The excitement can be seen on every one of the other 49 faces in the Crystal Ballroom’s waiting area as the anticipation for the Umphrey’s McGee’s second StewArt event reaches it’s peak. After a few moments, the door opens and pianist Joel Cummins enters the room first, followed closely by the rest of the band. They are all smiles as they arrive and meld into the crowd to mingle, relieving the tension in the room. After a short chat, sound caresser Kevin Browning calls for everyone’s attention: it is time to begin the presentation. The stage is completely set up with instruments and lights as we reach the actual ballroom and the intimate crowd of Umphreaks heads towards the front to get situated. Browning calls our attention again, this time from the bandstand as he explains to us what we are about to do.
The StewArt (or S2) event is a new creation designed to meld audience participation with completely improvised music. Audience members text theme ideas to Kevin Browning who sifts through the madness to find the best and presents it on a projector for both the band and audience to see. The band then, in real time, with their closed circuit mics and hand signals, tries to represent that idea with fitting musical improvisation. The results were everything from technically impressive to downright hilarious.
Improv pt. 1 It was rather odd to see Umphrey’s take the stage with rays of sun peeking through the windows into the hall as opposed to the usual night time ambiance. Jefferson Waful, celebrating about a year as Umphrey’s lighting designer paid no attention to the lack of darkness that usually serves as his canvas and already had the massive cannon lights beaming patterns around the ballroom. As the band took the stage, there were already many patrons notably looking down at their cell phones, sending in the first lot of ideas and within an instant, the band reacted with a wild interpretation of “Mudslide on Mars,” a short and fluid chromatic decent right into the exiting polar opposite “Climbing a Mountain” which raced heavily upwards to a screaming peak until backing down slowly for a rendering of a floaty, spaced out “Balloon Boy” with guitar/vocalists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss adding vocal frills (’am I the only one up here?’).
Next, the band dropped seamlessly into a mash-up of Dr. Dre’s track ‘Xxplosive’ and an up tempo ‘Stranglehold’ by Ted Nugent to answer the call for “West Coast vs. East Coast” before laying out for a Jake introduced alt. country jam beckoned by the addition of “vs. Midwest.” The next hilarious text came in as “Hall and Oates make a Porno” to which the band broke into a disco funk groove complete with lyrics about the value of the mustache and sex noises to the delight of the audience. And, as just as smoothly as it was introduced, it was morphed into the next theme, a heavy “Funky Imperial Death March” into the sneaky “slashing tires.” The next theme, “I’m Unemployed,” was a jazzy tale about how hard it is to make it in the music world which gave way to the metal base of Iron Maiden with the impressive high pitched wails of Jake as Chaka Khan into a blistering guitar solo until the final number of the set came “slowly spiraling down” into a roar of appreciation from the small audience.
Q&A pt.1 Road crew member Wade Wilby played Master of Ceremonies (although he was jokingly fired multiple times by the band throughout the course of the interview) for the first round of question and answer. The first question was about set list creation. Bayliss answered that they usually look at the last two or three set lists played at that particular venue, trying not to repeat anything (especially covers) and the mood of the band, but that the responsibility is cycled throughout the band randomly. Jake answered the next question about seeing other bands which he said they usually do during festival season since the ratio of playing time to hanging out time in those situations. They also said that these days, though they are friends, their off the road time is not spent together since they spend 150 days a year together on a 40 foot bus. Stasik answered a question related to the S2 event saying that the hardest part of the improv was to get the ideas of all six members of the band to come together within an instant of seeing the topic (they make it look so easy though...).
Improv pt. 2 Round two of Improv began with an upbeat poppy reggae with the melody of Black Sabbath’s ‘Crazy Train’ superimposed over it to create a very interesting “jamaican-me-crazy” (Sharon!). Cinninger and Bayliss traded wild video game-esque riffs over a swinging base in “ping-pong jazz” before leading into the mellow soothing warmth of “You love your fans” including a tease of the closing lines of fan favorite (and rarity) ‘Front Porch’. Next, a wah-wah filled Peter Gunn Theme (with guitar sirens) evolved into a fast paced pursuit before entering a bluesy outro created the picture of “Being Chased by the Cops.” The funk continued into “Swine Flu” which featured Cinninger and Bayliss coughing and choking into the mic before the music was cut for “Jake and Brendan only” who did a Jar Jar Binks and R2D2 impression into the mic with a return back to the funk before “Skydiving with no parachute” and crashing into the end of the second set.
Q&A pt. 2 Q&A session two started with an explanation by Jake of the progression of their new album “Mantis” on the road as they got used to it. Next, Bayliss gave light to their belief that although they feel a bit constricted by the term ‘Jam Band’, they don’t care what they are called at this point because they have established themselves enough and are just happy that they are getting the recognition they do. Drum kit savant Kris Myers and bassmaster Ryan Stasik gave light to how they along with Cummins and Andy Farag (percussionist) try to come together in the creation of improvisation to create a steady base for the band to work from, as well as sometimes, layering two rhythms over another to add depth.
Improv pt. 3 The last set of Improv began with a perverted rock ballad duet called “Saving the Princess” pitting Bayliss as the horny savior and Cinninger as the prude princess followed closely by an “Andy Fart Solo” into the techno confusion of “Drunken stumbling into a techno rave in boys town” starring Bayliss as the unassuming drunk coming to in a mass of dancing men. “Reggae Safe Sex PSA” featured old abstinence propaganda lines and a vocal tease from Fabulous Thunderbirds hit(?) “Wrap It Up” (I’ll take it). Next, the band fired into a vaulting country chase with Cinninger belting out blistering guitar riffs and Myers taking on the persona of Yosemite Sam in a Looney Tunes themed engagement. The request to “Bring it Old Skool Comton Style” was met with an instrumental G’z and Hustla’z by the Dogg Fatha himself, Snoop. A reworking of the Grateful Dead’s ‘Bertha’ lyrics made for a comical tale of “Went Mushroom Hunting and Ate the Wrong one” to the cheers of the crowd. “Scareway to Heaven” was a spooky off key nod to the Led Zeppelin classic before the majestic “We won the war” led into their staple nod to Spinal Tap’s take on Luigi Boccherini’s ‘Minuet from String Quintet in E major, G.275’ which is the end of their (mostly) original tune ‘All in Time’ to fulfill the last request of “Mozart Bigass Finish.”
Q&A pt. 3 The last Q&A section started with the band’s answers to their favorite musicians they’ve shared the stage with. Jake said blues guitar legend Buddy Guy, Brendan replied with jazz guitar genius Stanely Jordan, Stasik answered with funky bass bad-ass Nick Blaskey, Myers sounded off with Stanley Jordan and Adrian Belew, Andy jokingly said Jeremy Piven (who was a train wreck when he joined them on stage one night), and Joel said Jimmy Herring. Jake answered the next question about the origins and proper audience technique of the S2, calling on Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies where he would pick a card out of a large deck that had a picture of a scene (blue whale was an example) that would help to get the creative juices flowing when they were having issues “getting the right equation.” Finally, someone asked what each band member was listening to these days. Jake answered with his old metal roots like Randy Rhoads and early Metallica. Kris said he was also going back to his roots and listening to a lot of his favorite band, The Police. Keyboardist Donny Hathaway’s live performances was what Joel said he had been most inspired by lately. Ryan said he recently got into Phoenix at the behest of MC Wade, Tool and Bill Laswell. Bayliss said he still listens to the Beatles almost daily and answered for Farag that he pretty much only listens to hip hop, rap and John Tesh.
Afterwards, the band hung out for about an hour signing autographs, taking pictures and just hanging out with the fans. It was a pleasure to meet them all as they are not just adept musicians, but friendly, inviting and funny. The whole experience was something I will never forget and it set the mood perfectly for an evening of one of the best shows I’ve ever seen them play.