Umphrey's McGee | UMBowl VII | Review

Article Contributed by Joshua Huver | Published on Monday, May 16, 2016

Progressive jam giants Umphrey’s McGee‘s return to Las Vegas for the seventh installment of the massively popular UMBowl production was marked once again by a stand-out tour closing dual evening extravaganza where all stops were pulled out and the power given directly to the fans, for better or for worse.

Although some quarters have remained pretty constant, the band loves to shake things up. Adding to the fan involvement, the band put out a poll on their Facebook page letting followers voice their opinion for one quarter selection over another.

In this case, the choice was to abandon the tried and true S2 quarter where fans text themes for the band to provide their musical interpretation on the fly, in favor of an “All Improv” quarter, following the massive success of an all-improv set in Madison, WI with saxophonist Joshua Redman.

But to quote the band’s own promotional e-mail announcing the return to Vegas after switching up cities the previous two years, if it’s not broken don’t fix it. And that is exactly how they approached the first half of UMBowl VII.

Usually accompanied by a theme, sports or pop culture related in some way or another, this year was no different. The opening and closing videos from each quarter were teasing clips from the recent and self-reflective documentary Reel to Real stylized in a “Pop UM Video” after the popular “Pop Up Video” featured by VH1. Following the show, they announced Reel to Real will be made widely available in June.

The first quarter was the “Raw Stewage” quarter. One of the most anticipated sets of the year for the band, Raw Stewage has attendees vote on their favorite Jimmy Stewart, which for the uninitiated, is basically an on-the-fly composition exercise where the band writes new material around a totally new or sometimes preconceived theme on stage and in front of the audience. Sometimes they are planned and sometimes they happen spontaneously, but there is a cohesive element that is present which separates a Stew from an otherwise incredible “jam”. But fear not, both Stews and jams are eligible for consideration.

For this weekend, ticketholders were presented with 20+ choices of music spanning a majority of their career. Some of the ‘stews’ have appeared on previous year’s ballots while some options were as new as March 2016. Top vote getters are then analyzed for their song potability. Write-ins were welcome, but unless there is an overwhelming and sweeping fan support, don’t count on the write-in. But definitely go listen to the “Booth Love” from Jefferson Waful’s birthday show, 2013-08-18.

Discerning between what is actually a workable piece of music and a typical peaking guitar lick determines a major portion of what gets chosen by the band to construct a brand new song. This year, the boys came up with five new tracks out of a combination of eight different jams.

“Breaker” opened the weekend strong. Composed from one of the more recent options, a lyrical stew from an “All In Time” from Mississippi in January of 2015, “Breaker” is unrelenting in its build. The main section has a very familiar progressive riff rock feel with an almost punk rock drive to it before pulling back significantly on the reins and returning to the jam that spawned the song.

“Rocktopus” bridged new and old UM in the combination of two stews nine years apart: “Pay the Snucka” in 2005 and an “In The Kitchen” jam from 2014. Opening with a back and forth open chord progression with lots of room for fills, the intro recalls classic rock nostalgia before dipping its tone into the melancholy lead melody and on its way to the verse.

“Fly Like A Beagle” opened with six minutes of a relentless and infectious groove. Maintaining a generally clean tone and utilizing echo effects, guitarist Brendan Bayliss’ robotic rhythym skills allowed for Jake Cinninger and Joel Cummins to get into a heated strings vs keys tonality debate before they both took a backseat to Bayliss. Some odd vocals from Cinninger threw many people off. Originally omitted from being credited, this composition was born out of the legendary Truckee Plunger (2007/06/08) and a January 2011 Slacker. The staccato of the main theme carried the awkward and inaudible lyrics with grace before Cinninger fettered out and they kicked into overdrive for the final peak of the song.

“Downtrodden” was another melding of stews from unique periods in terms of the band’s catalogue and style in their jams. An “Intentions Clear” jam from March 2007 that has been on the ballot for the third year in a row finally found its match with a 2011-era “Nothing Too Fancy”. Cininnger put on his best David Bowie imitation for the vox but took a heavy metal influenced theme halfway in, with Cummins leaning heavy on a melody reminiscent of the theme from John Carpenter’s Halloween.

“Until We Meet Again” was the appropriately titled set closer. Coming together from a stand-alone piece of an “August” that appeared on the Hall of Fame: Class of 2014 live compilation, another fan-vote based UM production, the crowd response was astronomical and seems to hold the most favor for being added to the rotation.

The “All Request” second quarter was also based on an attendee-only ballot, emailed and completed before the show. This quarter centered on mixing up the instrumentation between band members and featured unexpected substitutions and special team appearances.

Opening with Cinninger solo on acoustic guitar, he barreled through a folk-punk rendition of the tongue-in-cheek ode to the opener in “Nopener”. Shortly after, fellow six string slayer Bayliss walked out with his Babicz and teased the Led Zeppelin classic “Over The Hills and Far Away” before he and Cinninger dropped into the nostalgia inducing “Gulf Stream”.

One of those songs that is always tweaked for the crowd, Cinninger addressed the Vegas assembly often with ad-libs like “It’s the end of the tour, we’re gonna play our asses off for you” and “we’re gonna summon all the wonders of music / you know we’re gonna play our asses off for you.”

“We’re gonna keep it rustic for a minute,” announced Bayliss, playing the introductory notes of “Great American”. Rarer than some songs, and usually played with acoustic guitars, the song was not a huge bust-out but instead of sandwiching another song in between halves, this version featured a good, but short jam.

A dedication preceded the rarity “Bullhead City” which sees rotation maybe once a year since it was debuted in 2002. Along with the return of keyboardist Joel Cummins, the track also brought the first guest sit in of the evening also saw Jennifer Hartswick joining the stage to lend her vocal prowess.

The band welcomed percussionist Andy Farag back to the stage for the next tune, but instead of taking his place inside “perc world” as Cinninger calls it, Farag sat behind the main drum kit and promptly launched the band into a unique take on the fairly common tune “FF” that featured a very strong jam that segued early into a debut of the brand new original tune, “Soul Food III”, a slowed down minor key reggae-jazz style jam in the theme of the previous two incarnations of the “Soul Food” track.

One of the highlights of the evening was the next selection, “1000 Places To See Before You Die”. The tune was last played at the UM2K event in November 2014, and debuted for its only other play seven years before that. The tune starts off as slow as an early morning garden stroll, but quickly picks up the pace as Cinninger returns to the first instrument he learned with intricately timed drum fills as impressive as his guitar fills, while still leaving plenty of room to let the horns breathe.

For this tune, Hartswick returned to lend her horn along with fellow Trey Anasatsio Band-mate Natalie Cressman on the trumpet, and Cousin Eli returned to “perc world”. Drummer Kris Myers, however, continued napping backstage while Cinninger remained on the kit for the next bustout of the evening: the 95th play of the elusive “Alex’s House”, to which Harstwick and Cressman also lended their voices.

Myers returned to the stage for the final song of the fan-voted “All Request” quarter, “Forks”. Last played 336 shows ago in early 2013 at The Orbit Room of Grand Rapids, MI, the tune is the center of a spirited love-hate discussion among die-hard fans and this 14th performance featured a reworked introduction and tighter vocals, but remained relatively unchanged.

At halftime, the excitement was beginning to grow exponentially. Up until now, attendees had a relatively good idea of what the realm of possibilities held – they had all voted for what they just heard. But the second half is where things could really get crazy. There was still the “All Improv” quarter and the “Choose Your Own Adventure” quarter to come. (Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like).

For the start of the third quarter, bassist Ryan Stasik quickly took over the lead with a funky and hesitant slap beat that the rest of the band was quick to jump on. During the improv quarter was lighting director Jefferson Waful’s moment to flex his abilities and he aptly demonstrated why the Brooklyn Bowl venue design is a perfect environment for the particular way that Waful mixes and meshes his light display.

For about 50 minutes, the boys dipped back and forth between truly open ended free form improvisation and repeated Jimmy Stewarts with incredible awareness, and even invited Hartswick and Cressman back on the stage to add their own flavors to the mix. Stasik and Cinninger each took liberties joining Cummins’ keyboard rig as well.

Almost four hours after the start of the Raw Stewage quarter, the fourth and final “Choose Your Own Adventure” quarter had finally arrived.

In this quarter, the projector screen used to show the transitional Real to Reel clips featured three song selections for the band to open the next set with. Barely winning over “August” and “40’s Theme” was “Slacker”. One of the greatest sources of suspense in UMBowl comes in the CYOA quarter as jaded veterans aiming to cross off bucket list songs are pitted against newer fans looking for their favorites and this year was no different, beginning with the 101st play of “Atmosfarag” beating out “Soul Food II” and “Kabump”.

An obligatory jam/improve adventure saw the band move into “Zappa plays Umphrey’s” in which Cinninger may have worked against the lyrics of “Slacker” and actually gave the audience a glimpse of his best. He took over the role of band leader and conductor, giving very specific instructions to the horn, rhythm and keys sections, controlling their volume and duration while simultaneously adding his own lead guitar flair. It was impressive to say the least.

Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” saw its eighth overall performance, barely edging out Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Until You Get Enough” before the ending section of “Wizard Burial Ground” brought the quarter to a close.

In true simulated suspense fashion, UMBowl went into overtime and nearly brought the house down with the second ever performance of Hall and Oate’s “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” since the 2011 Mountain Jam, 524 shows ago. The perennial powerhouse track “All In Time” finished the evening strong.

With so many options and possibilities, the association of the UMBowl event with a second show to tie up loose ends and hit points that just didn’t get to happen the night before and to showcase their appreciation for such an unyielding fan base.

Although UMBowl historically is only a single-day event the last four of them have been paired with a secondary show the next day billed as a “standard two-set show”, differentiating from the four sets – or quarters – that make UMBowl special. But they tend to be private and fan centered, think Bill Graham For A Day or the label launch party of Nothing Too Fancy Music.

Opening the show with “You Got The Wrong Guy” > the new song “Speak Up” was surprising for many veterans given it’s soaring popularity since debuting over the NYE run. They followed with two staples of their catalogue, “Bridgeless” > “Hajimemashite” before taking a tongue-in-cheek shot at Las Vegas with “Dump City”.

There was plenty of Midwest appreciation as the band announced weddings and 100 show marks throughout the weekend. A surprise “In The Kitchen” was sandwiched with a fat and weird jam in “Nemo” and a fan request for “Red Tape” was granted with the added surprise of Hartswick and Cressman on horns. Remember how “Sledgehammer” barely edged out the MJ tune “Don’t Stop” in the CYOA quarter last night? On night two, they decided to close the first set with that very tune.

The second set opened up with the new song “Attachments”. Seeing it’s official debut last December during Mayan Holidaze, the song first appeared nearly in its entirety as a Jimmy Stewart during “Resolution” at Frederick Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, MI only a few months earlier.

The band tip toed between their signature progressive metal / untz-y dance beat style as they moved from “1348” into an extremely focused “The Triple Wide” and a flawless segue into the second half of “Bridgeless”.

A 12 minute jam-heavy rendition of fan favorite “Puppet String” preceded the biggest UMBowl bust out in recent years with Hartswick returning to the stage for front and center vocal duties on the Sade hit “No Ordinary Love” for the first time since late  May 2007, or 991 shows ago.

The band honored another fan request, again adding the horn treatment as Cressman joined Hartswick in a celebration of “Women, Wine & Song”, Las Vegas style. They ended the set with a huge and “Wife Soup”. During the closing tune, a rowdy fan managed his way onto the stage and dove into the crowd, prompting Bayliss to address him in an improvised lyric, asking fans to not jump off of the stage.

As if honoring one uber-flexible and flamboyant pop icon in the late Michael Jackson wasn’t enough, Umphrey’s McGee returned for the encore with their second-ever performance of His Purpleness, Prince’s “Controversy” – hilariously appropriate given the amount of fan-generated controversy that Umphrey’s set list selections can bring.

When all is said and done, the decision to return UMBowl to Las Vegas and maintain the format from the previous year allowed for a tightening down and improvement in logistics across the board. The band, the crew and the fans knew exactly what they were getting into, and there were virtually no issues that couldn’t be quickly resolved.

Wherever UMBowl is held in the future, it is worth considering attending at least once because the secret is out: everything that surrounds an UMBowl, even if billed as a standard show, is full of a palpable magic that just will not always translate across the couch.