Quick, try and name a band that plays 100 shows a year, has their own 4-day music camp, plays almost a dozen festivals a year and consistently provides unique fan experiences that no one else does. That would be Umphrey's McGee. Formed at Notre Dame in 1998, Brendan Bayliss, Ryan Stasik, Joel Cummins, and Mike Mirro formed the band as a conglomeration of Tashi Station and Stomper Bob, a pair of on-campus bands. Since then, their lineup has added Andy Farag and Jake Cinninger and replaced Mirro with Kris Myers to form the six-piece juggernaut the band is today.
While the band's unique brand of music has made them a fan-favorite of tens of thousands of people across the country, it is the ways in which they interact with those fans that make them who they are today. This Saturday, I had the honor of attending the fourth annual UMBowl, a four-set extravaganza that brings fans of the band from all corners of the country together for an incredibly unique and interactive musical spectacle. Held at Park West, a venue of less than 1,000 people to begin with, the band capped ticket sales at 750 in order to keep fans as comfortable as possible. Park West is a smaller venue for the band to play as earlier this year, the band sold-out the Beacon Theatre in New York City, a venue which holds more than 3,000 people.
Typically, the band plays two sets and more than two and a half hours of music. For UMBowl, the band plays four sets totaling four hours of music. For each of the four sets, they follow innovative formats. For the first set this year, the band played a set entitled "Raw Stewage." In this, the band played eight pieces of music that they had previously improvised that those in attendance had voted on and played a seamless hour-long set of music. Two highlights of this set were the opening song, entitled "FDR," and "Amble On." These "songs" were not actually songs but rather "Jimmy Stewarts." A "Jimmy Stewart" is the name for the band's form of improvisation, named after the Jimmy Stewart Ballroom in which their brand of improvisation was first undertaken.
For the second set, the band sent out a ballot of almost 50 tunes and had those in attendance pick their five favorites. Of those, the band played twelve, almost all of which were covers. These covers included songs from Metallica, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam, and even "Cantina Band" from Star Wars. The band flexed their improvisational muscles on their rendition of "Cantina Band" which included an incredibly dance-y jam that even featured elements of the "Imperial March," also from Star Wars.
For set three, the band set up a "Stew Art Series." What this entails is that fans can text in descriptive phrases and the band will take the best of those suggestions and play completely improvised segments of music with the phrases as a guide. Some of these suggestions included "Baby Makin' Music," "Hillbilly Hoedown," and even "Gin and Juice" which prompted the rock outfit to break into a verse of the Snoop Dogg song.
For the fourth and final set of the night, the band played a "choose your own adventure" set in which three options were offered and fans texted in their vote for what should come next. Highlights from this set included the jam out of "Higgins," rarity "Smell the Mitten" and an interesting pair of covers including the latest Daft Punk single "Get Lucky" and Warren G's "Regulate."
To introduce every set, the band created short videos where keyboardist Joel Cummins played the role of Forrest gUMph on his way to UMBowl. These tongue-in-cheek videos were both hilarious and incredibly well executed. The final video was a perfect segue into the encore as Cummins ran in from the back of the venue and then sat down at the keys for a take on Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty." Below are three of the videos from the night:
Throughout the course of the night, Umphrey's McGee proved that they are not only one of the most talented bands out there, but also far and away the most innovative. After some well-deserved time off, the band hits the road again this summer including a headlining show at Red Rocks in Colorado as well as a co-headlining tour with STS9, which is coming to amphitheaters across the country.