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Umphrey's McGee lets fans conduct the band in concert

Greg Kot

10:38 AM CDT, April 20, 2012

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Bands that improvise often talk about channeling what’s in the air, picking up on a collective vibe in the room and turning it into music. In keeping with these socially-mediated times, Umphrey’s McGee is taking that notion a step further: Why not let the fans orchestrate the band’s interaction?

“Crowd-sourced improvisation,” the Chicago sextet calls it, and it’ll be tested on a grand scale Friday at the Park West when Umphrey’s hosts “UMBowl III,” the third in an annual series.

“We had always done improv with hand signals and cues at our shows, so maybe four years ago we were sitting around brainstorming how to keep this thing going forward and making progress,” guitarist Brendan Bayliss says. “From the beginning it was all about catering to the fans. You think of that guy holding the sign up at a show asking for a specific song -- how do we give that guy a front-row seat? From my perspective I think back to when I was in high school and how cool would it have been to conduct my favorite band?”

“UMBowl” grew out of the more modest “Stew Art Series” based entirely on fan-directed improvisations (a decade ago the band dubbed an improvisation segment a “Jimmy Stewart,” in honor of a hotel reception hall where they put their own spin on group interaction). Fans would text ideas or descriptive words that were flashed on a screen, and the band would build improvisations in response, changing course each time a new word popped up.

“That worked pretty well, so three years ago we figured out a way to expand that further and make it a bigger event,” says Bayliss of bandmates Joel Cummins, Ryan Stasik, Jake Cinninger, Kris Myers and Andy Farag. “There are a lot of sports fans in the band, so we thought we’d make it the ultimate fan Super Bowl, with four quarters” built on different types of fan interaction.

In the first quarter, fans vote on a set list and then dictate instrument switches and solos in real time. In the second, fans text in themes and ideas to jump-start improvisation, ala the “Stew Art Series.” Songs in the third quarter are chosen in real time by the fans, who then vote on which of three directions the set should take to the finish line. The fourth quarter is devoted to fan-favorite “Jimmy Stewart” moments revived from shows past and then linked with new music.

It adds up to an exhaustive four-hour concert that drains the band, Bayliss says, but the experience is worth it both as a way of further involving the fans and giving the musicians – now entering their second decade together – fresh life.

“After we did the first one, the reaction was great. The fans were saying, ‘We can’t believe you’re doing this,’ ” Bayliss says. “I’m not aware of anybody else doing this. I definitely don’t know of anybody who is on stage playing a song and looking at a screen for someone in the crowd to tell them to take a right or left turn.”

Left unsaid is the notion that a band might have to be a little nuts to leave itself that exposed on stage. There’s always a chance of a musical train wreck, and Bayliss has instant recall of a few of them:

“We’ve had some computer crashes, where we’d be looking at the screen for a cue on what to do next and nothing would be coming in. Once we got a text with the word ‘poker’ and half of us thought it’s for a song we have called ‘Bad Poker’ and the other half were thinking Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face.’ There is no crossover there – that was a very confusing moment. Once someone asked for a death-metal version of one of our originals, and we soon realized there’s a reason why we don’t play it that fast, because it’s a really hard song to play. But once you start you can’t stop. You have to go in expecting some things to fail, so that you’re not freaking out when it does happen.”

For Bayliss, the notion that something could go wrong is a relative concept. The band has forged a healthy career without commercial radio airplay or big-budget marketing support. Since forming at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., in the late ‘90s, Umphrey’s has released a dozen albums and built a national touring base to the point where it can sell out 3,000-seat theaters in most major cities.

“After we started the band, we soon realized we were not going to make a living by selling CDs, so we had to be creative in other ways,” the guitarist says. “When things like MySpace and social media starting popping up, it brought a whole new dimension to promoting whatever business you’re in. You either ran with it or got mowed down by it. We wanted to cater to the fans. Making them part of the show is way of giving them part ownership of the band.”

greg@gregkot.com

Umphrey’s McGee ‘UMBowl III’: 7:30 p.m. April 27 at Park West, 322 W. Armitage Av, sold out; jamusa.com.