Rage: So It Begins
Anticipation slowly welled up for months. It bubbled harder the last few weeks and verged on eruption by the time Kris Kringle had done his rounds. The run was unprecedented—five nights of Umphrey’s McGee to send off 2014 and ring in 2015. Atlanta would be our realm, the Tabernacle our fortress, and UM our vessel to ride into the New Year.
Each show, set, song and note contributed to the buildup of our own Umph-iverse in midtown Atlanta. Umphrey’s laid down a sturdy foundation Wednesday with old-school favorites like “Andy’s Last Beer.” They exuded energy and exhibited instant comfort to the congregation inhabiting the three-tiered old church. Born-again Umphreaks received the sermon with delight. As Brendan Bayliss crept to center-stage during “Padgett’s Profile,” leaning back and coolly, adroitly finger-tapping his guitar, Jake Cinninger proffered a retort for each lick, shooting off ominous plucks and meeting Bayliss in the middle for a much-appreciated explosion. There were no New Year’s Eve-eve training wheels.
The Dec. 30 show set the tone for the run: as Bayliss eloquently stated, Umphrey’s would be delivering godboners all week. “40’s theme” riled us up and we poured our energy back to the stage, driving the band to an emotional “Preamble>Mantis.” “The Triple Wide” rekindled a dance fever that UM started in set one with an uncharacteristically bright “Blue Echo.” We did our best to remind Stasik the importance of hygeine (“Pay the Snucka”) and melancholically belted out “Divisons.”
And, when it was all over, the usual end-of-show tinge of dejection was absent: the night was over, but the party had only begun.
Repeat: A Horny New Year’s Eve
Balloons hung from the ornate chandelier and excitement spread through the Tabernacle. Guys in suits danced with gals in dresses as Umphrey’s opened the New Year’s Eve affair with two heavy hitters, “Nothing Too Fancy> All In Time.” After new-ish crowd favorite “Mad Love” and oldie “In The Kitchen” Mad Dog and His Filthy Little Secret joined the party. Saxophonist Jeff Coffin had previously played on Umphrey’s New Year’s run in St. Louis. With the full brass section blaring, they closed the last first set of 2014 by introducing a new original, “Piranhas” and paying tribute to Joe Cocker with a heated rendition of “Feelin’ Alright.”
Andy Farag and the Fabric Softeners continued the crescendo to 2015 during set two. There was a tight “Puppet String” delightfully warm “August” and “Bright Lights, Big City” was ‘big and bright’. They debuted Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” and Bayliss reminded the crowd to forget the past, forget your mistakes; forget the corner you peed in and the disappointments you have; move on—live in the moment and embrace the future.
The third set was special; they only play three on New Year’s Eve.
Ten, nine, eight, the crowd surged and swayed.
Seven, six, five, “Bad Friday” was as good as ever.
Four, three, two, a palpable energy shook the Tabby.
Balloons fell as toasts went up; lovers kissed, friends embraced; strangers high-fived and the party raged on. The transition from 2014-15 in Atlanta is something we all shared, we all had and would always have together. This was Umphrey’s year and this was our year. A resounding hopefulness was nearly suffocating as Farag went to town on the cowbell during a rowdy “Honky Tonk Women.” We banged heads for “Plunger” and sang loudly to “No Diablo.” Finally, after five hours of soaring, the hardest working man in show business, Kris Myers, led a filthy cover of James Brown’s “Living In America” and we were all booted from the Tabernacle (only for 18 hours) high on Umphrey’s and life and each other.
Repeat Again: It Always Seems To Get Better
As I ascended nine flights of creaky old wooden stairs to the upper level Thursday night, a slight comedown from last night’s celebration was anticipated. I grabbed my spot—front and center balcony: the sound was pristine and the view unimpeded—and said “hello” to the same neighbors from the previous nights. A comedown was expected, but everything just got better; it always seems to get better. The band pushed all the right buttons and pulled all the right strings. Cinninger led a fierce live debut of Similar Skin‘s “Hindsight” before they acknowledged the state of affairs with “Hangover.” The chorus smoothly transitioned in and back out of a dark, heavy jam during “Domino Theory” and they played a beautiful “Utopian Fir.” The New Year’s theme carried into “Resolution” and they closed the set with a conclusion to “1348” which was left open-ended on New Year’s Eve.
Tie-doting Joel Cummins (the rest of the band dressed up for New Year’s Eve) made some extra room at his keys early in the second set when Cinninger rounded his way over during a “Sociable Jimmy.” While manipulating the neck of his guitar with his left hand, he hammered on the keys with his right, demonstrating his musical mastery. Lighting guru Jefferson Waful shined down steady beams of green, yellow, and red during a cover of Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself” but put on a mesmerizing display during a thick, heavy “Phil’s Farm.” Between Marley and “Phil’s,” the band debuted velvety funk tune “Full Frontal.” This sexy odyssey will be great when they stretch it out into some longer jams in the future. Even after a “JaJunk> Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough> JaJunk” encore sandwich, “Full Frontal” settled in my mind and led my victory dance onto Luckie St. after night three.
Repeat III: An Acoustic Reprieve
A few folks stopped for a night or two on their way south to Miami or north to Carolina, but a big and boisterous gathering made the five night pilgrimage. A symbiotic relationship formed early between band and crowd and solidified each night. The “Joel” chants became more emphatic and frequent. Faces grew familiar in places. The employees—who were all friendly and easy-going—played along with our shenanigans. By Friday night, the Tabby was our second home and we formed a levee of bodies protecting Her from wave after wave of unrelenting rock.
The waves did crash a bit gentler on January 2. After UM classics “Higgins” “Der Bluten Kat” and “2×2,” Bayliss and Cinninger busted out acoustic guitars. For the first time all week, people sat down, leaned back, and kicked the feet up. A “Nemo>Sweetness>Nemo” sandwich was one of the tastiest of the entire run. Reassuring lyrics, harmonious strumming and astute plucking toasted us slowly like marshmallows. They wrapped up the acoustic portion of the show by debuting Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Southern Cross” which was especially appreciated by some of the elder Umphreaks.
UM served a “Hurt Bird Bath>Upward>Hurt Bird Bath” sandwich to open the second set; the crisp “HBB” crusts contrasted the gooey “Upward” center deliciously. Later, former STS9 bassist Dave Murphy relieved Ryan Stasik on bass for Pink Floyd’s “In The Flesh” and “Another Brick In The Wall” that shook the Tabby. If there was any question as to whether Umphrey’s felt at home, they came out for the encore adorned in white robes and proceeded to melt minds with a short and sweet“Glory” and melt faces with a fat “Slacker.”
Repeat IV: The Last Rage
Orange “Umph-love” stickers turned up on sidewalks, MARTA (subway) stations, in restaurants, hotels, and Uber cars across Atlanta all week. The stickers are tangible representations of our love for the band, the Umph-amily, the way of life; there’s no quicker or more organic way to induce a smile than by offering an Umphreak a sticker. It appeared everyone emptied their rolls Saturday night; the neon orange glow seemed brighter our last night at the Tabernacle.
Adorned in his Steelers’ black and yellow, Stasik led the way into a very wappy “Wappy Sprayberry.” Unlike his football team, Stasik came to play. He expelled some cheeky bass thwacks during “Professor Wormbog” and sounded strong during his solo and an overall invigorating “Bridgeless” that opened and closed the second set.
It took until the final night for Umphrey’s to say “nice to meet you” with “Hajimemashite.” Sweet as that jam was, they followed it up by dropping a big eerie dump on us—“Dump City.” We had earlier seen how well “Syncopated Strangers” can interact, gotten a glimpse at “The Bottom Half,” joined in on an adventurous “Mulche’s Odyssey” and went to town with “Partyin’ Peeps.” The transition from “No Comment>Bridgeless” brought about a sick lurch in the bottom of the stomach. It sounded so good, but signified the end. Everyone cranked it into high gear for one last 8-minute run at what we love.
“It’s the end of the world as we know it,” Bayliss fittingly sang during the encore, “and I feel fine.”
Our ephemeral bubble was burst and we were expounded back into the streets of Atlanta, back into the real world. With one swift cover, Umphrey’s McGee tore down the surreal universe we had constructed together the previous five nights. There were moments of clarity and confusion, creepiness and craftiness. The overall experience was grotesquely ethereal as Umphrey’s delivered in typical inspired fashion for the atypically long residency.
2015 rocks. It’s Umph-reaking-believable.