UM Bowl III at Park West

It’s a rare thing to experience a concert that literally has no peer. What Umphrey’s McGee has created with UM Bowl is something that no other band could even come close to emulating. The combination of improvisation and crowd-sourcing puts this show out of reach and comfort for any other group. It’s incredible that even Umphrey’s can pull off such a complex, ambitious, and strenuous feat. When taking a step back and looking at all of my concert experiences, it’s just unfair to try to include UM Bowl in any discussion with ‘regular’ concerts– it’s in a league of its own. This was the third year of this experiment, which means it’s more like a recipe at this point; a recipe they’ve worn in nicely, reaching an astonishing level of comfort with a format that’s inherently uncomfortable. This was also the second year they’ve done this at Park West, which is unquestionably the most ideal venue for this concert. It’s crazy to think that anyone could have a track record with this sort of show, but in year three, it was clear that Umphrey’s has thing down to a science. UM Bowl III was a victory for everyone involved.

Naturally, UM Bowl brought the return of the now traditional Umphrey’s movie spoof. This time around it was the classic film Almost Famous receiving the Umph touch. This spoof felt a bit more forced than the previous year’s When Harry Met Sally riff, but was nonetheless pretty damn funny; the wigs were an especially hilarious touch. Naturally, Jefferson Waful played the naive journalist William Miller, as Bayliss played the egotistical lead guitarist Russell Hammond and Stasik portrayed the pissed off lead singer Jeff Bebe. The t-shirt that was the point of contention — and the focus of the video — showed up on Stasik’s back in the third quarter and he reinforced the limited edition sale of said shirt at the open of Q3. Full circle.

Q1: All Request

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The first quarter kicked off with the ‘pre-recorded’ twist of “Flamethrower.” These intro songs have become an integral piece of Umphrey’s repertoire. It’s almost to the point where it feels weird when they don’t begin with one of these intros. This jam also signaled that the highly anticipated “Flamethrower > Night Nurse > Voyager” song cluster earned enough votes to make the cut. But alas, the execution didn’t quite live up to the potential. “Flamethrower” just seemed to linger a little too long. Then “Night Nurse” came by and felt completely rushed. This has been my favorite song lately and I’d been chasing it for a while so I was pretty disappointed when this version pretty much lacked any punch, especially when they veered off on a murky jam and never brought the hook back before jumping into “Voyager.” Looking back, this was probably the closest thing to a bummer for me: my first ever “Night Nurse” simply didn’t satisfy.

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But “Voyager” (Daft Punk cover) picked up the pace considerably. It seemed like they practiced this one quite a bit, especially Joel, whose spacey synth work was absolutely electric. This song got everyone all whipped up, it was serious dance fuel.  Which was ideal timing because they released the first bomb of the night when they dropped on a dime into the fan favorite “Front Porch.” Let’s just say that this song instantly erased any disappointed feelings I had and made me go apeshit. But it wasn’t just me, EVERYONE seemed to love this song. Well, everyone except Bayliss, who curiously said, “Uhh, you guys voted for this.” Which was somewhat weird considering how much the crowd was loving it. The jam in this song was quite explorational, feeling almost like a Stew for a moment before they came back around to wrap this massive 15 minute version of the song everyone loves. Yup, UM Bowl was in full swing.

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Up next was a brand new song that Jake called “Comma Later.” While it had a really cool Steely Dan thing going on with a throwback, mellow synth rock attitude, it completely lacked polish, which makes sense considering it was written less than a week prior to the show. It’s got promise but will definitely take a few more runs to get this song to match its potential. The energy in the room had run down to a simmer following this song but it didn’t take long for that to change. Bayliss announced that the next song was the one that earned the most votes overall: a cover of Grateful Dead’s “Help Is On The Way > Slipknot.” I was shocked to hear that this was the top vote getter, but it turned out being great. It didn’t hurt that the audience seemed absolutely ecstatic to finally hear Umphrey’s play some Dead tunes again. They used to play a lot more of them, but as they’ve progressed as a group and moved away from the ‘generic jamband’ mold, the Dead tunes got left in the dust. This might have to be reconsidered after UM Bowl because it sounded pretty damn awesome. Jake did a great job of approximating Jerry Garcia’s tone without stepping all over it and they stayed true to the songs while still putting the indelible Umph stamp on them.

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“Voyager” was awesome, “Porch” was an explosion, “Help > Slip” was a beam of light, but the final song of the set made it all seem like child’s play. Stasik has been trying to get his band to cover Tool for a long time and he finally got his wish as they busted out “46 & 2,” possibly the most devastating cover they’ve ever played. The energy in the room felt like magma being flung out the mouth of a volcano. This one set the room on fire. But even though the Stasik influence was huge, this song was 100% about the talents of Kris Myers. Between the vocals that he absolutely nailed and his double bass drum assault of the highest order, he elevated this song well beyond what any of us could have expected. This was the very definition of rage. There wasn’t a single head in the crowd left un-banging. Every fist was in the air. I’m not even that much of a Tool fan but I absolutely loved this song. Saying they ‘killed it’ is a massive understatement. This song was the ultimate way to wrap a set. It was an annihilation.

If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?

Q2: S2 (Stew Art)

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Naming this the most successful quarter in an easy call for me. At the time, immediately after, and now after listening to the UM Live recording about 15 times, the second quarter has left me dumbfounded. The fact that this quarter — arguably the most mentally challenging quarter — ended up producing the most brilliant moments is a testament to the raw genius of this band. But that isn’t to say that this quarter was without its faults. The set got off to a bit of a shaky start with the crowd-sourced suggestion of “Afternoon Nurse.” Seeing that the “Nurses” are two of my favorite songs, this got me extremely excited. What ended up occurring, however, was a bit of a letdown. It sounded cool enough — clearly a riff on the Nurse theme and belonging to this song family — but it never quite achieved liftoff like either of its two counterparts. It kinda just sat in this groovy pocket, ducking and weaving, while never landing any punches. The next suggestion that popped up was “Funk Our Face Off,” which ended up stumbling even more. The entire room was prepared for a heavy dose Cummins on the organ and Pony laying out some fat & tasty bass, you know, the funky shit. But instead Jake took over with some strange picking, leaving me feeling like he was trying to squeeze the juice out of a dried up orange. The jam didn’t take off in any way, which led to Stasik trying to take over but ultimately not being able to roll the jam over either. It was a slow start that had me wondering if they were in the proper frame of mind for this thing.

But that thought lasted about a nanosecond as the next theme popped up on the screen: “Middle Eastern Metal.” I’d like to take a moment here to point out that a good deal of credit for the amazing flow of the S2 events goes to Kevin Browning who selects the fan submissions and essentially guides the band through the set. Since he’s been there practically since day one, there’s no one better to direct Umphrey’s than Browning — it’s almost like he’s a member of the band as well. Not only was the selection of “Middle Eastern Metal” a great change of direction, it put the spotlight directly on Jake, who seemed almost too eager in the “Funk Our Face Off” section. This was a damn smart move as this piece ended up being one of the peak highlights of the entire night. Immediately, Bayliss kicked on a grungey distortion and began laying down a heavy rhythm for Jake shred over. And holy mother of god did Jake shred. Jake was a sledgehammer as his searing hot licks alternated between a flighty, snake charmer-esque feel and a terrible lightning storm of metal guitar. But Myers wasn’t about to let Jake just run away with it, his drumming — complete with another assault on the double bass pedal — was absolutely devastating. Myers is never one to lay back in the cut, but on this song (much like “46&2″ in Q1) he truly shined. You could feel the energy start to bubble up through everyone in the crowd, it was like a switch was flipped and the second quarter was about to be non-stop madness until the end.

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The topic “Drum n Bass” came up next and immediately doused the flames of “Middle Eastern Metal” while smoothly moving the music in a different yet similarly engaging direction. Instead of heavy bursts of double bass, Myers turned into a rapid fire chatter box of hi-hat & share shuffles. His ability to change gears so quickly and be so proficient at such wildly varying styles really sets Myers apart from most ‘jam’ drummers– he’s at the top of the food chain. This was a slick little dance party that served as a comfortable little space before yet another ridiculous jam in the form of “Soaring Uplifting Jam Part 2.” The original “SUJ” was easily my peak highlight from UM Bowl II, so I was floored when it came back — apparently I wasn’t the only one who fell in love with the first version. This one was very similar in its level of emotion and completely heart-wrenching, tear-jerking capabilities. For someone who’s been accused of ‘turning everything into metal,’ Jake Cinninger continues to bust out stuff like this to prove he’s got as much soul in those fingers as a gospel choir. This “SUJ” had a little heavier energy than the original, it was more stern and considerably less ‘flighty.’ The palpable ‘double peak’ approach was in full effect as Cinninger rode to the apex of Shred Mountain twice only to be gently led back down with some soothing sprinkles of piano by Cummins. Sheer brilliance. I almost felt like the quarter could have ended right there. My entire existence was high as a kite.

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But then Browning did it again, he chose the perfect change of direction/pace to keep the quarter engaged. “Afternoon Bus Ride in Jamaica” was the perfect showcase for Umphrey’s to bust out their reggae stick. Bayliss improvised some sweet, “Don’t gimme that, me no want that… crack, crack” lyrics that were obviously a shout out to Jamaica’s predilection to marijuana. Well done. Joel’s keyboard work in this song was excellent and he drove the light-hearted nature of the song with his perfect reggae rhythm and weird Moog blips & bloops that pushed the attitude towards the dub side in a hurry. This improvisation began to slow down just as “Increasing Tempo Jam” crept onto the screen. This theme really stood out for not being a riff on a specific song or a genre, but for being a wide open concept based on speed. Brilliant, once again. This jam was all about the chemistry of Jake and Myers, who seemed almost connected at the hip despite being separated by a wall of plexiglass. It was exactly like it sounded and climbed a direct upward slope until it literally seemed like they couldn’t go any faster.

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Up next was “Yacht Rock Jam,” which had a decidedly “Syncopated Strangers” sound and an energy like sipping a cool cocktail on a ocean somewhere. But this mellow jam had an ulterior motive: a wedding proposal. A couple minutes into this tune, the proposal displayed on the screen and all attention was briefly diverted from the stage to where the couple was standing. It was a really cool moment that just goes to show how seriously the Umphreaks take UM Bowl. After the love was in the air the theme “Hip Hop Tribute” came up and demonstrated the magic that these topics can create. Basically, this section inspired two completely different takes on what it could mean. Jake immediately interpreted it as “Hip Hop Tribute to the Spinal Shaft,” which was amazing. Everyone loves the ‘ghetts’ versions of songs, so to hear what was basically “Spinal Shaft Ghetts” was a really cool thing. But after only a minute or so they shifted direction and slid into Warren G’s “Regulate,” which meant now they were toying with a tribute to the history of hip hop. See what I mean about how differently they can interpret a simple three-word suggestion? Myers added in the lyrics from the original song from which “Regulate” was sampled: Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin.” But then they quickly moved into an instrumental cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gz and Hustlas” which got really sinister and gave Jake free reign to get gnarly with some shreds. This was an amazing song all around.

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About three times now I felt like there was no way the S2 could keep going, it was just one mind-boggling display after another. But they saved the best groove for last with “Take Us To The Disco Tech (sic).” Now here was that funk that we were looking for earlier. Stasik jumped in right away with a powerful bassline that carved out the perfect pocket. It was like the groove that never materialized in Q1’s “Night Nurse” and the funk that was missing in Q2’s “Funk Our Face Off” got together and had a mutant baby named “Disco Tech.” Although there wasn’t much that was truly disco about this aside from Waful blowing up the disco ball with his lights, this was unquestionably the sexiest groove of the night. Finally, the S2 was over. It felt like I hadn’t taken a breath for the past 45 minutes. That was one seriously mind-blowing stretch of music.

Obviously the music that comes out of an S2 is entirely in the moment, a one-off throwdown of whatever’s on the tip of their brains. But the thing about the S2 that makes it so special is the hope of getting your suggestion picked for the band to play. Some of them seem a little silly but, overall, the suggestions were intelligent and pushed some unique aspect of their sound that the super hardcores can all geek out about. There isn’t much that validates your Umphrey’s intuition like creating a theme that not only passes The Sound Caresser test, but that the band can use to create something uniquely brilliant. Unfortunately I didn’t get a suggestion chosen, but my idea of “Burial Ground Dub” was kind of covered by “Middle Eastern Metal” and “Bus Ride in Jamaica” anyhow. One of these years I’m gonna get one…

Q3: Choose Your Adventure

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Quarter three began on a somewhat predictable note as the votes poured in for “All In Time.” This song is almost as beloved as “Front Porch,” as evidenced by the ecstatic crowd reaction. It was a straightforward version of the front half of “AIT,” but that wasn’t where the magic happened. No, the magic came in the form of the ‘holding jam’ that allowed time for the votes to roll in for the next song. These tweener jams ended up being a staple part of this set and really allowed the set to flow where it could have gotten bogged down in the songs themselves. Jake laid down some stabbing riffs that carried the jam until “Glory” finally won the voting. It was, once again, a very stereotypical selection but, as Jake likes to do, the beginning was altered slightly with some staccato picking of the opening melody. It’s amazing how such standard songs can take on a unique sound thanks to some smart subtleties.

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“Glory” was as enlightening as ever, punching a hole in the ceiling of Park West, allowing the light of the universe to figuratively flood in. It was a straightforward version that opened the door for another tweener jam, this time with some weird Moog sounds from Joel that transitioned into a powerful & gritty section that kept everyone engaged until “The Linear” won out the next vote. “Linear” seemed to come and go quickly as the next jam stretched on through the most contentious voting of the night. It was neck and neck with “40s Theme,” but eventually “August” won out. It was a surprise that “August” won, but I was voting my ass off trying to make it happen and glory washed over me as my efforts paid off. Like the others, it was a clean cut and unfinished version, but the ‘special’ nature of the song wasn’t lost on the hit-and-run approach.

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But “August” paved the way for one of the most unexpected & fun moments of the night. Somehow the tweener jam found its way to a “Lay Down Sally” party that seemed to send a wave of smiles across the crowd. All of a sudden there was this lighthearted, almost bluegrass-pickin energy that lit a dance fire under everyone’s ass. Joel’s piano playing accompanied Jake’s soulful licks and gave this particular jam a true identity that none of the others had. The voting was tight once again but thankfully the “End Bridgeless” option won out. But they didn’t quite go to the end of the song. Instead what happened was almost like a radio edit of “Bridgeless.” They jumped right into the opening vocal section, but then skipped over the center arrangements of the song to then launch into the frantic, fiery conclusion of the song. Once again, the off-the-cuff nature of UM Bowl reared its head and provided a unique version of a song that wouldn’t be heard anywhere else.

“Bridgeless” came to a close as the next round of voting was still undecided and the music briefly stopped for the only time in Q3. Finally “Mantis” took the narrowest of victories and Joel jumped right into gentle lullaby of “Preamble” which always leads the way for “Mantis.” This is one of their most technical songs, so the fact that it was an option was a little surprising, yet they pulled it off with the trademark Umph aplomb. “Mantis” remained unfinished as the voting for the next song was the biggest landslide of the quarter. “Making Flippy Floppy” won in a major way — everyone loves when UM covers the Talking Heads. This might have been the biggest explosion of the night, the crowd went nuts as they tore into this tune. The dance party was on after the cerebral nature of “Mantis” kind of put everyone in a focused stare. Booties were shakin and people were jumpin as “Flippy Floppy” ended up being the longest and most complete song of Q3. But the quarter wasn’t over quite yet. Another decisive victory was in order as “End Nothing Too Fancy” won out and brought the set to an explosive close.

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Overall this set was an hour-long rollercoaster ride. The peaks & valleys seemed to never end, and a handful of super peak moments threw in a couple of g-force driving loop-de-loops that sucked the blood back in your skull and slid icicles down your back. Thanks to the surprisingly sharp improv between songs this might have been the most fluid set of the night, feeling the most like a traditional Umphrey’s show. But in hindsight, I’m really feeling like many of the songs were just too obvious. I mean, how many times have we all heard “All In Time,” “Glory,” “Bridgeless,” and “Nothing Too Fancy?” Sure, it’s easy to blame the crowd as we were the ones voting for all of it, but I feel like our pool of choices was a little bit too shallow, that the options never really dipped into anything that you would consider a ‘rarity.’ What if one of the screens that popped up was “All Things Ninja” vs. “Wife Soup” vs. “The Fuzz?” Or something like “Mail Package” vs. “Soul Food 1″ vs. “KaBump?” Who would win then?? I’ll tell you who would win: the fans. The voting would be incredibly close and would create a frenzy of texting, with everyone trying to get that song they’ve been chasing. And that’s the ticket with the Choose Your Own Adventure quarter, it creates an investment in the music like no other concert ever has. When you’re frantically texting in your votes, trying so hard to personally sway the direction of the show, it’s like giving a little piece of yourself to the greater good. And if the song you’ve been pushing for actually does win, it creates a moment of pure elation unlike any regular song because not only are you getting the song you really wanted to hear, but you helped make it happen. For what might seem at first glance (especially to the non-Umphrey’s fan) as a somewhat contrived & corny concept, in reality it was an utterly engrossing exercise that connected the band to the fans in an extraordinary way.

Q4: Raw Stewage (words by Jon McLennand)

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“We love you guys so much; for letting us do this, letting us go out on a limb, take a chance, and collectively fall on our collective faces together.” – Brendan Bayliss

Imagine running at full speed through a maze, mapless, with your eyes closed, and making it to the finish. Luck? Now imagine trying to make your way through that same maze, still at full speed, map in hand, but with your eyes open. Or how about this one, imagine being blindfolded, handed a box of legos, and told to create a masterpiece as fast as you could, then removing the blindfold to discover you’ve created the Millennium Falcon. Now imagine being handed a box containing the entire set and instructions. I could go on, but…that’s the difference between the seven hours of “Raw Stewage” source material and what happened during Q4. Also, Umphrey’s McGee improvisation at its finest is Jedi as fuck.

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Raw Stewage was a gift to the phreakiest of Umphreaks, the geekiest of McGeeks, as they recreated some of their finest pieces of structured improvisation aka “Jimmy Stewarts.” Providing a ballot of 33 band and fan choices comprised of selections from 2003-2012, UM managed to run through the top eight vote getters during the 55 minute set. A sort of greatest hits that didn’t feature songs, yet strangely wasn’t improv-heavy, either. It dwelled in some middle ground, former improvisation masquerading as “songs,” or so the UMLive song titles would relate to you. Whereas the previous sets had some clue what was happening next based upon pre-song banter or the projection screens, for Q4 only the keenest of encyclopedic ears knew what was going on. This resulted in a bit of a disconnect for much of an audience that wasn’t as fully engaged for the set as they had been the previous three. They were willing to challenge the listeners to keep up, to show them something they’d never seen before.

Q4 was an attempt to cover themselves, and it was no small task. The act of creation is a completely different process than the act of recreation. Taking something played on instinct and then trying to put that to memory and then recall it is playing from a different part of the brain. As it was their first time playing it live from memory, like most first attempts there was some tentativity. It often felt as if they were shifting between 2nd and 3rd gear, just on the verge of exploding. This was most evident in Kris Myers’ playing, someone who plays best when he’s feeling the moment, not thinking, just reacting. Jake, too, occasionally seemed more occupied with recreating a note than feeling a right one out. Without the organic process, the changes and movements through various sections would occasionally feel unnatural and many of the tempos were slower than the originals.

Now that we’ve got the hiccups and speed bumps out of the way, this set was 100% Umphrey’s McGee doing only what Umphrey’s McGee can do. They’re always willing to try something new, push the boundaries of what fans think are possible. There were undoubtedly moments of brilliance throughout the set. They began to pick up steam with “Den” (aka 2.11.11 Bright Lights), the 3rd selection, a moment that had garnered instant classic status by band and fans alike last year. Much simpler a creation than others in the set, the improvisation developed patiently, building momentum towards the set’s first peak.

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The structured format of their improvisation can often convince the unfamiliar ear that they just witnessed a song, especially in those moments when a Brendan Bayliss steps up to the microphone to improvise a vocal melody and lyrics on top of a created music section. These vocal stewarts are rare gems in the live UM catalog and have helped give rise to such classic songs as “In the Kitchen,” “Ocean Billy,” “Believe the Lie,” and “Intentions Clear.” The Q4 vocal stewarts were the gems of the set, recreating two of the finest moments of UMprovisation, giving Bayliss a 2nd shot at the vocal melody and lyrics. “Theresa” (aka 3.3.11 Intentions Clear) sounded radically different than the original (especially without the defining bass line), sounding more like rock ballad akin to “Morning Song,” this was a much more tender moment than I’m sure much of the audience was anticipating. A (very unscientific) survey of fans is unanimously in favor of this becoming a new UM song. In the back of many an Umphreak’s mind, there must have been hope that this set would inspire the band to revisit and reincorporate pieces into their repertoire.

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It wasn’t until the 11.2.06 Groove Holmes, aptly bestowed the title off “Lift & Separate,” that the band was able to truly erupt in a manner characteristic of its most hallowed “Jimmy Stewarts.” Jake Cinninger seemed to be in anticipation of this moment all set, he played confidently, patiently, and then explosively.

A one-of-a-kind set of music might be an ironic way to describe an attempt to recreate events from the past, but let there be no confusion that this is a concept most bands couldn’t even dream of creating. UM’s improvisation style, with its bent on structure and melody gives it something to grasp, something to hold on to, something to get stuck in your head. They’ve created so many moments of brilliance, that it’s a shame many of them will go unnoticed, to all but the most dedicated of archivists. The band would be wise to revisit Raw Stewage in future UMBowls, but maybe earlier in the evening allowing Q4 to better connect with the fans at the close of the show.

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Overtime was all there was left. And, naturally, UM Bowl III ended with “Divisions.” It seemed like the only thing that would have felt right. It came in around 14 minutes, which, in “Divisions” terms, isn’t even ‘fully stretched.’ The jam pounded everything home with a serious solo from ‘The Professor’ Kris Myers and Brendan once again reminded us about “soul embraaaaaaace/we’re all the same.” It was a sentimental way to end a ridiculous marathon of a concert. A concert that NO ONE but Umphrey’s McGee could perform. If you love Umphrey’s, and especially if you consider yourself an Umphreak, UM Bowl is something that you should never miss. Ever. Ever, ever. This was a special night with a special group of fans all enjoying their absolute favorite band.

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Jeremy Frazier is the editor-in-chief of Soundfuse.