Umphrey's McGee (S2) :: 11.13 :: Higher Ground :: Burlington, VT
The third of Umphrey's McGee's improvisational Stew Art Series (S2) events took place on Friday the 13th in the beautiful town of Burlington, Vermont at the infamous Higher Ground. For most, if not all of us, this was our first time experiencing this artsy project that UM has come up with. For those of you who haven't heard, the basic idea involves the audience using cell phones to text messages with musical ideas or concepts to the band. Messages with good ideas are selected and projected onto a huge screen where the band can see them. Then it's the band's job to improvise and create music that represents these musical concepts. In other words, Umphrey's McGee is writing a soundtrack to a movie where the audience is writing the scene titles.
The first text to appear on the screen was Daft Punk does Celtic," and as bizarre as that sounds Umphrey's somehow made it work. Joel Cummins started playing the heavy riff from Daft Punk's Robot Rock," then Jake Cinninger joined in with a happy Celtic riff. The only thing missing was some bagpipes. I'd read how at previous S2 events there wasn't enough time to let the jam develop; well, they definitely took that into account this time around. The Celtic Daft Punk" jam was explosive and lasted for a while, morphing and developing like the best jams at regular shows. The next text was Friday the 13th," and the electronic jam changed into a heavy dark metal riff with Cinninger screaming for the mercy of a bloody killer. Being more theatrical than musical, this jam only lasted a few moments before moving onto Egyptian Sexy Time." Picture Pharaoh in a pinstripe suit at a club getting his groove on - very sexy indeed. Again, this jam really took off and found all band members participating, and so it lasted longer than many other jams.
The Umph's musical abilities truly shined as they segued with perfection from one text to the next. It is one thing to improvise over a rhythm, but it's another thing entirely to have six people all jumping into a jam simultaneously with each of them not knowing at all what the other members will play. After depicting some crazy and hilarious scenarios such as a hippy losing a joint and angry Oompa Loompas, they ended the initial section and went into the first Q&A.
This should have been a great opportunity for fans to learn about the inner workings of a band as complex and intriguing as Umphrey's McGee, but instead it was just more time for shenanigans. It was all good and fun but I do wish people had taken it a bit more seriously. There were, however, a few good questions. The previous night was the first show this year to be a song list" show as apposed to a setlist" show. A traditional setlist is the list of songs that the band will play in sequence at that evening's show. A song list show is when each song comes to an end the band will chose another song to play next from a list of songs chosen before the show. Someone asked about the difference from the band's perspective between a setlist show and a song list show. Brendan Bayliss commented that it adds a nervous energy that makes the music more frantic, and Cinninger said, [A] shepherd sheep thing goes on with the setlist," with the setlist being the shepherd and the band being the sheep. You take away the civil shepherd and it gets a little weird." However, he went on to say, It's easier to enjoy whatever your doing, just getting into right where you were at in the song because you don't have to worry about looking ahead. You know you're not going to be that guy who blows the change." I think most jam band fans are curious about how a group goes about choosing the setlist each night and how their choice in turn affects the jamming that ensues. It was nice to get a little insight on how Umphrey's goes about it.
After the questions were over, Umphrey's jumped back into jamming, and this time the first new text to appear was Bounce." This was probably the highlight of the show for many. It started with a funky guitar riff from Bayliss and then one by one the band joined in to create a thick, complex, funky jam. You really had no choice in the matter; the music really did just make you BOUNCE. Later on someone sent the text Something Quit Fancy," which led the band into playing a slowed down, very elegant version of Nothing Too Fancy." The messages started flowing and again Umphrey's took us through an amazing musical journey. The segues were impeccable, and often you didn't even notice there was a new text until you looked back and saw it on the screen.
In total there were four jam sessions (each about 10-15 minutes) with three Q&A sessions in between. The texts were very mixed. Some inspired really great jams with all band members completely engulfed in the moment. Others, like holes in the wall of your apartment," inspired more comical theatrical scenes. Either way it was truly amazing to see musicians totally in their element improvising together as a team to create new, original music that never would have existed otherwise. Highlights were Daft Punk does Celtic," Egyptian Sexy Time," and Bounce," which were mentioned earlier, along with gangsta bake sale," Ballad for the 5 girls in attendance," slam da bass mon," running from security at the higher ground," underwater baroque ball" which then morphed into boiling water," and BB, Andy, Joel Vs. Ryan, Chris & Jake," which literally split the band in two and had them battling over who had the better jam.
Umphrey's really deserve a lot of credit for coming up with this project. Whether you like their style or not it's clear that they are on the cutting edge of improvised music. Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't know of anyone else who is doing or has ever done fan-inspired jamming via text messages. The $100 ticket does seem pretty steep but at the end of the day it was definitely worth it. You get a personal show of only 50 people, an open bar, a meet and greet with your favorite band (I'm assuming all in attendance were Umphreaks), a CD with all the music and commentary from the show, and to top it all off you can actually have some say in where the band will take their jams. I can't wait to see what Umphrey's comes up with next.
List of all the texts as they appeared on the screen:
Daft Punk does Celtic > Friday the 13th > Egyptian sexy time > Hippy loosing joint > Salsa showdown in Tijuana > Angry oompa loompas > Metal overload > Campfire singalong, Q&A #1
Bounce > Pulp Friction > John Lee hooker in a strip club > Something Quiet Fancy > Underwater baroque ball > Boiling water > Thanksgiving dinner coma > Gangsta bake sale > Ballad for the 5 girls in attendance > Silent but deadly, Q&A #2
Heady Bday bass solo [It was Ryan Stasik's birthday] > Orfeo/Kimble cage match > Triple Time > Freezing Cold in Canada > Holes in the wall of your apartment > Soaring Deeply > Tool mellowed out > Lake Champlain monster is hungry > Bust out the pedals you use least > We need more cowbell > Joel is young again, Q&A #3
Running from security at Higher Ground > Slam da bass mon > Super Mario hunting > S2 is my first UM concert > BB, Andy, Joel Vs. Ryan Chris & Jake > Take me to my dark place > Technical Difficulties
Umphrey's McGee tour dates are available here.