By Joshua Colky
Photography by Kristine Condon
The summer sun was beaming stupendously against the majestic desert rocks as Umphreaks began to file into Red Rocks Amphitheater for a full evening of improvisational onslaught. Umphrey’s McGee, in their 10th appearance upon the rocks, brought a small festival’s worth of a lineup and earned their second consecutive sell out. Not an easy feat over a holiday weekend during a year with major national competition (think midwest). In Colorado, the music obsessives become thirsty as the intimate interspersed annual shows become harder to get into (think Aspen and Boulder). With back-to-back sell outs under their belts, we may finally see some multi-night performances upon the Stonehenge in the Sky.
This year’s show was punctuated by a jam heavy, stacked first set and interesting song choices all around. New York City heavy progressive fusion quintet Tauk played an abridged set starting around six thirty in the evening as the venue began to fill in. By the time Papadosio brought out their untzfunk, the pavilion was at capacity, full of smiling, semi-inebriated faces who bumbled along the tiered seating towards their friends. As Umphrey’s took the stage, fireworks began to appear behind the stage from several various out-laying surrounding suburbs. Independence Day at Red Rocks is a unique musical experience that will never get repetitive.
Puppet String is a perfect opener, enjoyed by almost all various Umphreaks, a heavy jam vehicle that has seen much action throughout recent years. The Puppet contained a nice classic rock guitar solo coming out of the first section. Always an awkward transition, the band found its was into 2nd Self, an enduring Umphrey’s classic that is lighter in tone with a piano that skips hopscotch note to note throughout the tune, interlacing lingering fuzzy guitar leads. Go To Hell is a rugged, dark distorted monster, perfectly picked for the place, flicker finger hammer-on accenting the unchanging, heavy build.
Mulche’s Odyssey follows, standardly played as a launching pad for a giant meaty Higgins-within a-Mulche sandwich. The contained track is a highlight of the show, embodying a jam that initially belays a positive motif before quickly taking a dark turn when the Joel brings in a haunting piano. Extremely energetic, waves of sound work their way around the bass and piano, creating the elaborate, dynamic build that Umphrey’s is known for. The guitarists crescendo into bent notes and shredded spirals which wrap around themselves before landing back into the standard groove and riding it along Myer’s tidal wave drums. Landing back into Mulche’s, the band allows themselves and the audience a moment of calm during a stock sing-along No Diablo.
Fans were only allowed that brief reprieve before a mint rendition of Pay the Snucka commences, tons of sway causing collective audience hip gyration. One of the few dance grooves of the first set, this funk fest made seamless transition into Rocker 2, improvisation containing a slow, heavy building jam which plays off the original riff before sliding into a ladder climbing, layered jam with a hint of Lawrence of Arabia twisted into the song by Jake. His leads dance on until they stand alone and segue into a pretty, perfectly placed Pequod. Points awarded for the transition from Pequod into Pay the Snucka pt. 3, the band wraps a bow on the fantastic first set with guitars blazing and deafening drums.
A short set break was broken by Independence Day classic Ringo. This rendition was not as focused, containing sloppy breakdowns after the first and second “greasy animals” portions, where both the Jake and Joel seeming to have trouble finding direction. The space in the jams may have been intentional but did not work for the jam, and after a long meander the boys found their way back to the funk glide “Slim knows the score” section. Sleepily lingering its way out of Ringo was an untraditional, “alternate” rendition of Similar Skin single Cut the Cable. While light years better than the now-played-out original, the “alternate” version is maybe too patient, borderlining on sleepy before reaching a tonal mark where the guitar goes Gilmore and the leads linger alluringly. Joel sets the voice as Jake plays like a person possessed, sauntering confidently into a cover of Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond. Done with Umphrey’s flair while remaining true to the original sound, the ambience was beautifully amplified by the surrounding venue.
Umphrey’s takes a short pause before diving into one of two true untzparties of the evening: Bad Friday. Bringing out Ali Baba’s Tahini drummer Steve Krojniewski (Krojo) to join Farag in perc-world, the band interweaving hints of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Somethin’” into the driving dance number. The verse vocals flawlessly executed, the jam is adjourned for an extended drum breakdown. The energy rides high as the instruments glide back into the drums, Stastik’s bass was very funky as it walked across the fretboard while the guitars crescendo. This second set standout overshadows the rest of the tunes pre-encore.
The trailing Divisions, a longtime Umphrey’s classic which causes Umphreaks to instantly reminiscence is the open face of a strange sandwich. Highlighted by a driven, positive, energetic jam coming out of the first section, the first portion of Divisions plays on the songs tonal motifs while remaining on course. This fades as the band lingers into a dark stand alone guitar jam and makes its way to an uninspired Believe the Lie (with the now-standard intro). The turn in the tr Both tracks would have stood stronger as a stand alones and here the break in Divisions does little to add to its reprise. While Bayliss has been vocally immaculate in recent executions of Believe the Lie (4/25 for example), he fell flat on the difficult verses. The segue back into Divisions was beautifully done but the tune had lost
some power during the transition between the tunes. The standard set ended with the reminder of how significant the communal soul embrace is to the Umphrey’s community. The encore break began with a short video in which Umphrey’s announced a four night New Year’s Eve run in Denver, delighting fans whose appetite was only whetted by the Red Rocks performance.
An encored Triple Wide did much to bounce back the semi-sloppy second set. The sonar sounding, bass led industrial dance jam did a nice job of tying in the many aspects of the evening. Heavy influences traces the tune as the song remained bounce based, Joel’s keys adding several synthy layers over a palm muted guitar. Timing is highlighted as the band gels wonderfully, each member ducking in and out of the song to add detail and depth. The night ends with the final portion of the previously unfinished Puppet.
While Umphrey’s had probed several spacey concepts the night before, the Red Rocks show was a much more schizophrenic: a darker, heavier feel ran throughout interrupted by consuming dance opportunities, the various contrasts within Umphrey’s music pronounced, highlighting guitar work foremost over the other instruments. This lack of flow inhibited the show from being Platinum quality, but the songs themselves are all masterfully executed in their own right. Track selection was scattered but there were few tunes to complain about, many tracks being tenebrous one offs from throughout the band’s tenure – truly a fan’s band with little sign of “selling out” for these sell outs.”