Wednesday, May 5, 2010

UMBowl: A Night To Remember

By Greg Molitor
Photos By Tim Ramirez

This wasn’t to be an ordinary show for me. Beforehand, some might have argued that UM Bowl 2010 was going to be the most important show of my life. I won’t disagree. Not only was Umphrey’s McGee, a band I’ve seen more than any other, performing their most adventurous show to date, this was to be the night I ask my girlfriend of five-plus years to be my wife, for better or for worse, for the remainder of my days. To say the least, April 24th, 2010 had all the makings of becoming a truly unforgettable night. I had high expectations for the evening, but for as lofty as those expectations were, my dreams couldn’t have come true in a more perfect fashion than they did on this evening, a materialization of paradise before my eyes…

“A toll is a toll, and a roll is a roll…” Hearing this statement can only signify one thing…we must be in Zimmer’s van heading down I-94 towards Chicago. A familiar trip at this point, a stop in the windy city is always refreshing, especially when accompanied by the best friends a guy could ask for. After three hours and what seemed like seventeen versions of “I Know You Rider” later (I AM going to miss him when he’s gone), we arrived at the Day’s Inn. The location of the hotel was clutch as we only were fifteen minutes walking distance from the venue. By this point, my nerves are starting to take over. My girlfriend, Jessica, suspects nothing out-of-the-ordinary. After we checked-in and went to our hotel room, I decided it was a good time to lie down for a few hours and rest for the long night ahead.

After a not-so-quick trip to the beer store and a few tasty beverages back at the hotel, we made our journey to Lincoln Hall for UM Bowl 2010. The scene in front of the Lincoln was an excited one with each anxious UMbowler ready to enter the venue for the night’s festivities. Speaking of anxiety, on a scale from one to ten, mine was at an eleven. I had joked with friends all week that I would need a diaper before my proposal. I was now thinking to myself, “Maybe bringing a diaper wasn’t such a bad idea…” Fortunately for everyone, I didn’t need the diaper. What I did require, however, was some peace of mind. I knew resolution was coming soon, but could I stomach the waiting…?

As the crowd began to fill the Lincoln, I could instantly tell the show had been oversold. The show was supposedly limited to only 500 attendees, but the crowd seemed much larger. The venue also may have been overcapacity, but regardless, the space was tight and would remain so throughout the entire UM Bowl. Around 8:00 P.M., a humorous set of video clips featuring each member of the band got the crowd focused. A new set of video clips would precede the beginning of each successive quarter of action. After the first set of clips, the band stepped onstage to a huge ovation. The crowd was emitting incredible energy and the band responded with a great first set which was performed acoustically by guitarists Jake Cininnger and Brendan Bayliss.

For those who aren’t familiar with the UM Bowl concept, it was an idea by Umphrey’s McGee to play four quarters (four sets) of music where the audience is in control of the show. The four quarters consisted of: a set of acoustic requests (set one), an S2 improvisational segment where musical ideas are texted to a giant screen (set two) , a quarter of fan favorites and rare tunes (set three), and a choose-your-own-adventure set that allowed audience members to choose which musical direction the band should head via text message (set four). Throw in overtime (encore), and there it is…UM Bowl 2010. People can say what they want about Umphrey’s McGee’s music, but no one can deny their ability to market their product in novel and exciting ways. Umphrey’s McGee are risk-takers, and I commend that to the fullest.

Umphrey’s kicked off Quarter One of UM Bowl 2010 with the rarely-played fan favorite “Front Porch”. Even though lead singer Brendan Bayliss has a strong disliking for the tune, it’s one of their best. Acoustic Umphrey’s McGee isn’t something that I normally get overly excited for. After UM Bowl, I might have to reconsider that sentiment. The acoustic guitars added a different feel to most of the tunes in the first set, and as a whole, the set played out brilliantly. After “Front Porch”, the band launched into “Hurt Bird Bath”, a song I would never have considered for an acoustic attempt. The version was sloppy at times, but it’s a ridiculously technical song as is. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to play acoustically.

The improvisational segment of “Hurt Bird Bath” led to a steady bass thump that would lead into the band’s take of Led Zeppelin’s “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp”, their first attempt at the tune. This version was both authentic and fun as the crowd began to really soak up the band’s performance. As “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” finished, the band slid back into the progressive styling of “Hurt Bird Bath”. After Umphrey’s ended the tune, Bayliss made sure the crowd knew exactly how difficult the previous song was to play. I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard him. We get it, dude! You messed up a couple times! Flubs or no flubs, it took some serious guts to attempt.

The next tune of the set proved to be the real treat of the first quarter, “The Weight Around”. Although nearly five years old, appearing on the album Safety in Numbers, UM Bowl 2010 marked the live debut of “The Weight Around”. The song was performed with immense soul and sorrow, an emotion that is evoked from many of their Safety and Numbers tracks. For a band whose music is so often typecast as ‘frat’ or ‘wanna-be’, Umphrey’s doesn’t represent either generalization to me. I’ve never understood why Umphrey’s lyrical depth is ignored while others similar artists’ lyrics are celebrated. Regardless of general viewpoints, the band’s lyrical approach has always fascinated me. “The Weight Around” is a great example of a solid tune with fitting lyrics. Sometimes, this simple formula is all a song needs in order to be successful.

After “The Weight Around”, the band began to play the first notes of “Interstate Love Song”, a cover originally performed by the Stone Temple Pilots. Even though it was their first time covering “Interstate Love Song”, I decided it was a good time for a beer and a smoke. After a quick pit stop at the bar and sidewalk, I returned to hear the first verse of “Divisions”. Another Umphrey’s classic, “Divisions” represents all the I love about music as it contains passionate lyrics, intense instrumentation, and huge moments of tension and release…what else could a jammer ask for?!? Again, the acoustic guitars served their purpose well as emotional “Divisions” closed out an inspirational acoustic set of Umphrey’s classics, covers, and rarities.

After a short break, the band returned to the stage to begin Quarter Two. This segment was the S2 segment, a set in which the band was guided by text messages from the audience. This was the set where I was going to propose to Jessica as well. My original idea was to have “Jessica Pace, will you marry me?” text to the screen for her surprise. After talking with Kevin Browning, the Umphrey’s McGee sound engineer who doubled as a text message moderator during the segment, I was confident that my wish would be granted. The second quarter was fun, and it was interesting to watch Umphrey’s attempt to jam via text suggestions, but I couldn’t help but think that I’d rather be watching a normal Umphrey’s show instead. The highlights of the set included mash-ups of “2x2” and “One” and of “Billy Jean” and “Ocean Billy”, as well as a funky version of David Bowie’s “Fame” mashed-up properly with “Mantis”.

As the S2 segment progressed, I began to think my proposal request wouldn’t make it to the screen. This was worrisome because I had absolutely no backup plan. Since Kevin confirmed he would help me, I figured everything would go as planned. It didn’t, but what transpired next was pure bliss…

“Is there a Jessica Pace in the building,” inquired Bayliss from the stage. The look on Jessica’s face was priceless. She worked her way to the rail and waved her hands frantically.

“I guess this is going down right now!” I though to myself as I tried to stay behind her while I prepared the ring. Bayliss continued, “Your boyfriend has a question for you. He wants to know if you want to be his wife!” She was absolutely floored.

“Yes!” she proclaimed. At that moment, I can honestly say I have never been happier in my entire life.

“We’re gonna let you kids talk about it while we take a quick break,” said Bayliss as he and the rest of the band walked offstage for halftime. For as nervous as I was, the proposal couldn’t have worked more perfectly. I had no idea the band had knowledge and was just as shocked as Jessica when her name was announced. The moment spilt into many congratulations from friends new and old. I must say that I was so thrilled to have a handful of my closest friends with me for the magic that occurred that night. I was on a high that I had never experienced prior, and it felt pretty damn good.

After a busy halftime filled with many hugs and kind wishes, my group made our way back to into the venue for Quarter 3. The third set was audience requested much like the first set, but the acoustic guitars were replaced by their electric counterparts. The set began with a breathtaking dub version of “Wife Soup” that featured the strongest and most soulful jam of the night. “Wife Soup” can either be hit or miss depending on how the band is communicating, and this version was easily comparable to the best I’ve heard (check out 12.31.2006 for my all-time favorite “WS” featuring Jeff Coffin on saxophone). It’s all our circus now, indeed.

After “Wife Soup”, the band busted into “Muff II: The Revenge.” I had never heard this tune before as long as its counterpart, “Muffburger Sandwich”, which the band would play a few songs later. “Muff II” had a bluegrass feel and brought tremendous energy. With that being said, I can see why the band has shelved the song for so many years as it lacked the emotional depth one discovers in their newer songs. “Muff II” led into “All Things Ninja”. This is another rare tune played only a few times per year, and I’ve been lucky enough to catch four of those offerings. “All Things Ninja” from UM Bowl was much more focused and driven than previous version which, unfortunately, left a sour taste in my musical palate for a few days post show. “All Things Ninja”, a Santana-esque progressive tune, is essentially a launch pad for soloing for each member of Umphrey’s McGee. At UM Bowl, I was overly impressed with both bassist Ryan Stasik and drummer Kris Myers’ solos.

“All Things Ninja” then transitioned to “Red Room Disco”. “Red Room” is a track from The Bottom Half and has always been considered by me to be one of their weaker tunes. For UM Bowl, Umphrey’s reworked the tune disco-style and was actually enjoyable. After a quick beer run, I returned to the hall to catch the end of “Muffburger Sandwich”. Looking back, I wish I would have been there to see its entirety. After “Muffburger Sandwich”, the band began to play a funky version of “Der Bluten Kat”. I’ve seen “DBK” more times than I can count, so this was a refreshing take on a song that has become too predictable for my personal enjoyment. Halfway through “Der Bluten Kat”, Umphrey’s let loose on a new cover, The Talking Head’s “Girlfriend is Better”. Musically, this was the absolute highlight of the evening. The cover was spot-on and contained the most energy of the night. A segue back into “Der Bluten Kat” would signal the end of Quarter Three, the most enjoyable set of the night.

Quarter Four had a choose-your-own-adventure theme. Audience members were given choices on where to lead the band next and text (A), (B), or (C) to vote for that option. This works great in theory, but I had some problem with execution. First, I couldn’t help but be disappointed when my choice wasn’t the most popular option. This made me wonder if anyone was feeling the same disappointment I was. Second, besides “All in Time” and “1348”, the options from which to choose I felt were weak. The fact that an option called “Techno jam” was chosen over “Hangover with Booty Wax” is still baffling to me. Why the audience members would rather hear Toto’s “Africa” or “Comfortably Numb” instead of “All in Time finish” is beyond my comprehension. There were some solid moments in the set for sure, but musically, Quarter Four had nowhere near the level of communication and spirit the other three featured. But that’s how is goes…four sets is a lot of performing, so I’ll cut the band some slack.

After the show, the sidewalk was filled with all types of individuals. The bewildered, the satisfied, the inebriated…each held a look the most verbose story couldn’t describe. We had all been through an experience; fresh yet so familiar, UM Bowl 2010 was an event that tore down all of my preconceived notions of life, love, happiness, and friendship. Umphrey’s McGee is doing something no one else in the scene has tried. Actually, no one is even close to putting on as creative an endeavor as Umphrey’s accomplished through UM Bowl 2010. Keep doing what you are doing, Umphrey’s McGee. You certainly know how to make your fans happy.

-Greg Molitor


Thanks to everyone who made the night such a special evening for both me and Jessica! My life wouldn’t be the same without you!


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