Umphrey’s McGee | UMBowl III | Review | Photos

Words by: Bryan Tobian | Images by: Brian Spady (UMBowl III) and Jake Plimack (Martyr's Show)

Umphrey’s McGee – UMBowl III :: 04.27.12 :: Park West:: Chicago, IL

Umphrey’s McGee :: 04.28.12 :: Martyr’s :: Chicago, IL

Photo gallery below review!

Umphrey’s McGee by Brian Spady
Eastbound, the horizon disappears behind the skyline of soaring towers as the Blue Line train charges toward downtown Chicago; like a master chef with a tin can lid slicing gracefully through the heart of Friday afternoon rush hour. A homecoming for some, this sprawling urban-scape is the sweaty underground musical incubator that nurtured a toddling progressive-rock band with jammy tendencies into a fiercely unified musical juggernaut. Chicagoland's bars, clubs, parks and theaters are the whetstone on which Umphrey's McGee sharpened their surgically precise chops for years; gaining many fans through word of mouth, open tape sharing, and by consistently living up to the hype in their live performances. It wasn't all that long ago when, if you couldn't see them one weekend, you could probably see them the next weekend without having to drive very far. On this cloudy afternoon, however, there are already people lined up outside the entrance of the Park West, excited to enjoy a somewhat rare visit from their hometown heroes.

Umphrey's still sounds a lot like the band that used to shred up and down the Midwest dive circuit. They still play many of the same songs that they cut their teeth on six nights a week in every shithole bar within a day's drive of the Windy City. But they have long since graduated from the up-and-comers league, evolved from that unassumingly virtuosic ragtag clan of jokers in a van, then a bus and now, occasionally, jet-setting between festivals. They have germinated a following from their roots in college house parties, dive bars and sweatbox clubs, gaining consistent momentum and blossoming into summer festival headliners, lavish theater stages, majestic amphitheatres and beyond. Everything: the sound, the production, the lights, the venues, the audience has, for better and worse, gradually swelled in respective size, precision and intensity. Above all though, the greatest development from Umphrey's McGee has been their wizardly ability to cast improvisational sorcery anytime, anywhere, within any song...or while just screwing around during soundcheck.

Umphrey’s McGee by Brian Spady
In spite of the group's more than modest success, one of their top priorities has been the accessibility of the band members to the fans. They understand that one of the key factors to their growth has been their keen ability to listen and give the people exactly what they want. The UMBowl series is one of the band's many attempts to keep in touch with their fans, to listen to what they are requesting, and of course, in classic Umphrey's fashion, to deliver the goods. And what a grandiose way to deliver: a four-and-a-half hour show that tests the limits of audience participation and on-the-spot musical improvisation taking place at one of Chicago's most pristine, intimate venues. Now in its third year, UMBowl is a four-set behemoth of a show with audience interaction weaved tightly into its fabric.

Outside, Park West is simultaneously like a spaceship out of both the 80s and the distant future. It is a room that the band has been crushing since their fabled beginnings. The exterior metal shell with red warp-speed letters sticks out like a sore thumb in its quiet near-Northside neighborhood. Hidden within it is the cavernous recital chamber, a musical temple with terraced dance floors, the entire room outfitted to the nines with soundproofing foam walls stretching up into its stratospheric globular dome. Hanging from the dome like Moby Dick's uvula, a colossal disco ball shines like the North Star. As showtime approached, colorful fans filed in, and the place turned electric.

Umphrey’s McGee by Brian Spady
Following UMBowl tradition, the evening was christened with a hilarious rockumentary video spoof showcasing the band's lighthearted, goofy humor with a parody of the movie Almost Famous, UM ribbing themselves as they argue pretentiously over a t-shirt design. Afterwards, the show blasted out from the gates with smooth fury highlighted by covers of Daft Punk's “Voyager”, The Grateful Dead's “Help on the Way > Slipknot” and bassist Ryan Stasik's long awaited attack on Tool’s “46 and 2,” which showcased their range and chameleonic nature. “Front Porch” featured the most prolific improvisation of the set with an airy jam akin to the Allman Brother's “Blue Sky” peaking majestically with dual guitar trills from Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger before launching into overdrive and dropping back onto the “Porch”.

The second set was an hour of “Stew Art,” where the band improvised on open-ended themes selected from real-time texts sent in by audience members. “Indian Metal” gave the band a chance to open up their world music catalogue, giving a refined crunch to a very flow-y Middle Eastern jam. The second installment of the “Uplifting Soaring Jam” offered an overdriven addition to its majestic predecessor, which caused an uproar at least year's UMBowl. Drum demigod Kris Myers and his rhythmic counterpart Ryan Stasik used “Drum n Bass” as a launching point for a jazzy dance assault that had the crowd pumping. “Yacht Rock Jam” was basically a cruise through George Benson's “Breezin,'” while “Hip Hop Tribute” began as a half-speed, down and dirty rendition of their original funk instrumental “Tribute to the Spinal Shaft” which soon morphed into a mash-up of Warren G's “Regulators,” Snoop Dog's “G'z and Hustlas ” and Dr. Dre's equally smooth “Xxxplosive”. The set ended on “Take Us to the Disco Tech,” which starred light designer Jefferson Waful as he used the gargantuan disco ball to pump effervescent galaxies throughout the room.

Umphrey’s McGee by Brian Spady
In the third set, the band offered a series of “choose your destiny” multiple choice selections of original songs, which again left it to audience vote to direct the band in real time to the winner, everyone sculpting a truly unique set through the general will. The result was a beast of a hybrid where the first half of “All in Time” bookended parts of “Glory,” “Linear” and “August,” capped off by the explosive outro of “Bridgeless”. This was followed by a sandwich of “Mantis” and “Nothing Too Fancy” smashed over a molten hot “Making Flippy Floppy” Sloppy Joe center. However, being so late in the game, many fans in the audience seemed sluggish at the polls. As the drinks flowed and the sweat poured, votes only dribbled in, perhaps suggesting that this will be the next set revamped for future UMBowls.

Finally, the most exciting quarter, the all “Jimmy Stewart” set, arrived. A ‘Stew,’ their term for a structured improvisational jam, is meant to sound more like an instrumental song than an open ended solo-fest. These structured progressions become the canvas the band paints its vast array of labyrinthine soundscapes - spanning every genre from rock n' roll and metal to funk and jazz, techno, country and every mutant in between- upon. Over time, with more than a decade of live recordings, they have collected a catalogue of these jams, many of which have been the basis of actual songs, and many that have just made for some truly inspiring moments when originally played. For this final set, the band pre-released seven hours of recordings containing some of the most acclaimed jams of their career, and of course, allowed everyone with an UMBowl ticket to vote for their favorites for the band to revisit. What resulted was one of the most spectacular hours of live Umphrey's to date.

The band opened with the grungy prog of “Liberty Echo,” but soon gave way to a laid back “White Pickle”. This tune gave Joel Cummins a chance to strut his super smooth West Coast synth contrasted against a straight-ahead, swirling B-section podium for Jake Cinninger's skin-to-steel, six-string masters seminar. The ending smashed right into “Den”, a poppy four-to the-floor over Cummins' breezy piano. Cinninger's flanged guitar, run through an octave pedal, produced a pingy tone reminiscent of steel drums, which gave the piece a momentary island feel over the happy, majestic, sunshiny groove. As Cinninger locked in a repeating riff, Bayliss latched on in harmony and their guitars drove a hummingbird war to a raging peak before relenting into somber Bayliss ballad “The Better End”. The rousing “9:30” evoked feelings of a sinister chase scene before the band explored some metal with “Lift and Separate”.

Umphrey’s McGee @ Martyr's by Jake Plimack
As expected, the band nimbly treaded through a full spectrum of musical styles. Moreover, they showed they are no longer just happening onto the spark, the catalyst that starts their improvisational fires. They now clearly understand the science behind making their brand of magic. Still, Team UM is constantly experimenting with the music, the show, their approach to promotions, and fan connections. And, while an emotional “Divisions” encore seems to wind this story down, it turned out to just be the introduction for a new chapter. The next night, just down the street at Martyr's, another historic Umphrey's stomping ground, the boys beta tested their next level of the band-to-fan interaction paradigm through an all request private show, organized completely by one diehard fan for 200 of his diehard fan friends.

This was a relatively under-spoken part of the promotional release of last year's Death by Stereo album, where fans could purchase days with the band in the studio, hanging out on the bus, buy the old tour van, or remix the album. And, while the ticket on this event was a hefty $250 per head, a limited edition poster, top shelf open bar, and laminated pass were among the perks. However, the intimate club, the handcrafted setlist, the excitement of being able to reach out and touch the band, the small group of zealous Umphreaks who all knew each other through less than a couple degrees of separation, and of course, the extreme level of playing that these circumstances encourage, well, all these factors made the experience truly extraordinary.

Heading westbound towards O'Hare Airport, the traffic was momentarily absent as the Sunday sky hinted at dawn. Chicago is no longer home for a lot of folks who began here, including most of Umphrey's McGee, and while they may not come back to town again for a while, it's never been clearer that when they do they will always bring us something to write home about.

Setlists below gallery.

UMBowl III Setlist

First Quarter: Flamethrower > Night Nurse > Voyager > Front Porch, Comma Later*, Help On the Way > Slipknot!, 46 & 2

Second Quarter: Stew Art event

Third Quarter: All In Time > Glory > The Linear > August > Bridgeless, Preamble > Mantis > Making Flippy Floppy > Nothing Too Fancy

Fourth Quarter: Liberty Echo > White Pickle > Den > The Better End, 9:30 > REW > Lift & Separate > Dream Team > In the Kitchen


For detailed notes for this performance pop over here.

04.28.12 Martyr’s Setlist

Set One: Wappy Sprayberry > Space Funk Booty, Last Man Swerving* -> Out of Order, Down Under, The Weight Around, Robot World > "Jimmy Stewart"% > 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover > Puppet String**

Set Two: Utopian Fir > "Jimmy Stewart"%% > Utopian Fir, The Trooper$, Baby Honey Sugar Darlin', Hurt Bird Bath -> The Other Side of Things^ > Hurt Bird Bath, The Good Times Are Killing Me$$, Nopener&, The Triple Wide, Hangover -> La Grange > Hangover

Encore: Two Dips&&, Wizard Burial Ground, Waiting Room

Private show put on by fans billed as "Bill Graham for a Day"

* with Thunderkiss '65 (White Zombie) jam
% with lyrics
** with In the Kitchen teases
%% with "Zsa Zsa Gabor" theme, followed by lyrics
$ debut, Iron Maiden
^ verses only, no chorus
$$ debut, Modest Mouse
& lounge style
&& debut, Brendan, Wade Wilby, and Clayton Halsey

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[Published on: 5/4/12]

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