ND's other sports power: Umphrey's McGee

After forming at Notre Dame in 1997, Umphrey's McGee became known for their marathon concerts. Courtesy Chad Smith

When you think of jam bands and sports, you probably think of Hacky Sacks or maybe some newly invented sport involving glow sticks.

Not so when it comes to Umphrey’s McGee, the hard-to-define but mostly prog rock jam band originally out of South Bend, Ind.

Umphrey’s is a band full of sports junkies, especially this weekend. Two of the several Notre Dame graduates in the band community -- Kevin Browning, who manages strategy and development, and bassist Ryan Stasik -- will be on hand in Miami for the Discover BCS National Championship.

But the Umphrey’s sporting scene goes well beyond merely rooting for the Irish.

Keyboardist Joel Cummins says Umphrey’s fields a so-far-unstoppable touch football team, unbeaten against the band crew as well as fellow jam bands Disco Biscuits, moe., and Perpetual Groove.

“We just run because no other band is in as good a shape, so after 20 minutes they’re gassed,” Cummins says with a laugh. He’s a runner, and Stasik and percussionist Andy Farag are triathletes.

The band and crew have their own fantasy football league, and always try to take Sundays off while on the road so they can spend the day doing what much of America does on Sundays -- boozy trash talking about their fantasy teams.

As local favorites in Chicago, they’ve sung the national anthem at a bunch of Cubs and White Sox games, and this year performed “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” for the first time at Wrigley Field, an honor shared with the likes of Bill Murray and Eddie Vedder.

Cummins attributes the sports fandom in part to the band’s Midwestern geographic roots, where the region’s Rust Belt struggles have historically been leavened by pride in the local teams. And having a favorite sports team and a real devotion to a band are pretty similar. You travel great distances, have a few adult beverages (or whatever) and then experience the joy of the hive mind.

They’ve even carried the sports passion into their music, specifically the UMBowl, the band’s own version of the Super Bowl. UMBowl IV will take place in Chicago this spring.

“Steroids are legal in music,” Cummins quips.

The UMBowl is made up of four quarters, each featuring a different interactive improvisational set. It’s a daring but complementary concept for the band’s music, which at its best The Washington Post once described as a “balance between flamboyant virtuosity and pop charm.”

The whole point is breaking down the fourth wall and giving fans a chance to participate to keep things fresh after 1,500 concerts since the band’s formation in the late '90s. In one quarter of UMBowl, the crowd might text ideas for songs or an improvisational riff. In another, the band is given choices like the old choose-your-own-adventure stories.

It may sound hokey, but Cummins says it’s a great way to expand and amp up an already fervent fan base. “We want to come up with something where we could draw them further into what was being created.”

With all the fan interaction -- meet-and-greets before and after shows, a heavy Twitter presence and the interactive concerts -- Cummins says he’ll often know the names of 50 of the 100 people in the first three rows. That in turn leads to word-of-mouth buzz, which is far more effective in this day and age than nonexistent radio airtime or an advertising campaign.

The traditional record industry is in collapse, which means bands survive from touring and merchandise, which in turn means fan outreach and care and feeding are that much more important.

In other words, Umphrey’s tight bond with its fan base makes the musical experience more fun for everyone, but is also smart business strategy.

Cummins will be in South Florida for the BCS title game, but he leaves for the “Jam Cruise" -- a kind of psychedelic flotilla, a cruise ship of jam bands and their fans, out to sea -- 90 minutes before kickoff.

“That hurts,” he says.

While everyone else will be getting settled in, he’ll be looking for a TV to root on the Irish.