Umphrey’s McGee

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Umphrey’s McGee lets fans in on the band dialogue and finds astounding results

:: Umphrey’s McGee ::
:: Red Rocks and Blue w/ Galactic and  The Wailers ::
:: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: July 3 ::
::  Gothic Theatre :: July 4 ::

By Jeffrey V. Smith

Umphrey’s McGee is a band that likes to keep a firm grasp on its future. The act is not just unconventional and on the leading edge when it comes to its progressive improvisational rock, but also with how it communicates with and caters to its fans.

When Umphrey’s McGee was formed at the University of Notre Dame in 1997, the band immediately took a forward-looking approach to promoting itself, staying in touch with fans and creating new and unusual live music experiences. With the band hosting ever larger and more passionate audiences at its concerts across the country, and being booked into headlining slots at most of the summer’s biggest music festivals, it appears the act’s tactics are paying off.

“From the beginning, we always realized it was a very reciprocal relationship, and that if we didn’t have these diehards that kept coming, then we wouldn’t have a job,” guitarist Brendan Bayliss told The Marquee on the eve of flying to Bonnaroo. “If you don’t take care of the people that support you, you’re done,” he said.

Band members credit their early, small-stage performance at the first Bonnaroo in 2002 for putting them “on the map.” This year, the band played a set in front of an audience estimated at more than 10,000, in addition to an acoustic set on a second stage. The large number of dedicated followers the band attracts to its headlining shows and festival sets is no accident. Ever thankful for their fan base, Umphrey’s McGee members like to keep shows fresh by regularly adding unique covers to their sets and attempting new and unusual improvisational techniques.

“I think, from the start, we always just realized how lucky we were [to have a relationship with our fans], and tried to foster that,” Bayliss said. “It’s not news that the music industry has changed,” he said. “You are not selling CDs anymore. We have really been trying to grow alongside the fan base, and try to keep an open dialogue; not to let them dictate what we do and where we go, but keeping them involved and making them feel like they are part owners.”

He explained the fans should feel like “they can have a say” in the band’s direction. “I think bands that are ignoring that, aren’t really tapping into their full potential,” said Bayliss.

Recently, Umphrey’s McGee has given its fans an unprecedented amount of “say” in a show’s direction. The act’s Stew Art Series performances have been an “experiment in crowd-sourced improvisation.” All of the music performed at these events is improvised, and members of a small audience serve as directors. Using text messaging, pre-written cue cards, chalk boards and other communication, audience members provide ideas, descriptive words, phrases, pop culture references, and the band creates an improvised jam around the theme.

In April, the band took audience participation to new heights when it played a show billed as the UM Bowl in its hometown of Chicago. The evening was divided into four “quarters” of music, each with a different interactive theme. The first quarter was an acoustic set chosen entirely by attendees in advance of the show. The second quarter included an improvised performance guided by bi-directional texting, while the third quarter was an all-request set. The evening ended with the band using text messages to guide a set of songs decided on by band members.

“We play so many shows a year that we try and figure out ways to break the monotony for ourselves, and get out of the box and not just cash in on an idea over and over again,” Bayliss said. “It’s also thinking about what we’ve done, not repeating something and what would be cool from the fan’s perspective. We are trying to have people come back, but we’re also trying to bring in new people…and you can’t do that by doing the same thing.”

According to Bayliss, the Red Rocks and Blue event is giving fans the chance to vote at www.redrocksandblue.com for a song that Umphrey’s McGee and Galactic will play together.

While fans are eager to see their favorite band at Red Rocks, the musicians are just as excited to be headlining the legendary venue. Bayliss said he keeps a photo of the band playing Red Rocks several years ago (as part of Big Summer Classic with String Cheese Incident) above his desk at home. “Looking up at it, it’s still inspiring to me,” he said. “It’s about as cool a place you can play, and to be able to headline it, we’re kinda freaking out – in a good way.”

:: Umphrey’s McGee ::

:: Red Rocks and Blue w/ Galactic and The Wailers ::

:: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: July 3 ::

:: Gothic Theatre :: July 4 ::

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