A truncated version of this review will appear on JamBase at some point. Here I present a detailed review of the inaugural event, which deserves to be recognized as a milestone in Umphrey’s McGee’s ongoing quest to make its audience an integral part of the creative process of its live shows.
The best live bands find a way to play so that some guy off the street can get sucked in and blown away, but they build a fan base with insider tokens that only obsessives will fully appreciate. Umphrey’s McGee is adept at both, but with the advent of the (S2) experiments (read my description of the first one here) last year and now, the first annual UMBowl, the band has been catering whole shows exclusively to the diehards. On paper, UMBowl is a test of whether four sets of gimmicks can sustain interest and musicality. But it’s also an irresistible forum for band/audience communication that’s virtually unrivaled.
The first quarter featured Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger on acoustic guitars only, and the setlist was voted on in advance by ticket-buyers. This was not your typical mellow run-through, however. Following an amusing intro video complete with remixed NFL theme music, the band dove into “Front Porch,” featuring a tight little “Jimmy Stewart” jam in the middle, complete with lyrics. Next was “Hurt Bird Bath,” a punishing piece for acoustic guitars (as acknowledged in the end by Bayliss). There was an interlude of Led Zeppelin’s “Bron Yr Aur Stomp,” which segued masterfully into the end of “Bath.” The debut of “The Weight Around” got a huge reaction from the crowd. “Interstate Love Song” was a surprise, Cinninger belting it out in earnest, as if in defiance of the intoxicated mess I’d experienced a few weeks prior when I saw Stone Temple Pilots. Finally, “Divisions” made the electric versions I’ve heard seem contrived by contrast.
Quarter two was an (S2), featuring band-chosen themes this time around. First up, “mash-ups," and fans began texting furiously, watching the screen behind the band to see what would make the cut. “Bathtub gin and juice” obviously sparked the biggest crowd reaction when it hit the screen, but the most impressive combinations were “Bowie here come the mantis” (UM’s own “Mantis” atop Bowie’s “Fame”) and “ocean billy jean.” Next, Bayliss announced the theme of “numbers, colors and shapes.” The first winner, “2×2 and one by metallica,” was the most ingenious, but the most fun was “rocketman lyrical stew;” bewildered, Bayliss just kind of spoke the words to the Elton John classic (à la William Shatner!) while the band meandered in the background, pure hilarity.
The third and final theme was “make us laugh.” “The #1 d@@@ in a box” started us off in not-unprecedented fashion, and things languished a bit until my personal favorite choice of the set, “reggae titties & beer!!!” The band was clearly amused and hammed it up, trailing off with a fan-to-fan marriage proposal via text just prior to halftime! The mood in the hall was jolly; even if you could somehow fail to acknowledge the skillful execution of several of these impromptu blends, only a dullard could’ve kept from smiling.
Far and away the most exciting portion of the evening was the third quarter, an electric set also predetermined by fan votes; options included stylistic distortions of classic tunes as well as debuts and long-dormant rarities. A dub version of “Wife Soup” got things rolling, and the arachnid staccato funk jam that arose was an instant high point. Both “Muffburger Sandwich” and “Muff II: The Revenge” (driven to evangelical heights via Joel Cummins’ organ) made appearances to the delight of the crowd, as well as the quested-after “All Things Ninja;” it was ecstatically tight, showcasing the versatility and precision of drummer Kris Myers. “Red Room Disco” was received almost reverently by the audience; I heard the exclamation “FINALLY” from a nearby fan, and Jake justified this dude’s patience with a glorious, aching solo to end it.
The jam of the night by a long shot was a funky reworking of “Der Bluten Kat” with Talking Heads’ “Girlfriend Is Better” sandwiched in the middle, one of the most ridiculous dance parties UM has ever helmed. From ecstatic giddy funk to slow, moody funk and culminating in a rip-snorting metal rush, this was an epic display of UM’s best qualities.
The fourth quarter was almost inevitably a letdown. The idea was “choose your own adventure,” where three options were projected on the screen and fans would text their votes as to which direction the band would go next. With texts coming in from non-attendees alike, votes skewed toward mass-consumption, with more unusual and challenging options like “Industrial jam,” “Booth Love” and “Tortoise jam” getting beat out by predictable fare “All In Time,” “Africa” and “Funk jam” (after we’d just had a funk jam during “Brendan/Jake Rig Switch”), respectively.
The potential disjointedness maxed out, but this was by no means the band’s fault; the guys were just playing what the fans told them to, and it wasn’t dull or sloppy. The only real pleasant surprise was “1348 with improv” winning out over “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” and “Can’t Ya See,” and it was nothing mind-blowing but definitely a solid jam. Nobody complained about set-closer “Comfortably Numb,” finally giving Jake a chance to shred, or the "overtime" mash-up “Land Of Wappy” (featuring UM’s “Wappy Sprayberry” crossed with “Land Of Confusion” and “Seek And Destroy”), which closed the night in an exultant mass headbang.
In the end, even the guy on the street would’ve loved this show, and it will probably only improve from here. Next year: covers set? All-metal set? TV/movie theme mash-ups? Who knows what further audience participation they’ll dream up? As technology advances, so must the creativity, but UM is doing more than any current band to enhance the fluidity of intraband communication as well as making fans an active creative partner. The possibilities are only just dawning, but this inaugural event will surely go down as legendary in the annals of UM history, and it ought to be a lesson to other groups as well in harnessing group consciousness in a satisfying celebration for artist and fan alike.