By: Carmel O'Farrell | Photos: Michael Welter | Video: Charles Izenstark
The Umphrey’s community in the Chicagoland area contains some of the most devout fans in the jam world.
After all, this prog-heavy powerhouse rock sextet once called the Windy City their home and cut their teeth in many of the local venues like Martyrs and Schubas. But over the past decade, some band members have moved away, local promoters have had trouble slotting the bad into the right rooms at the right times, and the band relied less on the the city as a true home base.
With Umphrey’s expanding their touring chops outside the Midwest, Chicago fans have been left wanting more. They band together for road trips to new lands and bunker down in foreign cities for multi-night runs, but the days of recurrent hometown gigs seem to be long gone.
Luckily, modern day social media still allows us to connect with those who share our same interests. I am not sure when Illinois Umphrey’s Crew first came to be, but I have been a member of this group for at least five years.
Over time we began to connect in real life, whether it be bowling on the weekends or checking out music other than Umphrey’s. We always talked about organizing our own special show with the members of Umphrey’s but logistics for something like that were more complex than our capabilities.
Enter Barry Brown.
Back in April of this year, Barry commissioned Umphrey’s lead vocalist Brendan Bayliss to play a small intimate show for us at Tonic Room in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. Barry has been part of ILUMCrew longer than I have and proved he had the connections and know-how to get the job done. It goes without saying that the event was a huge success.
Fast forward to the fall and Chicago fans were once again itching for more Umphrey’s. Brown explained, “I figured with Umphrey's being off the road for all of November, it might be a good time to make something happen.”
On Sunday, November 15th, 2015 Umphrey’s guitarist Jake Cinninger was invited to play two back-to-back shows at the Tonic Room. Cinninger joined Umphrey's McGee back in 2000 and has provided enough fuel to blast this progressive jam band into the top echelon of the live music scene.
Jake is a bit of a wild card on stage, yet there is a shyness that reveals itself when the spotlight captures his eyes just right.
Getting him to accept the invitation once again required the finesse of one Barry Brown. "Jake and I have done shows together every once in a great while over the years. We did a 'Jake and Friends' show about a week after Umphrey's played Bonnaroo for the first time, and he also played with my old band Jack Straw for 3 of our Jerry Garcia tribute shows. So we have a history together.” Brown explained, “The Jake solo shows came about after I told him about Brendan's solo show and how much fun everyone had. I told Jake that a lot of fans had been asking me to try and get him to do something.”
Besides the Bayliss show, Tonic Room has been providing a steady stream of unique concerts over the past couple years from artists who find a home in the jam community -- both Gene and Dean Ween have brought their solo acts here. While JRAD plays the much larger Concord, both Marco Benevento and Tom Hamilton have made recents stops at Tonic Room.
Since the room only holds around 100 people, these shows are intimate. You can literally reach out and touch your favorite artist, if you wanted to be "that guy". With Barry behind the bar most nights, there is a true sense of place and community unlike any other venue in Chicago.
Both Jake Cinninger solo shows sold out almost immediately after they went on sale, with Illinois Umphrey’s Crew getting first dibs on tickets. The early show began promptly at 6pm and the room was packed.Jake entered from the back of the venue, escorted by a body guard who cleared a path as the Rocky theme song blared over the PA system. The crowd raised their beer cans and cheered as Jake took to the small stage that rises only a few inches above the floor. Barry took the mic to introduce Cinninger and not a single pair of eyes weren’t glued to this performer.
The Tonic Room was filled with many familiar faces, eager to soak in each note Cinninger played. No one, including perhaps Jake himself, knew what to expect.
He set up everything an arm’s length away like a pilot commanding a cockpit. He pointed out that no computers were being used, and then proceeded to play the guitar, keyboard, and bass -- sometimes simultaneously.
Instead of a drum kit, the multi-faceted musician pre-recorded drum tracks at his home studio so he could play over them in real time during his performance. He truly was a one-man-band.
While at times Cinninger may have telegraphed that he was outside of his comfort zone, you could also tell he was having a blast. Even when he bumped the keyboard while shredding on guitar, Jake just laughed it off and incorporated his mistake into the song.
As for the fans, we relished this unique opportunity to see an incredibly talented musician expose all the elements of his craft. “He can pick up anything and make music," one appreciative fan told me.
The content of the show featured a little bit of everything -- from old favorites to new, improvised jams. Right off the bat things got weird and the mad scientist within Cinninger quickly began to tweak and adjust the sounds he delivered.
When compared with the solo show from his bandmate Bayliss, it was clear to see where these two musicians differ, yet come together nicely to form integral parts of Umphrey's McGee. While Brendan can sit with an acoustic and focus on melody, Jake had a more full frontal approach -- attacking a song head on and tearing it to pieces in the most magical way.
The setlist was littered with metal undertones like Umphrey's original "Nopener" and Def Leppard's "Hysteria.” It also included many covers that Umphrey's has yet to tackle, Waylon Jenning's "Good 'Ol Boys" from The Dukes of Hazzard and "Plush" by Stone Temple Pilots.
Cinninger also covered a solo version of "Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac which was a recently mashed up with "Rock With You" by Michael Jackson and “Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd at Umphrey's Halloween show in Milwaukee.
The most sobering song of the night was the Pink Floyd cover, "Mother." In light of the Paris terrorist attacks that happened just a few days before, there was a gravity to this song that never felt more real. From the first verse, "Mother do you think they'll drop the bomb?" the crowd grew silent, letting the depth of the tune resonate within the confined space of a sold out room. But it was the sweet moments of the set that most of the audience walked away with, especially Jake’s tribute to "Lenny" by Stevie Ray Vaughan.
The room grew hot and sweat began to soak through Cinninger's baseball cap, a detail really only noticeable in a venue this size. He has an incredible talent that is rooted in a desire to explore new musical territories. But with Umphrey's, Jake controls this side of his playing, and you rarely see him get as weird as he did at Tonic Room that night. Jake’s solo take of "Wizard Burial Ground" allowed us to see just how much this guitarist contributes to the stirring energy of Umphrey's McGee.
The room cleared between shows and the second sold out crowd gathered at the Tonic Room just before 9pm. The later show was fairly similar to the first and included a few repeats: "Mother," "Nopener," and Bob Seger’s "Night Moves" among them.
Bayliss was also present, though only enjoyed the show from the back of the bar as Jake took over the room with his unique style of playing. The two have been playing together for over 15 years, including their yearly holiday benefit show at the Park West, but this was a rare occasion where Bayliss participated as an audience member instead of a performer.
In all, the rare opportunity to see this musician all by himself was beyond unique and his humble energy made us love him that much more. Longtime fans like myself were definitely treated to something special that night. The next Umphrey’s related Tonic Room show will take place on December 19th and will feature Brendan Bayliss along with mandolin player Jeff Austin. This show, billed as 30db, also sold out immediately.
Setlist (via jambase)
Set: Something Inside (new Jake song), Dreams (Fleetwood Mac) , Dancing Days (Led Zeppelin) , Nopener, Metal solo , Hysteria (Def Leppard) , Jazz solo, Good Ol' Boys (Waylon Jennings), Mother (Pink Floyd) , Night Moves (Bob Seger) , unknown song (Jake original?) , Bad Poker  , Can't You See (Marshall Tucker Band) , Wizard Burial Ground , Moving In Stereo (The Cars), Seek And Destroy (Metallica), Lenny (Stevie Ray Vaughan), Jaco P Ville , Plush (Stone Temple Pilots) 
 contained musical elements of the Halloween mashup
 Eruption tease
 Pour Some Sugar On Me vocal tease before Hysteria (Step inside, walk this way...)
 Jake on bass; funky bass jam with stop/start keyboard drum triggers Fool in the Rain tease before Lenny (Jake explained that the drum beat he used for Seek and Destroy was originally intended for Fool in the Rain, but "Fuck that Led Zeppelin song")