Umphrey's McGee - Wrapped Around Chicago: New Years at the Riv DVD

Let’s face it. In this modern indie world where geekfreak is the new cool, Umphrey’s McGee are nowhere near it. Their wholesome, Midwestern good looks and guitarist Brendan Bayliss’s habitually backwards baseball cap place them somewhere between dork and normal on the image scale, and their sense of humor is far too cheeky to pass any hipster litmus test. By traditional rock and roll rules, only the fans are allowed the gratuitous “fuck yeah!” that Brendan Bayliss belts out after the ceiling falls through their New Year’s celebration on Wrapped Around Chicago, and the band’s first set New Year’s suits reach a little too desperately for irony. So if Umphrey’s McGee is so uncool, how does one explain the UM afroman tattoo that practically swallows the shoulder of some young man hamming it up for the camera during the first set?

Chances are the passionate adoration that would drive someone to permanently scar his body with the logo of a still not completely proven rock band is rooted in the two things Umphrey’s McGee possesses in abundance: talent and humility. The talent is unmistakable on this second DVD release, a visual record of the band’s 2004 New Year’s Eve party at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre. The minds and fret fingers of guitarists Bayliss and Jake Cinninger are welded tighter than Siamese twins, and the music twists and turns like the Millenium Falcon in an asteroid field. Considering the band’s masturbatory, spiraling prog-rock guitar and fifteen minute techno jams, though, the humility is a little more subtle. They don’t let their talent go to their heads, but they don’t deny it, either.

Those in either camp who refuse to accept that Umphrey’s McGee is the second coming of Phish are denying the obvious. Umphrey’s orchestrated rock and wandering electro-grooves are akin to what made Phishheads scour the internet for setlist asterisks and message board chatter, but what most endears both bands to their fans is their refusal to take themselves too seriously. Their goofy charm and subtle self-deprecation put them on equal footing with their audiences, as does their eagerness to walk the tightrope. Make no mistake: Umphrey’s McGee is the next big jam thing. Let’s hope so, anyway, for the tattooed guy’s sake.

In the jamband world, no show is perfect, and this one is no exception. There are huge, cathartic moments that never last long enough, like the finish on “Mulche’s Odyssey,” and there are songs, like “Robot World,” that can’t end too soon; but for the most part, Wrapped Around Chicago balances the band’s innate self-indulgence with disciplined simplicity. There may be no perfect shows, but there are plenty of good ones, and a few great ones. Which of the two this one is is up to the viewer, but the outstanding video quality and judicious crowd shots and camera play make this two-DVD set an outstanding release, essential for the obsessive Umphreaks and accessible enough for the curious jamfan.

Though sometimes prone to melodrama and excess, Umphrey’s is capable of four-minute pop ditties. The reggae bounce of “Anchor Drops” won’t blow any minds, but it’s sunny mood is catching, and “Partyin’ Peeps,” a cheesy road song about drinkin’, pukin’, dancin’, fuckin’, and other rock band exploits, is a fitting closer for the first disc.

Umphrey’s McGee’s strengths, however, lie in excess and embellishment, both of which abound in the music, as well as the special New Year’s Eve touches typical of jamnation’s biggest holiday. The opener, “Divisions,” builds slowly to Bayliss and Cinninger’s chunky riffing over their bandmates’ techno groove, and “Great American” cracks the whip on Cinninger’s pretty lick, pushing it into a double-time jam that gallops through some spectacular light wizardry. A sinister, blue, back-alley glow shadows the dark vibes of the multi-part “Prowler,” which takes a few tricky turns before ending up on the open road of an adventurous “Jimmy Stewart.” “The Crooked One” draws big cheers with its reference to New Year’s resolutions, but the band’s penchant for spectacle provides the most jarring moment of the evening.

Opening act Mini-Kiss’s return for some tongue-in-cheek hardcore growling on “(Rock) Nopener” is scary as much for the strobing stage lights and schizophrenic camera work as for the image of four midgets in full Kiss regalia banging their heads to lyrics like “second hand smoke smells like balls, piss and beer,” but the New Year’s fun merely begins here. Umphrey’s trots out a few friends on horns for the Bourbon Street breakdown of The Band’s “Ophelia” and Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” both of which they pull off with respectful soul. The screen throws back to black and white for drummer Kris Myers’ Sinatra impression on a lounge reinterpretation of “Nopener,” but “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” puts the colored spotlights back on the guitars where they belong.

The horn section returns for “Slacker” and completes the disco P-funk package on “Bright Lights,” before plunging off an 80s synth bridge as the New Year’s countdown begins. Mini-Kiss returns to celebrate through “Auld Lang Syne,” and the confetti and balloons continue to fall through the opening moments of “Plunger.” After a long night, Bayliss’ voice is crumbling, but the eye-candy dancers suspended from the ceiling are a good distraction, and they complement the bubbling dual guitar sparks that light up the song’s long interlude. Umphrey’s signature metal-inspired riffs draw a rhythmic maze for the fun, spiraling lyrics, and keyboardist Joel Cummins takes a sidetrip before the band drifts into the interminable darkness of a drums/space black hole.

As a closer, “Ringo” is a bit of a disappointment, but the short detour through Primus’s “My Name is Mud” almost picks up the slack. The band plays half of the encore from behind the monitor board, slowly filing back on stage for a Floydian techno dance party that eventually stumbles into “In the Kitchen,” a fitting ending and the inspiration for the DVD title. It lacks the fireworks of some of the earlier numbers, but at worst gives the audience fifteen more minutes to dance before wandering back out into 2005.

In the flesh, this would be a hell of a night, but on a TV screen in the living room, Wrapped Around Chicago requires serious dedication. I’ve never much believed in the reality of too much of a good thing, but for most people, this second Umphrey’s DVD will require more than one sitting, especially if they’re planning to dive into the extras, many of which are a waste of memory. A virtual backstage pass to the Jammys finds the band jamming with Huey Lewis, and the “Nemo” > “Padgett’s Profile” from the December 30th show is at least as good as anything on the disc proper, but aside from some fun claymation from the previous New Year’s, the rest of the “bonus” material is a boring excuse for a few of the band’s friends to play around with audio and video editing software.

But if Wrapped Around Chicago is a little over the top at times, it’s forgivable. Any release should reflect a band’s personality, and without the excess, this set would fail at that particular task. Though they don’t sport the mullets and Coke-bottle glasses of their phorebears, Umphrey’s McGee’s aesthetic is the same: play it well and play lots of it. While at times the Chicago sextet concentrates a little too much on shredding and not enough on going with the proverbial phlow, their over-ambition is merely a consequence of their youth, and their already solid songwriting and musicianship assures a coming maturity that will take them from the next big thing to yet another milestone in the evolution of what is becoming a viable and creative genre in the ever-expanding world of live rock and roll.

- Review by Brian Gearing