Could Indie Bands Learn How To Tour From Umphrey's McGee?

[caption id="attachment_38060" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Umphrey's McGee play while fans' voting results pour in. Photo: Tammy Wetzel"]Umphrey's McGee[/caption]

Looking down at his feet halfway through the night’s third set, Umphrey’s McGee guitarist and vocalist Brendan Bayliss didn’t know what to play next. But this indecision in the middle of the band’s marathon five-hour UMBowl event at the end of April wasn’t an awkward brain cramp, and the downward glance wasn’t a nervous tic. Instead, Bayliss was peeking at a video monitor updating the results of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” experiment, a live vote by the 800 fans packed into Chicago’s Park West on what the band should play next. As the percentage choosing a song called “August” inched its way past the two other options on the screen, Bayliss cued the rest of the band with a hand signal and launched into the crowd’s choice.

Traditionally, the best way to request a song at a concert was to demonstrate your skills with posterboard, Sharpies, and glitter, or to at least have a really loud voice. But as the music industry pendulum swings from album sales to tour revenues, more artists are exploring novel ways to get fans in seats. Joining the trend of performing classic albums in their entirety are interactive gimmicks that turn over control of the setlist – or even more– to ticketholders.

At the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival, Yo La Tengo, the Jesus Lizard, Flaming Lips, Tortoise, and Built to Spill participated in a "Write the Night: Set Lists by Request" concept, where ticketholders voted online for the songs they wanted to hear. Since then, bands as far-flung as Sugarland, Mötley Crüe, Steely Dan, the Backstreet Boys and Muse have recently conducted vote-the-setlist experiments, while Yo La Tengo left their opening set up to a special wheel spun by a fan to select from options such as “S Songs,” the band’s Condo Fucks side project, the dreaded “Sitcom Theatre,” or, of course, spinner’s choice.

But compared to the UMBowl, other bands’ games are Duck, Duck, Goose. The Chicago band’s hometown marathon was divided into four “quarters,” each a roughly hour-long experiment dictated by a different fan-driven concept. The first and fourth quarters could be considered as advanced versions of the usual fan-voted requests format, with the added difficulty level of working from ballots made up of rarities, unusual band member combinations, song debuts, and reprises of favorite improvisational moments from the band’s career. But the second and third quarters were the real high-wire act, giving the hardcore fans that paid $100 a ticket the chance to conduct the band in real time.

Stacking the request deck with unusual rarities and creative gimmicks helped Umphrey’s McGee avoid the pitfall of most fan-chosen setlists: Most fans just want to hear the hits. For the Flaming Lips’ Pitchfork Music Festival set in 2009, the top fan choice wasn’t to dust off “Talkin' 'Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues,” but to play “Do You Realize?,” a song the Lips have likely played at every live appearance since 2002. Number two was “She Don’t Use Jelly.”

[caption id="attachment_38062" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Photo: Tammy Wetzel"]Umphrey's McGee[/caption]

Friday night, the most predictable part of the UMBowl all-request quarter was that the fans gave the most votes to the Grateful Dead cover on the pre-show ballot, the serpentine pairing of “Help on the Way > Slipknot!”. But any jamband stereotypes were diluted a bit by the “Umphreaks” choosing Daft Punk and Tool covers as well -- a reflection of the band being more on the Phish-style prog-nerd branch of the jamband tree than the ‘60s revival clade. Another set asked for text-messaged cues were straightforward genre exercises (“Hip Hop Tribute,” “Middle Eastern Metal,” “Yacht Rock jam”) Umphrey’s sportingly played the chameleon with typical jamband flexibility, particularly on a convincingly brosteppy “Drum ‘n’ Bass,” but each impromptu composition sounded a bit like a commercial jingle version of the chosen genre, or a live karaoke band with no singer.

Better was the third set, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” concept where Umphrey’s gave their fans a legit reason to spend the show staring at their phones. Before the set began, three options from the group’s regular song rotation were projected on the screens, with instructions on how to text-message vote for your choice. Then as the band played through the initial winner, fans were able to choose again for the song they would subsequently segue into, and so on throughout the hour. The live polling forced the band into some more difficult maneuvers in this quarter, such as suturing together the first half of one original to the second half of a completely separate song via a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Making Flippy Floppy” (which beat out Toto’s “Rosanna” and Flock of Seagulls “I Ran” in a landslide).

The night’s final set allowed Umphrey’s to tug back on their puppet strings, as they played a suite recreating some of the favorite improvisational moments of the preceding nine years, as voted on before the show by the band and its fans. With a little more time to prepare the set’s outline, this round avoided the occasional hesitant vamping and brainstorming dead ends that marked earlier sets, producing a more cohesive set of music – though one that only the most rabid superfans could divine the true references from as it happened.

But the night also teetered at times into the hazardous realm of fan fiction, fulfilling wishes for the most obsessive but with a hollow, artificial ring. Reversing the usual power structure of the concert experience takes away some of the performing artist’s most powerful tricks: The shell game of surprise, the teasing tension and release of fan service vs. the band’s own priorities, the ability to make an argument and force a fan to find a thrill in an unexpected place. Sometimes, the band knows best.

[caption id="attachment_38063" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Photo: Tammy Wetzel"]Umphrey's McGee[/caption]

That said, could any of these concepts fly outside the open-ended rulebook of jamband shows? Certainly, the majority of indie rock acts settling for identical setlists from night to night would benefit from an injection of crowd-sourced randomness, both artistically and financially, as more fans find it worthwhile to follow them to multiple shows hoping to catch their favorite song. But the success of letting the audience conduct the band is likely proportional to the intensity of an artist’s fanbase.

Casual fans will opt for the hits, which explains why vote-the-setlist experiments haven’t worked as well in festival environments. But polling the diehards can bring out the richness of a deep catalog while reassuring the band that they don’t have to play to the median audience member. Nobody would ask Radiohead to improvise a reggae number, but an adoring, obsessive crowd might push them to slot b-side rarities like the recently-excavated “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy” while retiring some of the staler numbers they might feel obligated to play. But who are we kidding: Most fans would ask for “Creep” anyway.

Thanks to Scott Bernstein at Hidden Track for the UMBowl setlist and other Umphrey's McGee assistance.