Hidden Track Review: Umphrey’s McGee S2 – In Which UM Shows Their Hand

On inauguration day of this year, UM released their latest studio effort Mantis. There was much discussion over the innovative release of Mantis and the massive amount of bonus material that went along with it. Many of these bonus tracks involve a glimpse into the songwriting process, how the band ties together existing sections to make new songs, etc. This is the musical equivalent of “watching how the sausage gets made”, which as they say – nobody wants to see.

Well UM fans DO want to see this, but some of it is downright exposing. You hear lead singer Brendan Bayliss say of two sections that would ultimately become the song Spires, “I personally feel that they’re both really good ideas. I just don’t know if they work together…But we could try it.” In another painfully long segment you hear Jake Cinninger struggle to explain to Bayliss his vision for the outro harmonies to the album opener Made To Measure. The willingness of UM to release this type of look into the inner-workings of what make them unique illustrates a band finally confident and comfortable in their methods.

This type of thing has been happening all year. In a blog post titled Peeling Back A Layer the band shares the audio from their talkback mics showing how in the middle of a jam on their song Hurt Bird Bath, they decided to start singing Paul McCartney’s Let ‘Em In. In another posting they shared video of the types of things they sit around and discuss/plan at their yearly retreat.

What 50 people inside the 9:30 Club Looks Like

They have given glimpses into the previous three S2 events on their blog, so I knew roughly what I was getting myself into when I got the word that I’d be in attendance. To me, there were two main points that surprised me after the event had come to a close.

1) The seamless transition between sections.

I had seen photos of the themes that got put up on the screen, and I had heard a couple snippets that had been posted on the blog, but I was absolutely floored at the band’s ability to (with the aid of their talk-back mics) transition to the next text suggestion in the queue. Quite simply, they are just way too good at this.

2) The ratio of comedy to music was higher than I was expecting.

Obviously the fans that choose to attend this event are easily classified as super-fans (for the record, these things have been selling out instantly.) Because everyone in attendance has a pretty high Umphrey’s IQ, there’s a lot of inside-jokes flying around. I found myself laughing out loud during the improv sessions a lot more than I was expecting. “Don’t let wooks backstage,” “Guy in the crowd who doesn’t get any texts put on screen,” “Talkback mic confusion,” “Brendan Bayliss after too much Jameson” and “That’s it Joel…you’re out of the band!” were all high points of comedy.

Empty 9:30 Club

The price tag is high and some fans complained about it – but only on the Internet. Yet, there’s no doubt in my mind that everyone in attendance at the 9:30 Club got their money’s worth (the bar was open and beer was free). The night concluded when Bayliss said into the mic, “Alright, let’s have a drink” and everyone in the band mingled and chatted with anyone who wanted to talk to them, posed for pictures, put their John Hancock on the CD sleeves of the gig’s recordings only given to those in attendance, etc.

While having a recording of what you participated in at S2 is a nice touch, the shared moment experienced live actually translates to disc worse than basically any other piece of music you can imagine. Without the vibe of watching it transpire and the context of being there in the moment, the disc plays like a gigantic ADD-mess. Which is not surprising.

For my part in the interactive process, I was very successful getting three texts up on the board.

Big Brother aka The Board

1) Baby. Honey. Metal. Darling. A variation on a very old and even more ridiculous Umphrey’s song titled Baby Honey Sugar Darling that had remained dormant for seven years before being busted out the previous weekend at the Higher Ground, complete with horn section.

2) Brendan and Jake play each other’s rigs. I was inspired to text this in after the guitar players had fielded questions about why Brendan seems to only play Paul Reed Smith guitars whereas Jake continues to experiment with different axes. So for this segment, they switched guitars and we got a glimpse as to what Brendan would sound like through a G & L Guitar and conversely we had Jake over on the right driving the guitar neck “built like a sports car” – the PRS. When asked what they thought about that switcharoo, the guys said, “It got weird quick.” HA.

3) Talkback mic confusion. For anyone unfamiliar with the concept of a talkback microphone, they are separate mics that only transmit to the band’s in-ear-monitors and not out over the PA system for the crowd. For this part of the improv, the guys launched into some disjointed music and just said a bunch of funny shit that would normally get said to each other onstage, i.e. “Open your ears!” “No, slow it down,” “I told you E-Flat, not F,” “Turn the vocals DOWN please,” “Blowing it,” and finally it just culminated with them all screaming “BOB!” a reference to their monitor engineer Bob Ston, who they do indeed yell at constantly during shows. Side Note: Bob told me after this show that since he is positioned in the one part of the stage that couldn’t see the video screen, he thought they were actually yelling at him about something and had to walk onto the stage to see what was up.

For a complete list of the texts used during this event, click here to view the band’s recap on their blog.

This was the fourth and final S2 event of the year, but the band has said they will continue in 2010 and have made it clear that the events themselves will continue to evolve. I said they should charge more money, sell more tickets, and shorten them by about half. You guys think that’s a good idea?

And finally, there is only so much that words on a computer screen can do to explain the vibe of these events…the video recap of the first installment does a slightly better job – but if you think this shit is as cool as I do, for your sake I hope one comes to your city.

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7 Responses

  1. Badass review DaveO. Laughed a few times and this is the first review that’s made me want to plunk down the $ as soon as there’s an S2 I can get to and check it out.

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