After getting things moving with the ode to Chicago, “In The Kitchen”, they revisited a specific jam out of Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” for the countdown that the used to ring in 2016 and bring the year around full circle to close.
Following a massive balloon drop, the band stretched out the opening minutes of the new year and welcomed their family on stage and their closest friends into the photographer’s pit. Following the traditional “Auld Lang Syne”, the band debuted David Bowie’s 1975 single “Golden Years” to the thrill of thousands.
“Partyin Peeps” followed appropriately and gave way to standalone throwdowns in “All In Time”, “Day Nurse” and “August” before ending the third set with a nod to the late George Michael by busting out “Freedom ‘90”, a song they haven’t played since July of 2000 – before Cinninger was a member. The official show count between plays is 2,022 shows – a remarkable and incredibly poignant moment for the entire venue.
The evening ended similar to how the two previous nights ended: a single song encore with a balls to the wall jam and the first “Bad Friday” of 2017 was no disappointment, either.
As Umphrey’s gets ready for three nights this coming weekend at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, there are plenty of fans who’s reflections of NYE will sustain them for a lifetime.