Umphrey's McGee hosts eclectic mix of music, sports in UMBowl
BY ANDY FRYE For Sun-Times Media
On Saturday, April 27, Umphrey's McGee will hold its fourth annual UM Bowl (that's pronounced "um-bowl") at the Park West. As with most of the band's shows, their latest stop in Chicago sold out quickly.
The band's UMBowl is, just like a football game, is a live performance made up of four quarters. Each quarter features a different set of music, in which the band's fans will hear not only tunes that they know and love but also a lot of new improvisational interludes. Keyboardist Joel Cummins calls the Umphrey's McGee's musical style a "melting pot of music" that is a product of their chameleon-like personality.
The band, which has become wildly popular during its 16-year career, was founded in 1997 when Cummins and the others — guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss, bassist Ryan Stasik, and drummer Mike Mirro — joined together after spending time playing with other local bands in South Bend, Ind.
Despite being known to some degree as a jam band in the tradition of the Grateful Dead, Phish and Widespread Panic, Umphrey's McGee's approach to music is a wide-ranging one. The band is indeed known for its improvisational live shows and an eclectic style is made up of sounds from progressive rock of the 1970s. But Umphrey's takes just as much from contemplative classic rock artists such as Pink Floyd as well as the edgy guitar licks of Iron Maiden and other heavy metal acts. Yet, one thing that sets Umphrey's McGee apart is the band's open ear and relationship with its fans.
"The compelling thing about social media," Cummins said, "is that it reveals how much people want to know the human side of every story. From what's going on in sports and their favorite team, to what musicians they like are doing creatively."
Over the years the band's friendly, easy-going personality is one that has easily engaged fans. The band has a pretty robust Twitter presence, with around 27,000 followers not to mention a track record of active podcasting of live shows and sessions, going back to 2005.
Just like the uncertain outcomes in the Super Bowl or any other football game, in which teams like the band's beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish run set plays or "run the option," the band works within the framework of a little structure combine d with their knack for on-stage inventiveness. This mishmash of form and chaos creates an exciting concert atmosphere that makes every Umphrey's show its own unique animal.
For example, in one quarter of UMBowl, fans in the crowd can text ideas for songs of riffs in a moderated forum that is feed to the band live. Other quarters might feature a "choose-your-own-adventure stories" format as Cummins calls it, as well as concept called Raw Stewage in which the band incorporates a mosaic of sound clips and past performances voted on by fans.
Soliciting feedback from music fans is nothing new in 2013. A decade ago, alternative/punk band Sleater-Kinney toured while running a contest on their website in which fans could vote for the cover song they wanted the band to play. Upon their stop at Cabaret Metro in Chicago, the all-woman trio played Bruce Springsteen's tune "Promised Land". Since 2003, Facebook, Twitter and other forums have sprung up to allow musicians and their fans to interact and share feedback and the music experience more closely.
Since the start of the current tour, the band has polled its fans through social media and other interactive means to decide what will will become part of the winning "plays" in this weekend's UM Bowl. In past years, Umphrey's McGee has played an array of summer music fests such as Bonnaroo but has been successful in its own right with regular touring and playing shows to smaller venues that appeal to their fan base.
"Our goal has always been to find our voice within the roots of progressive music," Cummins said. "Our live shows always have a rich element of surprise, and we sort of want our improvisation to sounds composed, with some thought put into it."