Umphrey’s McGee is a band that has always been pushing the envelope and trying new ideas both on and off the stage. From their early days of enlisting an aggressive street team to spread copies of their live shows up to the ingenious release of their album Mantis last January (complete with bonus levels and monthly additional downloads to fans who pre-ordered), this band has never been one to rest on their laurels. A few months ago they announced their concept of a “Stew Art Series” (S2) where a small group of ardent fans could pay extra to participate in an hour of improv with the band and also get to hang out a bit, ask some questions, and take home some pretty nifty souvenirs. While this sort of thing might not be for everyone (and the $100.00 price tag could make it downright impossible for some folks to attend even if they wanted to), for a serious fan who follows the band closely, nothing could be better.

While the first S2 show took place in the band’s home turf of the Midwest, the second event happened in my own backyard here in Portland, OR. I was already planning on hitting the shows in Seattle, Eugene, and Portland, so why not check out this whole S2 thing? Yes, it’s a bit pricey but how could I pass up the chance to see how one of these things worked up close and personal? I just couldn’t. I’m a bit of a fanboy when it comes to Umphrey’s McGee, so this sounded like too cool of an opportunity to miss. I bit the bullet, waited for the on sale date, and then put the cost of the ticket on my trusty credit card. Seattle and Eugene were both great shows with Eugene being a downright filthy dance party, so my spirits were high driving back from Eugene to Portland on Saturday afternoon.

I arrived at the venue at 3:30pm sharp as instructed and went to the will call window to pick up my laminate. For some reason, the guy in the will call window was venomous. He rolled his eyes when he found out I wasn’t there to purchase any tickets. I told him I was there for the afternoon’s event and needed to pick up my laminate and he rolled his eyes again and said something like, “You don’t get those here!” and slammed the little air-hole in his will call window shut. So I leaned in and said, “So, uh, where do I pick it up, then?” He just pointed to the main door with an exasperated expression on his face. I showed my ID to the man at the main door and he quickly produced my laminate. I then proceeded to wait in line and chat with some folks near us. We were entertained by the guy in the will call window being a bitch to every person who came to the window looking for their S2 laminate (we wondered why he didn’t just scrawl a makeshift sign to hang in the glass window that read: “S2 Laminates that way” with an arrow or something).

After a short wait Don explained that we would be going to the second level of the venue known as Lola’s Room (a smaller venue on the 2nd floor of the Crystal Ballroom complex) for snacks and beverages. Upon arrival to Lola’s Room, everyone pounced on the Budweiser and Heineken Light the band provided and nibbled lightly on the potato chips, pretzels, and candy (the Reese’s Peanut Butter cups were my favorite!). We hung out and mingled with our fellow S2 attendees talking about where people were from, what the band played the past few nights, what we thought of Mantis, and any other sort of Umphrey’s related banter we could think of. After about 20 minutes, most of the band members joined the little pre-party and we talked with them, as well. All the guys were very laid back and easy to talk to and it was fun to get a chance to chat with them on a personal level. About 10 minutes later we were told it was time to up the stairs to the venue proper where we would all be participating in about an hour of group improv with the band.

It was odd to see light streaming in from every window inside the Crystal Ballroom. Shows take place at night here, so being able to see all the detail in every large painting around the spacious room was a treat. The venue is always a beautiful spot to catch a show, but it was very cool to see it bathed in so much natural light. The improvisational concept was explained to everyone: the band would be jamming off of texts the attendees would send to the sound guy Kevin who would then pick and choose which ones would go up on a large screen hanging beside the stage for the band to improvise from. They told us we would do about 15 minutes of improv, then a Q&A session and repeat for three cycles (then rinse).

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