Words by: Cal Roach | Images by: Chad Smith
Umphrey's McGee (S2) :: 10.03.09 :: Eagles Ballroom :: Milwaukee, WI
Imagine you're watching your favorite band play, and you're in the thick of a long jam that's getting a little... aimless, and you just wish you could send the guys a telepathic message to kick it into a higher gear or transition into a different song or something. Umphrey's McGee gave its fans a chance to do just that Saturday afternoon prior to a "normal" show later that night with the debut of a new, experimental live project dubbed the Stew Art Series (S2). Reportedly, it would be an hour of entirely improvised music, somehow directed by the audience. An intentionally vague notion, but the very generosity of the concept almost guaranteed some degree of success. Whether it resulted in a sloppy mess or not, it was an unprecedented fan/band collaborative proposition.
Only 50 tickets were sold for the event, and the mystery and intimacy generated some giddy electricity as fans were treated to snacks and beverages while they waited. Shortly after everyone was settled in, production manager Kevin Browning came in and gave us the lowdown: Fans would be texting ideas to the crew, who would relay them to a large screen onstage that everyone could see. After the intro speech, the band members came in and milled with the small crowd briefly, then led everyone upstairs to the Eagles Ballroom to start the insanity; as guitarist/singer Jake Cinninger put it, "We're all hamsters and gerbils in a cage."
The first fan-generated message to appear onscreen was "Afternoon bus ride in Jamaica," setting the tone for an overall laid-back, dub-heavy show, although another text quickly dictated a more chaotic stretch, capped by "Cantina Band," which prompted a loose interpolation of the Star Wars ditty. As the concept unfolded, I realized that I'd sort of expected this thing to come off forced or stilted, or at least gimmicky, but the reality was that the texts served more to prevent the band from ever losing focus, probably the most common lame tendency in the jam band world. The musicians' ability to switch gears quickly, combined with their well-honed onstage intra-band language, made the execution seem surprisingly natural.
Cinninger had described the concept to me as being akin to Brian Eno's "Oblique Strategies," essentially a methodology for using random suggestions to overcome an obstacle or stagnation, but in this inaugural session, there was no time for stagnation. If anything, prompts came in too quickly to allow any true development most of the time. As any good, improv-based band knows, there's a fine line between dragging out the jam and letting it develop its own dynamic. However, Umphrey's has always been more about tight composition and communication than the freefall of the typical jam band, so this experiment was an unusual loss of control. These guys are well versed in so many different genres that they were able to utilize every idea posited without any truly jarring transitions. They threw in a significant "Thunderstruck" (from the suggestion "thunderstorms") snippet, a goof on "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" ("sexxxxy"), and plenty of danceable funk, until the first session ended with some gratuitous fart noises ("ohhhh noooooo") and the first Q&A began.
| Umphrey's McGee (S2) :: 10.03.09 :: Eagles Ballroom|
The Q&A was a well-intentioned gesture, but most fans didn't really take it seriously; I think most would've preferred it if the music hadn't stopped at all. The second set was a little more gimmicky and disjointed, with Cinninger offering some rapid-fire scratching ("drive by"), he and guitarist Brendan Bayliss feigning wah-wah orgasms over a disco groove ("sex in the champagne room"), and a percussion and bass solo followed by the two guitarists being inexplicably ordered to their knees, amicable puppets that they were. The second set (each one was 10-15 minutes long) ended with a dizzying whirl of genres that really brought the energy back, ending with a rendition of the Notre Dame Victory March ("FIGHTING IRISH WIIIIIIIINS!"), and then more Q&A.
The third and final segment of music proved to be the most thrilling, thanks to some inspired suggestions and the band pulling them off by the skin of its teeth. Early on, there was the (abbreviated, naturally) debut of UM's new remix single, "Turn And Dub." Next suggestion had them play "with a hint of Beethoven." And responding to "Halloween style mash up," the guys managed to cobble together "Beethoven's Fifth" and the theme from the film Halloween. You couldn't exactly call it smooth, but just to be able to spontaneously put that together on command speaks volumes about the dexterity of this band, and the crowd loved it.
| Umphrey's McGee (S2) :: 10.03.09 :: Eagles Ballroom|
Eventually, "dub bites the dust" got layered over top of this, and the only actual stall-out came with a demand for "one of Jake's Avalanche [his former band] country songs," which proved a treat for die-hards all the same. Then, "jazzy WBG (can u do it boys?)" showed up. After a brief huddle, we got a recognizable, un-metallic "Wizard Burial Ground" set to a hyper-swing beat. If only they'd attempted the whole song this way! It was an impressive stab. This led to "RAWK," and finally "preview of tonight's show," which turned out to be the partial debut of a brand new song. All in all, it was a lot more hit than miss, a dazzling display of musicianship, and a gracious gift to the hardcore fans that dished out the $100 to be there. As they get this experiment fine-tuned, look out.
Continue reading for more images of Umphrey's McGee's new Stew Art Series...