Umphrey’s Mc-Who?

December 29, 2013 - Denver, Colorado

I had never witnessed Umphrey’s McGee live before. In fact, I couldn’t even say I’d intentionally listened to any of the band’s music (though I’m sure some diehard fan friends of mine had played it in my presence). All I knew was that I was in Colorado — a haven for festival music lovers — it was getting close to New Year’s Eve, and I wanted to see a show.

“Umphrey’s McGee at The Fillmore Auditorium with Dumpstaphunk and Joshua Redman.” I knew I loved Dumpstaphunk and had heard good things about Umphrey’s McGee, so I figured, “Why not?” and got myself down to that old renovated skating rink on Sunday night, Dec. 29.

After standing in the cold for at least 20 minutes in order to clear security, I was more than ready to get inside and hear some music. Unfortunately, I was too late to bask in the glory that is Dumpstaphunk. Family engagements kept me from arriving at the listed start time of 7 p.m. (a wee bit early, in my opinion), so that had me a little down as I entered the venue.

I said to myself, “These guys had better be good, for $40,” and huffed my way into the box seats in the rear balcony, as Umphrey’s McGee members headed on stage and sprung into their portion of the night.

The first set was pretty standard, at least to the ears of a discontented skeptic who’d been so unlucky as to find herself excluded from what she had considered to be the high point of the evening.

“Flamethrower”, “Miami Virtue”, “No Comment” (formerly known as Pop Tart), and others flew past my ears and into the back wall, as did the rainbow laser light show designed by Jefferson Waful.

But then, to close out the first set, Ivan Neville of Dumpstaphunk (and some serious other) fame, joined Joel Cummins on keys for a sparkling rendition of “Dump City”. My ears, as well as my mood, perked up, and I thought, “Maybe I ought to give these guys chance.”

After a quick set break, Umphrey’s McGee returned for a mind-blowing second half, chock-full of noteworthy moments (I was literally taking notes).

Joshua Redman, a Harvard graduate with a mean saxophone habit, joined the band for the entirety of its second set, bringing in a jazzy element to the so nonclassifiable sound that is Umphrey’s McGee. The septet blazed through rock, ska, funk — all bases were covered.

An extended jam of “Der Bluten Kat” ended with 12-year-old Boulder native Jaden Carlson being brought to the stage, trading out with Brendan Bayliss on guitar. I got chills watching her keep pace with these seasoned musicians. It was truly incredible to behold. The crowd was loving it too; this was history in the making.

Bayliss returned to the stage and the band pressed on through “Wife Soup” and “Ringo”, with Redman blazing away on the saxophone through it all. Intermittent puffs of smoke rose from the crowd (this was Denver, after all) and were caught in the crosshairs of roving lasers and stationary crystal chandeliers, purple-tipped soldiers from a time now past.

“River People” closed out and the band left the stage. The Fillmore erupted in applause and hardly anyone moved. We were expecting an encore.

And Umphrey’s McGee delivered, ending the night with “1348”, Redman still present on stage. “We've been blind to this before, so satisfy my fragile mind,” Bayliss belted to the entire auditorium.

This group first played The Fillmore Auditorium 11 years ago, on Halloween night in 2002. It opened for Leftover Salmon with a set time of 45 minutes. Umphrey’s McGee has since played 10 more shows there, including three of the last four days of 2013.

I’d say they’ve earned it. As the band cleared the stage, Bayliss shouted, “Thank you so much for letting us do what we do.”

And I answered silently, “Thank you for doing it.”

Thandiwe Ogbonna is a music writer gone rogue. Inspired by the love, acceptance, and incredible stories she has encountered on her journeys to and from live music events across the East Coast and Midwest, she has decided to document her experiences and share them with the world. Tweet to her, @ThandiWay, and tell her about yours.
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