UMBowl IV 4.26.13

Park West
Chicago, IL

Words & Photos By Brad Yeakel

Innovation has opened doors to progress throughout history. New, adventurous ideas were responsible for the invention of airplanes, television, computers, and smartphones. Adventurous ideas were also responsible for meatloaf icecream, chuteless skydiving, and bears riding tricycles... but they were bad ideas. I went to Chicago to experience some GOOD innovation in the form of Umphrey's McGee's UMBowl IV.

I've seen a lot of music over the years, and this experience was one of the most unique, groundbreaking, creative, and enjoyable concert experiences I've ever seen. Much like the Super Bowl, UMBowl was designed to be the ultimate experience of the year for Umphrey's McGee and their fans. The venue, Chicago's Park West, was chosen for its size, acoustics, design, and location. The 770 person capacity was perfect. It was intimate, comfortable, and open. Everyone could see, everyone could hear, everyone could rage, rest, and repeat. The security was a little stiff, but otherwise they chose a fantastic venue. The show was unlike any other. Modeled after the Super Bowl, there were 4 quarters rather than 2 sets. Each quarter had a theme, and they were all driven by fan voting/ suggestion. Each quarter was introduced with a small movie spoof where the band re-enacted scenes from Forrest Gump, and called the flick, "Forrest Umph." Joel Cummins played Forrest, Bayliss- Bubba, and Stasik as Lt. Dan. The best part came when "Bubba Bayliss" spoofed the many types of shrimp that can be made, with the many kinds of improv that could be made... "Jazz improv, funk improv, bluegrass improv, rock improv, trance improv, blues improv, country improv, reggae improv, etc." the band certainly explored a variety of the list's options as a monstrous show unfolded.

Quarter 1:

Billed as Raw Stewage, the band sent an email out to ticket holders with links to several of the most popular "Jimmy Stewarts" (structured improvisations), and allowed us to choose which ones we wanted to hear developed, expanded, and worked into an hour-long improvisation set. I have complained that Umphrey's didn't improv enough in the past, and this show confirmed that I prefer Umphrey's shows that are heavy on improv. Their ability to play off of each other and spontaneously compose incredible music has been among the most impressive I've ever seen. This set flowed well, had exciting peaks, and displayed what has been regarded as some of the finest musicianship in live music today. Using hand signals, previously developed concepts, and keen ears, the band deftly maneuvered through hairpin turns, stopped on dimes, changed directions, and generally displayed an inhuman ability to play cerebral, intricate, articulate, and engaging improvisation. Not to say they're aliens... but I thought it might be a possibility.

Quarter 2:

The earlier mentioned email also contained a list of covers/ rarities to vote on for the second quarter. Of my personal votes (Pearl Jam: Porch, Metallica: Orion, Beck: song from Songreader album, Pink Floyd: Echoes, and Jackson 5: I Want You Back), only Pearl Jam (nailed it) and Metallica were played, but the set included some amazing songs. A new Brendan song for Jake's son "El Diablo" was an excellent debut. I really enjoyed the tune from the first notes. "Cantina Band" from Star Wars was phenomenal and included a phrase from another Star Wars tune... "The Imperial March." The crowd was elated at this tune, and smiles were plastered on faces from wall to wall. Acoustics made appearances for "Bullhead City" and "2X2," and Brendan Bayliss also hopped on mandolin for a beautiful version of Led Zeppelin's "Hey, Hey What Can I Do." The quarter was rounded out with the Abbey Road Medley. It was truly an enjoyable set of songs chosen by the fans. This may have been my favorite quarter because of all the covers, but each quarter provided a unique, engaging, and entertaining aspect unlike any show I've seen before.

Quarter 3:

Dubbed "Stew Art", the third quarter was the most creative and exploratory set of the night. A phone number was provided for fans to text ideas to influence the improv. The first chosen text was "baby making music." UM dimmed the lights and played their best "Marvin Gaye writes an instrumental soundtrack to a porno movie" groove. From there into "jazz/ metal fusion" on to "sinister evil untz" the set got nasty. A lingering evil element bled into "simply ambient bliss." After they "moogatized us," they busted out "Gin and Juice" which Bayliss rapped. "Beach boogie" followed before a "bass and drum + Joel" breakdown. Next someone suggested "warrior marching into battle" an interesting theme to explore. The audience guided improv rounded out with a "hillbilly hoedown" resolving to "a tribal drum jam" and ultimately some sweet "70's disco." The lights were great during the disco jam. The set was fun to watch as the band interpreted ideas musically. Some were better than others, but conceptually, the quarter was off the hook.

Quarter 4:

The final quarter was a "choose your own adventure" style set. The band flashed 3 options on the screen and had the fans text votes to the special number. The votes were calculated in real time, and as the results were available, the band transitioned into the elected song. To open the set, the crowd chose "Wappy Sprayberry" over "Puppet Strings" and "1348." When they reached the improv section, the jam went into limbo as the crowd voted between "Eat," "Lenny," and the victor... "Higgins." The next matchup was a nail-biter as "Miss Tinkles" and "Hangover" battled each other for the win in a trio that also included "40's Theme." With a buzzer beater, "Tinkles" took the win, and eventually gave way to "Regulators" which trounced "Miss Gradenko" and "Rastaman Chant." "Smell the Mitten" beat out "Kimble" and "Dear Lord" before "Roulette," "Bad Poker" and "Get Lucky" battled. "Get Lucky" got lucky, and led us up to the final option... The closer, "Tinkles," "1348," or the audience's choice, "Puppet Strings." It was quite the sight to behold, and the song's tag line, "These puppet strings don't pull themselves...," held dual relevance. In this case, the audience was pulling the strings, choosing the songs, directing the improv, and shaping the show; but normally, the song's about questioning who's in charge. To the fans, the band were the puppet masters, making us all dance with the wave of a hand. In order to execute something so courageous, inventive, and downright incredible was a marvel that certainly involved some sort of mastery.

To end the show, "Forrest Umph" ran to Park West and joined the band for Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty." The crowd, a sea of smiles, sang along as we soaked up the last few moments of an unforgettable experience. In the end, the score was... We won.

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