UMBowl V – A Most Unique Live Music Experience

It’s one thing for a band to craft a setlist that fans will be talking about for weeks and months to come. It is another to have the fans decide the setlist through voting, both beforehand and in real-time at a concert. Still, Umphrey’s McGee has found a way to make this a reality, using separate themes over four quarters of their UMBowl experiences, which held its fifth installment at The Capitol Theatre on May 3rd, to put on a must-see event for fans of Umphrey’s but especially those who appreciate live, improvisational rock.

UMBowl is nothing short of a smart idea for live music, unparalleled in complexity, audience engagement and the resulting musical odyssey. In the past, I have listened to these shows days after, while fans were abuzz about the experience, and I thought they were interesting, but I didn’t get the hype. Up until last week, I would never have considered flying or driving to Chicago for UMBowl, where the previous four were held, but after being able to drive just over two hours south to take in my first UMBowl, it is undoubtedly not my last. I will happily follow UMBowl wherever it goes – this is a premiere live music experience where the band meets the fans halfway and puts on nothing short of a stellar show, pushing the boundaries of art in musical performance.

The Cap was packed downstairs, creating an intimate feeling for the night, with the upstairs reserved for VIP and photographers, but you weren’t missing much up there; the view looked better in the lower house, and that is saying a lot. At times you forgot you were at The Cap, as the show transported the focused crowd of 1,000 with each jam, improv and cover that came across the setlist.

But first, since this is a four quarter show with OT, the sports theme was present, but mostly in the form of commemorative towels and a couple of guys wearing eye black and football jerseys. But then, ESPN’s Around the Horn came on the big screen, with host Tony Reali hosting his show, giving a brief rundown to his panel of the show that was about to take place. Reali sat in earlier this year with Umphrey’s for “Layla”, so this was a fan sharing in the experience rather than just a hired gimmick. Take a look below for the intro video.

The themes of each quarter flowed nicely, building progressively on each other as the night went on. The first set was not so much a warm up as it was a chance to stretch improv potential out, then the fan favorites, (halftime/setbreak) audience direction, one pre-approved text at a time, then a set of originals chosen in real-time, a five hour concert experience that keeps the band on their feet and aware of their fans moods and tastes, but without having to deal with them shouting their requests at them.

Q1 was ‘Raw Stewage’, voted on beforehand by fans among a variety of  “Jimmy Stewart” improve portions of past jams, as they have come to be called. Hardcore fans could identify the song from which each “Jimmy Stewart” arose, some even mentioning the specific date. The rest of us sat back and watched a spectacular improv session develop, pulling on hints from the music to pick out the original song the JS was born from. Essentially, the protean Umphrey’s had created a set of fan choices of their favorite jams from the past. The skill and focus to reconstruct these improvs is mind-boggling.

Q2 was the All Request quarter, with fans once again having voted on the songs beforehand from a select list. Opening with moe.’s “Rebubula”, the crowd was ignited and we were off and running. The instrumental “All Things Ninja” followed, then a show-stopper in “Crazy Fingers”, with Jake Cinninger on vocals. The audience was floored and dropped jaws all around focused squarely on the skinny guy singing the fat man’s song, to perfection.”#5″ had a nice long jam, while the perfect closing to the set came in the form of “Brain Damage > Eclipse”. The set was just incredible start to finish, although “Bell Bottom Blues” was snubbed in voting. Let’s hope it’s on the ballot for UMBowl VI.

Q3 was a Stew Art event, where the fans determined via text message what direction the band should go in. You text an idea, such as ‘Frank Zappa-esque Jam’, and the result was the band would segue into a jam that developed into “Willie the Pimp”. Among other highlights of this 43 minute set were “Emergency Dance Party” and “Daft Funk”, leading to some of the best dancing of the night and the moment when the set truly launched onward and upward. “Rockabilly Throwdown” flipped yet another ignition switch while “Barry White Love Letter” with Jake on vocals had elements of the dub version of “Breathe” by Easy Star All Stars. Bill Evans came out on sax for part of this event, adding a seventh member to the Stew Art, no small feat for just any musician.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get better, Q4  was “Choose Your Own Adventure”, where fans texted choices among three song choices shown on the screen behind the band. Percents rose and fell among them, with some votes getting contentious between a pair of songs and coming down to the wire. “The Haunt” opened things up, and there was a tease of moe.’s “Spaz Medicine” about 2/3 of the way in. “The Triple Wide” beat out “Last Man Swerving” in the second spot, which led into a “Funk Jam”, where the voting vs “Industrial Jam” wasn’t even close, although I did hear Joel Cummins throwing in some industrial tickles of the keys in the vein of NIN. Brendan Bayliss and Ryan Stasik took the lead in the funk jam, each taking a section while the next voting commenced.

This was shaping up to be the most fun set of them all, particularly as fans cheered for their choice that rose in the voting and drifted back down to earth. “Wife Soup” beat out “Plunger” and “Great American” for a HUGE version of the Anchor Drops classic. Statik drifted over toward Joel to jam along, then returned behind Jake and blended in with Myers’ kit in the shadows of Waful’s lights. Cummins took a patient climb towards the first grand peak in “Wife Soup”, then Jake led towards the second major peak equally unrushed, building and building until the collective ‘gasm on stage and in the crowd sent a rush of chills and cheers throughout The Cap.

“Flamethrower”, one of the walk on numbers that has been a regular feature of Umphrey’s shows for the past few years, was short and moved into “FF”, with an “All in Time” tease towards end of the jam. “Space Funk Booty” segued into what would be the final choice of the night, either the end of “JaJunk”, the end of “Bridgeless” or the end of “Mulche’s Oddysey”. JaJunk was an afterthought from the moment voting started and was tied or within a point between “Bridgeless” and “Mulche’s”. Cheers accompanied each song as they pulled ahead, one text at a time, but in the end, victory was eked out by “Mulche’s”, definitely the correct call for the punch this song delivers to cap a set.

Prior to the encore, a tribute to former drummer Mike Mirro aired on the screen, the crowd recalling the fallen bandmate with revered silence. A Goodfellas parody video then aired on the screen,  followed by the start of OT. “Nothing But a G Thing” started things off, with the rarity of Stasik on vocals, followed by “Much Obliged > Glory” with Bill Evans on sax once again, the full encore giving an emotional ending to a premiere night of music. UMBowl ranks as one of the most inventive and marathon sessions of live music you can witness and participate in, and will certainly be a staple of many lucky fans music calendars for years to come.