Every group of enthusiasts has their sacred days. Baseball fans have the World Series, movie fans have the Academy Awards, and comic book lovers have ComiCon. For devotees of Umphrey’s McGee, UmBowl has become a sacred day. This year marked the third installment of their now annual event which the band uses to continue to push the envelope of technological interactivity and provide their devoted followers with the opportunity to guide the evening’s performance.
The more than four hours, worth of music was divided into four quarters (always with the promise of “overtime”) with each quarter having its own theme. Set One was comprised of tunes selected via internet voting, including the selection of a new tune and two covers. Set Two was an exploration of the band’s “S-2” (“stew”) format in which they respond to texts from the audience that can range from alternative takes on songs (UmBowl I featured a Reggae “Titties and Beer”) to moods and thematic directions. Set Three was text driven as attendees (and iClips viewers) were able to text in their choice of a song from three options provided by the band. Set Four was comprised of the bands re-creation of several of their historic “Jimmy Stewart” jams, again selected by internet voting.
The first quarter began with the band taking the stage to sounds of Flamethrower, one of the band’s new pre-recorded intros that they use as a jumping off point for their shows. From this the band segued into Night Nurse, a choice that was exceptionally well received by the audience, who, while having the chance to vote for songs, was learning of the election results on-the-fly. Next was a short Voyager that served as the launching pad for an epic version of Front Porch a song that always allows each member of the band a moment in the spotlight. After the briefest of pauses, during which guitarist Brendan Bayliss cautioned the audience to “stay hydrated – drink lots of stuff,” the band announced it was going to debut a new tune called “Comma Later,” a tune featuring Cinninger’s vocals alongside the band’s harmonies on the disco-tinged chorus. It was rather well polished for a debut performance, but it was far from the highlight of the evening’s musical fare.
The first quarter concluded with the two top voted-for covers with the top vote getter being played first. After dedicating the song to the band’s dear friend Kevin Kostelecky, who was relegated to the iClips couch tour, the band launched into an impeccable version of the Grateful Dead’s “Help On the Way >Slipknot” with Bayliss taking the vocals and Cinninger dexterously handling the intricate and delicate fingerwork on Slipknot. But, instead on concluding with the expected (and hoped for) “Franklin’s Tower,” the band ended the first set with the second place cover tune as drummer Kris Myers took the vocal on a haunting take on Tool’s “46 & 2.”
The S2 portion of the evening began with “Afternoon Nurse,” a clever request for a happy medium between the already-played Night Nurse and the band’s “Day Nurse,” which never really found solid ground before giving way to “Funk Our Face Off” that had the band’s rhythm set the proper mood for Bayliss and Cinninger to trade caustic guitar riffs. The next suggestion to the band was “Middle Eastern Metal” and the person who suggested it needs to be found and nominated for the Nobel Prize for inspiration because the ensuing jam clearly showcased the entire band’s virtuosity as the audience was instantly taken on a turbo-charged magic carpet ride. With a prompting for “Drum n Bass” Myers, Stasik and Farag launched their own percussive tour- de-force to which the rest of the band furnished the finishing touches.
Next was “Soaring Uplifting Jam, pt. 2,” in which Cinninger, Bayliss and Cummins each took turns prompting each other to greater and greater musical heights. With “Afternoon Bus Ride in Jamaica” the band took the audience from the rush hour of downtown Kingston through the countryside and culminating in the inevitable beach party. Next was “Increasing Tempo Jam” which, in comparison to the rest of the set, was a somewhat lackluster effort. This gave way to “Yacht Rock Jam” during which the text message board conveyed a proposal of marriage, from a member of the audience, which was immediately accepted, prompting the crowd into a towel waiving frenzy. The ensuing “Hip Hop Tribute” was an ambitious attempt at reinventing “Tribute to the Spinal Shaft” with a healthy dose of hip hop flair. The final serving of Stew was “Take us to the Disco-tech” which prompted the band to meld the musical sensibilities of the seventies with the technology of the present.
With the choices for the set three songs being determined by the text votes from the audience, the band had to wait a few moments, after returning to the stage, before being commanded to start “All in Time.” The overwhelming majority of votes required the band to down shift the tempo several notches as Cinninger led the band through a heartfelt version his instrumental “Glory” which, in turn, gave way to “The Linear” which gently returned the crowd to their normally frenzied pace. The next fan choice was “August” into which the band tucked a “Lay Down Sally” tease before morphing into a frenetic “Bridgeless.” After a brief pause to allow the next voting period to end, the crowd ultimately selected “Mantis” which gave way to a highly energized version of the Talking Heads “Making Flippy Floppy” onto which the band tacked a brief “Nothing Too Fancy” coda to end the third quarter.
From a technical standpoint, the task remaining for the fourth quarter had to be both the most ambitious and the most daunting. This is a band that is known for its free-wheeling, seat of their pants improvisation and the object of this set was for the band to attempt to recreate a series of those improvisations. It is one thing for a band to be able to play spontaneously and create beautiful music with the only intent being to fill that moment, but it is quite another for that same band to be willing to examine those moments and then deconstruct them in order to track and chart their spontaneity for the purpose of re-creating those moments and stringing them together.
Certainly the band had the benefit of knowing that the moments they were recreating had “worked” the first time, but there had to be the worry that the special qualities of those moments that were born extemporaneously might not emerge in an orchestrated environment. Whatever trepidations the band might have had, the resulting musical suite was staggering in its diversity and complexity as the band shifted from one magical moment to the next, taking the audience on an “E-ticket” ride that left them breathless at its conclusion. Returning to the stage for “overtime,” the band gave its audience the much-played “Divisions,” complete with a titanic Myers drum solo, as the evening ender.
As the smiling contented Umphreaks slowly filed out into a surprisingly warm spring morning, plans were made to meet up at this festival or for that holiday weekend. But in the afterglow of an amazing night of music the prevailing feeling was that of the child who had just opened their last Christmas present; an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for the experience that everyone shared tainted only by the realization that it would be a whole year before they could do it again.