In the previous volume of the Umphrey’s McGee Colorado Chronicles, I mentioned that Umphrey’s made it possible for me to spend almost my entire day in Denver with them. I didn’t get to hang out backstage and shoot the breeze while drinking Colorado micro brews and smoking Denver nuggets, or take turns jamming with them on their instruments, or have dinner with them at one of the local Eat-eries. That was actually how I dreamed the S2 event might be. However, for a couple hours, I did get to drink free Fat Tire, hang out in the empty Fillmore Auditorium, have a chance to tell the band what to play, ask questions and get all of the autographs I could carry. The StewArt series may be billed as a musical experiment, which is definitely included, but it is possibly even more impressive that it is such an intimate experience with such a talented group of musicians.
Sound caresser Kevin Browning took the stage a few moments after we fifty lucky participants were allowed through the doors and prompted to grab some free beer. The layout of the S2 event starts with the audience who sends texts with themes or descriptive phrases that they would like to hear turned into music. Browning, sifting through the ever updating list, picks out the ones that he thinks will prompt the band to do something special, relays it to a large projection screen and the band, seeing for the first time with the audience, reacts using their impressive on stage communication abilities to create either a song, scene or sound that is described. The music is played in three 15 minute sections, divided by a couple 5 minute question and answer segments.
Music Round 1 Immediately following Browning’s speech, the band arrived on stage, read the first message on the screen and musical jack-of-all-trades Jake Cinninger broke out into a bluegrass riff which Myers matched perfectly using the ‘untz’ of his electronic drums to begin the set with their rendition of “Techno Bluegrass.” With bassist Ryan Stasik playing the two-note thumping bluegrass line, the theme quickly started to sound like a Super Mario Brothers melody as Joel Cummins joined in with some very Nintendo sounding synth. After a few moments developing the jam, they all seemed to agree on bringing it to a close dropping into a reggae jam that featured the melody of Snoop Dogg rip “Xxplosive” from the guitar of Brendan Bayliss and a high pitched synth by Cummins. As if some horrible psychedelic had started taking a nasty turn, the band started in with a cacophonous muddle of guitar feedback, horrifying demon voices and crazy synth, the band practically fell into “Sound Engineer’s Worst Nightmare” for only a moment before finding a bluesy jingle for non-singer Ryan Stasik to explain in beat poetry style “How Ryan Felt About the Steelers Losing” followed by the blues croon of Kris Myers echoing “the Steelers lost baby” which again lasted for only a moment before moving on. Next came the funky bluesy “Sweaty Bunk Love,” a nod to the fact that Umphrey’s spends 200 days a year on the bus. “Mile High” followed: a majestic, invigorating jam highlighted by the soothing guitar tones from Bayliss, taking it to a truly beautiful level as the rest of the band picked up intensity before speeding into the disco funk of “Shirt Too Tight, Even for Joel.” Cinninger led the vocals, accented by Myers over a wild organ solo by Joel himself. The next request was to be “Wafuled” where the band thrust into a Jam based around their tune “Bright Lights, Big City,” building in volume and intensity together as lighting designer Jefferson Waful gave us a taste of what the evening’s show in Denver would hold. Myers and Farag traded latin pulsed rhythms at the behest of “Myers Farag Duel” before segueing into the graceful and equally perverted sequel “Saving the Princess Part II” which didn’t spend very long in innuendo land before heading into explicit world. This quickly fired off into a metal based “All Guns Blazin” to quickly end the set.
Question and Answer pt. 1 Road crew member Wade Wilby acted as the master of ceremonies for the event quickly finding the first participant to ask a question of the band. The question was about how they construct their Halloween song mash-ups that they started doing in 2008. Stasik answered that it all started with DJ Zebra’s mash of “Come Together” by the Beatles and “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails that they first played in Ventura, California in February of ‘08. They did a snippet of “Spirit of the Radio” by Rush and “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey to illustrate the idea better (and played “Nemo’s Fat Bottomed Good Times” in its entirety at the show that evening). To answer another question they gave a short demonstration of how they find the right key to work in when they are jamming before giving a some examples of how they make the decisions on what kind of jam to create. The S2 idea is similar to an idea they had where they would call out a word over the closed circuit mic and try to somehow fit that theme. The final query dealt with the question of how the band solved disagreements with each other. Jokes were made about how they don’t really talk to each other anymore. A candid Myers revealed that it is like any work relationship or friendship; people who spend that much time together just learn how to be congenial with each other and the successful bands are the one’s who were able to get along over the years.
Music pt. 2 The next round of music started with a rapidly paced, staccato noted version of one of their originals as an answer to “Wappy Dingleberry” which paused for a moment of fart joke samples before really digging in the hooks with deep synth and oscillating guitar harmonies. A funky blues drone followed with the hilarious impressions by Myers and Cinninger of “Conan vs. Leno” before jumping into another variation of an original with “Cemetery Walk III” which was a mellow take on their dance party sequel of “Cemetery Walk.” On a dime the music stopped and Cinninger jumped in with the raspy New York tinged imitation of Marc Brownstein while Bayliss did his best cherubic opera voice in “Brownstein vs. Jenn Hartswick” and on the same dime, the “C Walk III” resumed. A slow rocker with lyrics in the vein of a bluesy Zappa rip satisfied the request for “Coming in the back Door.” Quickly they switched to a sedate circus theme with hilarious dialogue that painted the picture of “Umphrey’s 1st Tour Bus” before taking a driving latin turn that quickly u-turned into a guitar laden metal musical theme with the the lyrics of “Whip It” for “Iron Maiden does Devo.” Without hesitation the band dropped into a pop country jam featuring Bayliss apologizing to his for all the dumb things he’d done that she didn’t know about it in “Song for your Moms.” Upon the flash of “Reaction to Aaron Magner Sitting In the Front Row Holidaze Moos” on the board, Myers picked up the tempo for a disco “untz” jam that dropped furiously into the beginning of Umphrey’s original “Hurt Bird Bath” to celebrate “Kris 7 Years with the Band” where he gave a few thanks and cracked a few jokes. Question and Answer pt. 2
MC Wade was impressed with the quality of the texts sent in and congratulated the audience for their knowledge of Kris’s 7 year anniversary with the band and the inter-band drama that went on at Jamaican Holidaze. Next, he made good on a promise that he’d made to me the night before, recognizing my ridiculous efforts at having the most fun of anyone in the building the night before in Aspen. For this, he bestowed upon me “The Loose Cannon Award” and turned the mic over to me for a couple of questions. I wanted to get an idea of their musical backgrounds so I asked them what instruments they started on. Cummins, Bayliss and Farag started on the instruments that they were playing on stage, but all of them had some knowledge of others. Stasik had switched from piano to guitar for the sake of be able to take it around and impress chicks and upon meeting Bayliss in college, decided to give the bass a shot. Not surprisingly, Myers and Cinninger both had laundry lists of instruments that they’d had training on including the drums, guitar piano and saxophone. Next, I wanted to give a little time to light designer Jefferson Waful and asked him how he picks the colors and patterns for the songs. He said a lot of it was improvised and changes from performance to performance but most of the Mantis material has specific schemes that he still follows. It was certainly thrilling to be so up close and personal. A final question was asked to Bayliss about changing lyrics which he said he tries to plan for but in some sections it just comes out as something different depending on how he is feeling.
Music pt. 3 Stasik started off the next selection of “Panty Droppin’ Pop” with a funky slap bass riff that the rest of the quickly picked up, making something in the vein of some 90’s pop. “Good Poker” followed as Stasik let off on the slap and Cinninger set in on some easy country licks. In an opposing view of his original alt country tune “Bad Poker,” he sings about making good decisions such as going home at night and not spending all of one’s time on the road gambling. Madness ensued next in a momentary hodgepodge of “Try to Confuse Jaco” where Stasik, interrupting momentarily, walked up to the make and summed it up saying, “Jake doesn’t get confused” before the band jumped into the ever emotional “Auld Lang Syne” for “NYE All Over Again.” A polka Mario style jam followed for “Umphrey’s McGee Land Theme Song” with some jazzy improvisation on the keys by Cummins and thanks from Bayliss for flying Air Umphrey’s. A funky jam ensued with vocal medley of Neil Diamond songs before flopping into the opening of “Mantis” for “1st Song You’ll Play When You Headline Red Rocks.” Bayliss quickly jumped into some off key scale practice to “Imitate Jake’s Style of Playing.” Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s classic tag team of “The Girl is Mine” was selected as the “Song for the 11 Chicks Here!” which the band joked about early in the set. Next Bayliss and Cinninger moved over to the replace Cummins on the keys, jamming into Mantis track “Made to Measure” to answer the call for “Joelless in Flagstaff Reprise” before Joel returned, bags in hand, as he had in San Diego. A blues country ditty followed about the unhealthy fare at a local diner in “How You Feel After Eating at Waffle House” and was complete with more fart sounds from Farag’s sampling machine. “Riders on the Snow Storm” followed the Doors tune to perfection, changing the lyrics up to describe the feeling of riding through the treacherous blizzards that they had seen on this tour through the mountains which dropped out into “Acapella” a barbershop quartet style vocal jam that Myers added some drum beats to and off into a driving “Preview of Summercamp” jam to close out the set.
Afterwards, the band came out and talked, joked, signed autographs and really just hung out with everyone there. On the whole, the experience was amazing and one that the most fans have never known. The members of Umphrey’s are doing a special thing here and even though it does cost $100, with an hour of intimate music and questions, getting to hang out with the members of the band and topping it off with free beer and pizza, this is one of the best ways I can think of to spend the afternoon before the show. And, as has been proven once again, when the band gets to stretch out, warm up and get comfortable with the crowd, the shows that follow the S2 events have been nothing short of phenomenal.