I'd like to tell you a story about a band called Umphrey's McGee and how they changed all of the rules in a matter of four hours. Last Saturday night I was witness to history being made. The inaugural UMBowl event took place in front of myself and five hundred other fantastically lucky individuals. To say that it was different, that it was fresh, that it was original does not really do it justice. Last night Umphrey's McGee successfully executed the most interactive concert experience that I have ever heard of, let alone seen in person.
It started last fall with a concept the band had been developing based on a Brian Eno recording exercise known as the Oblique Strategies. Essentially they wanted a way to perform audience-influenced improvisational jams, trying to push the boundaries and expand their own musical styles and abilities. A chain of events known as StewArt Series (or S2s) were planned and performed. Using a program called Mozes the band was able to set up a projector screen capable of receiving and displaying audience suggestions submitted via text messaging from cell phones. The events were a big hit with fans, and the band showed significant improvements in the interpretation and execution of abstract ideas as musical concepts over the course of the six S2s. Whether they had the UMBowl in mind as an end game or if it came up naturally in the wake of the success of these events is something that I am unable to answer. What I can tell you is that the UMBowl was like an S2 on steroids mixed with an all-request radio show and a multiple-choice “choose your own adventure” novel.
As the name suggests, the UMBowl is a play on a sports motif. The evening unfolded over four quarters, each with a different driving theme. Each quarter also featured a short start-up video modeled lovingly after SportsCenter commercials that gave an inside peek at the operations at UMHQ (This is Umphrey's McGee!). Q1 was an accoustic all request quarter, Q2 was a theme-laden version of an S2, Q3 was an electric all request quarter, and in Q4 audience members were able to vote on three different options for what direction the music should head following each song. For Q1 and Q3, electronic ballots were issued ahead of time allowing for participants to select the songs they would like to hear. Surprises were abundant, including some songs being played for the first time, some classics reinterpreted in different musical styles, special appearances by some 'retired' songs, and some brand new covers. Sticking with the sports theme, I'll give you a play by play breakdown of how each set developed over the course of the evening.
Q1: Fan favorite “Front Porch” kicked off the first set and got everyone in the mood for some good ol' partying. The debut of an accoustic version of “Hurt Bird Bath” (my number one pick) came next and pretty much set my ears on fire. UM did me the fine service of sandwiching Led Zeppelin's “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” right in the middle, which provided an opportunity for a fantastic segue back into the second half of “HBB.” If that was good, the full band live premier of “The Weight Around” from Safety in Numbers (2006) was downright amazing. Just thinking about Jake Cinninger playing his electric guitar with a finger slide gives me goosebumps. An unexpected (but well executed) cover of the Stone Temple Pilot's radio hit “Interstate Love Song” followed and segued into UM's magnum opus “Divisions” before the whistle blew on the first quarter.
Q2: Keyboardist Joel Cummins made the first play in the second quarter by announcing the first category for text suggestions, “Mash-Up Anything”. There were some good ideas and some not so good ideas, and some of the jams didn't necessarily pan out very well. A few of the highlights were “Bathtub Gin and Juice” (Phish + Snoop Dogg), “Tribute To Lady Madonna” (UM + Beatles), and “Bowie Here Come The Mantis” (UM + David Bowie). Suggestsions like JaJunk Funk and Tool/Jackson 5 were less entertaining for me, but they only spent a few minutes on each idea and avoided getting bogged down with a concept that didn't work. The second category for suggestions was “Numbers, Colors, and Shapes,” though there was still some carryover from the “Mash-Up” round. I enjoyed “2x2 and One by Metallica” (UM + Metallica) and “Electric Kitchen” (Electronic rendition of an UM song). Again, however, suggestions like “Rocket Man Lyrical Stew” led to troubled improvisations that were quickly abandoned. The third and final category for suggestions was “Make Us Laugh” and produced such quirky suggestions as “Folk Prince of Bel Air” and “Reggae, Titties, and Beer” that led to short entertaining jaunts to close out the first half of UMBowl.
Q3: It seems that the third quarter was put together with the intention of allowing the fans to vote some of their favorite songs that have been 'retired' back onto the playing field, at least for one night. Although the ballots had a finite number of specific songs to choose from, the good folks down at UMHQ saw fit to throw some old favorites in there. Thus it came to pass that the awkwardly named “Muffburger Sandwich” and “Muff II: The Revenge” saw the light of day for the first time in 619 and 1005 shows respectively. Also surfacing from the not-quite-so-distant past was “All Things Ninja,” featuring some impressive drumming from Kris Myers. Still, there were some good surprises. A very dubbed-out version of “Wife Soup” started off the quarter, an adaptation that worked out better than the funked-out “Der Bluten Kat.” I would much rather see “Dub Soup” in regular rotation than “Der Bluten Funk.” We'll have to see what happens. The live debut of “Red Room Disco” (an alternate take of Red Room from The Bottom Half, an odd's and end's follow-up to 2006's Safety In Numbers) was very danceable and went over extremely well with the audience. UM introduced a new cover song in the way of The Talking Head's “Girlfriend is Better” (a favorite of guitarist Brendan Bayliss' new side-project 30db band mate Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain fame) before thundering back into the proper rocking outro for “DBK” to end the third quarter.
Q4: The fourth quarter was easily the most innovative and most likely concept to start making its way into regular concerts. The group would periodically put three choices up on the projection screen and allow the audience to select the idea they like the best. Ideas put forth by the band included songs from their catalog (“All In Time” beat out “Nothing Too Fancy” for the set opener), style specific jams (the “Techno Jam” worked out pretty well but the “Funk Jam” definitely left something to be desired), and established covers (both Toto's “Africa” and Pink Floyd's “Comfortably Numb” made appearances). The audience even voted to have the guitarists switch rigs mid-jam which led to some interesting results. With the 'score tied' at the end of the fourth quarter it only made sense for the group to come back out for some 'overtime' action in the way of the Genesis/Metallica/UM Mash-Up “Land of Wappy,” which was debuted at this past year's Halloween show. With everything wrapped up at the inaugural UMBowl a rowdy but satisfied crowd made their way out onto the street to stumble home.
So there you have it. As legendary producer Bill Graham once said of the Grateful Dead, “They're not the best at what they do, they're the only ones who do what they do.” Never in my life have I seen such an interesting and difficult concept executed so flawlessly in a concert setting. I'm sure that it was just as exciting to the band as it was to us lucky members of the audience, that it left them feeling fresh and alive. Bayliss announced in a recent interview that they'll be headed into the studio over the next few weeks. I can only hope that some of that same energy will find its way into those recording sessions, because what we saw last Saturday were the actions of one of the most potent bands of our era in their prime. I can't wait to hear what comes next. So long for now, we'll see all you kids at the upcoming 30db shows and Summercamp Festival. Until next time...
UMBowl Q1: (acoustic) - Front Porch, Hurt Bird Bath > Bron Yr Aur Stomp (debut; Led Zeppelin > Hurt Bird Bath, The Weight Around (debut), Interstate Love Song (debut; Stone Temple Pilots) > Divisions
Q2: (mash-up themes) jajunk funk, tool jackson 5, tribute to lady madonna, bowie mantis, cemetery walk this way, bathtub gin and juice, jimmy page against the machine, ocean billy jean. (Numbers/colors/shapes) 2x2 One (metallica), mr blue sky, squarewolves of london, electronic kitchen, search 4 the crooked one, rocketman lyrical stew, 13 days in the life, #1 dick in a box, (make us laugh) Bears O-line, folk prince of bel air, vocal jam in chinese, reggae titties & beer.
HALFTIME Q3: Wife Soup (dub), Muff II:The Revenge, All Things Ninja, Red Room Disco (debut), Muffburger Sandwich, Der Bluten Kat (funk) > Girlfriend Is Better (debut; Talking Heads) > Der Bluten Kat Q4: All In time > Africa > Techno Jam > (brendan & jake instrument switch) > 1348 > Funk Jam > 1348, Comfortably Numb