BY YOUSEF BAIG, PHOTOS BY ABBY FOX
There’s nothing we do bigger than New Years.
It’s the only event that’s earned a planet-wide day of recovery. We go back to work after the Super Bowl. We go shopping after Thanksgiving.
It transcends race, age, economic status—everything. You’re either going to stay up late for the calendar change, or if you tend to pass out after a few minutes on the couch, wake up the morning after, hug somebody, and tell ‘em, ‘Happy new year.’
For those that chose to spend it with Umphrey’s McGee, that frigid Wednesday night at The Tabernacle—night two out of five—is going to be tough to ever top.
With the crowd as sober as it would be at any point in the night, Umphrey’s built a robust foundation for its three-set show. An unfinished “Nothing Too Fancy” burst into a wandering “All in Time.” Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss tested the water with their powerful guitar harmonies, and flowed into a cool, piano-heavy jam that fluctuated in speed and emotionality.
“All in Time” was also unfinished, dropped into the Similar Skin’s “Cut the Cable,” and then opened the door for a newer staple, “Mad Love.” This version had some teeth to it, and featured a jam section that felt like a rolling thunder storm as it approached from the distance, hit you over the head, and then continued on its path.
Umphrey’s followed that with its most popular piece, “In the Kitchen,” which always finds a way to reinvent itself live. A light-handed bass line from Ryan Stasik gave way to Cinninger’s short, bursting riffs that had an Oriental feel to them.
With a little help from Mad Dog and His Filthy Little Secret horns, the band debuted “Piranhas.” Its backbone was a tight bass line that resembled “Billie Jean,” which was fitting considering that Stasik was wearing an outfit Michael Jackson would be proud of.
The band ended the first set with a nod to the recently deceased, Joe Cocker, and the Traffic classic, “Feelin’ Alright.” It felt like the first time the stuffed crowd was collectively tuned in as Joel Cummins threw down something fierce on the black-and-whites with the horn section carrying each explosion at the chorus higher and higher.
The Mad Dog horns joined Umphrey’s again to open the second set, taking the third unfinished song of the night, “Puppet String,” into the most impressive cover of the run: Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang Ups.” Cummins came correct on the piano legend’s classic to the point the crowd started chanting his name over and over again in approval.
Moments later, Bayliss would also step up to the face-melting plate, ripping through a breathtaking “August” solo that soared on top of the uncontainable cheers it drew.
He then prepped the looming “1348” with a rhetorical, “You guys ready to get weird?” Once Umphrey’s began the improv, Jeff Waful went through his go-to rave lights, painting the organs with a full spectrum of kaleidoscope colors while the band journeyed through its space rock into the electro-dance number, “Day Nurse.” With Stasik’s bass tone shifted, the Super Smash Bros styles of this musical Red Bull maintained the weirdness that Bayliss sought. The spacey flow of this stretched segued perfectly into the hard-hitting peaks at the end of the “Nothing Too Fancy” that kicked off the night.
With the horns still in tow, two rarities would follow. The first, a cover of “Black Messiah” by The Kinks—which has only been played once, seven years ago—and the next, an original that forced a few tears out from the always cool Stasik.
The second tribute of the night would pay homage to a musician much closer to Umphrey’s and its fans. Earlier this year founding drummer Mike Mirro passed away, so in an emotional nod to the band’s dear friend, the cobwebs were dust off, “Last Call.” After each band member took a quick solo on the funky revelation, the crowd began chanting, “Break out the booty wax, it’s New Year’s Eve!” to a resounding level that surely would have brought a smile to Mirro’s face.
“Bright Lights, Big City” closed out the second set and featured a sinister bass-led jam that exploded behind Kris Myer’s pounding drums and Andy Farag’s crashing symbols.
Umphrey’s and the Mad Dogs horns returned to the stage for the final set just minutes before midnight. The song chosen to end 2014 was one that was played 27 times during it, “Bad Friday.”
While the song progressed, the anticipation became more and more palpable. Smart phones, shadowed hands, and drinks began to scatter the beams of light that showered the room. Bayliss’ countdown from ten finished to a collective exclamation of “Happy new year!” at the same as the ceiling-length confetti and balloon cocoon was unleashed on the crowd below. It was a beautiful scene as white lights and endless party provisions filled the air to the sounds of “Auld Lang Syne.” Couples kissed, hugs were shared, and strangers high-fived to celebrate such a striking moment in, not only time, but life.
The first song of 2015 was the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” which is one of those songs that felt like the crowd didn’t necessarily know, but by the end they did.
The first original to have its moment in the New Year was “Ringo.” Cinninger and trumpeter Michael Mavridoglou squared off in a jam that seemed to require little effort but had a huge sound. It was like a playground seesaw between Umphrey’s and the horns, and even more astonishing, once it ended, Bayliss confessed they didn’t rehearse it.
“Plunger” followed, and there’s no question it was the hardest rocking moment in the first two nights of the run. It was rage rock, and the jam section seemed like an insane glimpse into Cinninger’s mind as he directed the improvisation in every way. The peak was ferocious, and pounded through the room before dropping down to give way to the end of “Puppet String.”
Two of the stronger vocally-charged pieces from Similar Skin—“No Diablo” and “The Linear”—carried the torch further into the early stages of 2015. The booming close of “The Linear” segued into the end of “All in Time.” Cummins tossed back his drink to get right for the finale of the final set. Cinninger and Bayliss faced each other, finger-tapping the necks of their guitars, harmonizing the solos with each peak surpassing the one it just established.
Umphrey’s would be called back shortly after to the tune of “We want the Umph, gotta have that Umph.”
The horns joined for the imposing, “Similar Skin” and James Brown’s “Living in America.” Meyers’ sneakily stellar vocals blasted through the room as Waful colored the stage red, white and blue to put a patriotic period on the end of a colossal night.
The crowd was slow to leave, soaking up its last moments in The Tabernacle with Louis Armstrong’s, “What a Wonderful World” filling the airwaves. More hugs were shared. The accumulated bar tar on the ground was used like a slip-n-slide for a few of the bold that slid through the confetti-covered floor. Stumbling, rumbling, mumbling, and tumbling, the crowd made its way outside for their first breath of fresh air in the New Year.
There was something transcendent about Cummins’ play Wednesday night. From the Herbie Hancock to the honky tonk to “All in Time,” his play was centered on the piano that faced the crowd for most of the night. Stationed just feet away from the towering organs that lined the wall behind him, he took the crowd to church over and over again in a building that began as one.
Overall, the jams might have been the type to make an Umphreak lose his mind, but on New Year’s Eve, it’s about more than that.
It’s the atmosphere you submerge yourself in and the people you surround yourself with on the biggest celebration you’ll have for the next 364 days.
And you know what the best part is? For many, that week-long celebration at The Tabernacle isn’t over. There’s three more nights to go.
Rage. Rest. Repeat.