9:19 AM EDT, August 15, 2013
It is no coincidence that this story about high fidelity rock-concert sound begins about a decade ago at the Aragon Ballroom, Chicago's temple to tinniness, distortion and other affronts to the discipline of audio engineering.
Kevin Browning, who was working the soundboard for the perpetually touring band Umphrey's McGee, slipped a pair of headphones on a friend so that she could hear what the band was supposed to sound like.
"The expression on her face made an indelible impression," says Browning, who now works as manager of development for the Chicago-based group.
The difference between the sound in the room and the music members of the band were actually making was that stark. And Browning began forming a notion that maybe it would be possible to deliver that same, pure soundboard mix to more of the band's fans, a devoted group if ever a rock band has had one.
"The reality is there's a lot of venues that just don't sound very good, or they sound good only if you're in the sweet spot," Browning says.
That explains why — in one of the first real innovations in concert going in a very long time — people who attend the Umphrey's show at Northerly Island Saturday will be able to rent a receiver and headphones and hear the show in an idealized form.
Named "Heaphones & Snowcones" after an early Umprhey's song, the program was first tried out earlier this year and is now a part of every stop on the summer concert tour.
It offers, the website says, "a pristine soundboard mix piped wirelessly to your ears through audiophile quality headphones.
"Utilizing technology identical to what the band uses, you will be armed with a Sennheiser in-ear monitor wireless pack (receiving the RF signal) and high fidelity Audio-Technica headphones, allowing you to experience the sonics in absolutely unparalleled quality."
Umphrey's, which formed at Notre Dame in the late 1990s but has been based in Chicago for the last 13 years, is a band that merits such attention. Although commonly labelled a "jam band," like Phish and, before them, the Grateful Dead, the group prides itself on its musicianship. Yes, they improvise and stretch songs out, but don't call it self-indulgent.
"There's a heavy focus on melodic improvisation in a distinctly non-noodlish way," Browning explains. "The guys use improvisation to try to write music on the spot, as oppposed to jamming in C for a half hour."
"We're basically a rock-and-roll party with a side of progressive rock and a side of dance music," says keyboard player Joel Cummins. "We try to stimulate the brain and the feet."
Rolling Stone's David Fricke said of Umphrey's — an unfortunate name derived from a band member's distant relative — that it "may be the most accomplished jam band in America — able to spin out at length between and inside their songs, but never at the expense of the invention and melodies in the songs themselves."
The headphones program is not for everyone. For now, only 20 sets of equipment are available per show (you can bring your own headphones and plug them into the Sennheiser receiver, if you'd rather, but you still need to rent the receiver); reserve the gear in advance by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The fee is $40 for the whole show, including tour co-headliners STS9. But there is a required $500 hold on your credit card, lifted after the gear is returned without having been, as the site says, "submerged in a 32 oz. beer." That hasn't happened yet, Browning says, adding that the goal isn't so much to make money as to offer a "unique experience" and to prove that the idea will work.
Cummins says the program has exceeded members' expectations.
"It's been an interesting evolution from what I expected it to be and what I'm seeing out there in the crowd," he says. "Our main concern was that this was going to create some strange sort of isolation vibe. As it turned out, the opposite thing started happening. People are wearing 'em in the crowd, coming up front. Instead of just having them on (the whole time), they're passing them around."
And, again, Cummins says, just as with Browning's friend back at the Aragon, you get that holy-Moses look.
"It's so fun to watch people's expresssions," says Cummins. "All of a sudden every level of detail is heard with a level of clarity not possible at most music venues."
But there's still a live-concert feel, he and Browning stress, because listeners are not only amidst the generally rowdy crowds, but they are still feeling the bass pumped through the room.
While the value of quality sound is sometimes difficult to explain in an era of cheap earbuds and single-speaker iPod docks, when you hear it, you understand.
"We had the goal of this being something that was cool," Cummins says. "It's sometimes hard to explain what it is and why it's cool. It needs to be experienced to be fully comprehended."
Umphrey's hopes to expand the program on coming tours and, Browning says, could even see other bands offering something similar.
"I think it could be a game changer," he says, for a concert industry that is "stuck in its ways."
But it probably won't be for every band.
"I think that there are plenty of acts that don't really have a lot of interest in letting you hear at this level," says Browning. "You've got a lot of acts playing to a lot of backing tracks, or people aren't comfortable with you hearing just how well or not well the singing or the harmonies are going.
"Not everyone would be comfortable with pulling back the curtain and showing you this level of acess. You have to be confident in the quality of your product."
Umphrey's McGee with STS9
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island, 1300 S. Linn White Dr.
Tickets: $35; 800-745-3000 or livenation.com
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