When I fantasize about my ultimate live music experience, it often entails casting an influence upon what the band will play. Umphrey’s McGee made this a reality when they had the revelation of creating an event merging the intensity of a special occasion show (say Halloween or New Years) collided with the hoopla of the Super Bowl. Six years ago UM Bowl was born. Attendees are sent electronic ballots to vote on their choice of songs incorporated into two of the four quarters. The other two quarters are based on votes texted in during the show. UM Bowl is the crystallization of the love and respect this band has for its fans.
The Brooklyn Bowl in Las Vegas is the kind of place where even the most discerning critic must think: I couldn’t have dreamed this place up if I tried. The attention to detail is staggering. From the biggest disco balls you’ve ever seen, to the escalators, to the impeccable bathrooms with thoughtful attendants, to the wonderland of a main concert hall, the perfection is downright laughable. The best thing of all is being able to reserve bowling lanes in private, elevated areas which provide a direct view to the stage.
The first quarter of UM Bowl is dedicated to “Raw Stewage.” Umphrey’s extracts the nectar from their most exciting moments of improv and transforms them into new songs. Launching into the “Raw Stews,” the band went from 0-60 instantaneously. One of the misconceptions with Umphrey’s is that they are too “pedal to the metal.” In reality they have their dynamics wired and know when to exhibit restraint.
Adding to the overall grandiosity of the event, the band put together a series of video shorts which were shown during set breaks. Using a hilarious parody of the movie Swingers, keyboardist Joel Cummins nailed the lead role. When he’s not blowing our minds with his otherworldly color palettes, lighting coordinator Jefferson Waful is also very sharp in directing, producing and shooting these bits.
“Helter Skelter” lit the fuse to ignite the All Request Quarter. This night was a full band affair but Jake Cinninger has to be commended for throwing down one of the greatest rock guitar performances of all time. He had the dexterity of a one-man Cirque du Soleil. Per the audience’s selection, the band did a “New Original” – “In the Black” – a heavy, complex tune which showed serious potential. The quarter closed in thunderous fashion with Rush’s “YYZ” crushing everything in its path.
Where some bands might have trouble maintaining the momentum, Umphrey’s somehow managed to up the ante. The third quarter was the one everyone was talking about afterwards. A pulsating beat emerged and we looked up on the screen to see that the first spontaneous theme they were creating was “3am dark, dirty dance club in Berlin.” The band sculpted the concept with all the panache of Zoolander and Hansel’s walk-off. Every theme for the rest of the set maintained this level of shear brilliance.
The fourth quarter – “Choose Your Own Adventure” – opened with the brute force of “Bridgeless” and closed with the euphoric “All in Time”, everything in between instantly ingrained in our memory banks of bliss. We witnessed democracy in action as votes were tallied on the big screen behind the stage. The popular “Pay the Snucka” gave up a big lead to be overtaken at the last second by “Den.” This proved to be a crucial decision which paved the way for one of the sets most tantalizing jams. During the encore, there was a palpable sense of unification as we were serenaded with The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
This was as now as now could be. This was a paradigm-shifting kind of night. A lot of us have been seeing copious volumes of music for a very long time and we’ve never seen anything remotely like this. This wasn’t just a brilliant concept. It was savant-like execution from a band that had prepared its whole career for just such an occasion. It was the like the culmination of Inception, The Sting and The Usual Suspects all rolled into one glorious, disco ball-shimmering, Vegas-hued extravaganza. Sky-high expectations can be dangerous but how sweet it is to watch them shatter.
Words by Tyler Blue
Photos by Jordan Inglee