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Michigan band to showcase stellar improv in heart of Buckeye Nation

Courtesy of Jeffrey Smith

Contrary to popular belief, not all things from Michigan are evil.

At least this is what Joe Phillion, drummer for the Grand Rapids-based progressive rock jam band Ultraviolet Hippopotamus, would have you believe.

“It’s funny, because there’s the rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State,” Phillion said. “Sometimes it feels like Ohio really hates people from Michigan, and Michigan people hate people from Ohio. It’s not about who’s better, we just want people to listen to our music.”

Ultraviolet Hippopotamus is scheduled to perform at Woodlands Tavern Thursday at 9 p.m.

UV Hippo prides itself on being able to seamlessly flow between songs and genres during live performances.

“We make booties shake,” Phillion said. “There’s just this madness going on. We segue songs and we really try not to stop playing. It’s definitely a well-structured, well-oiled machine.”

The five-piece band consists of Phillion on the drums, Brian Samuels on the bass, Russel James on guitar, Dave Sanders on the keys and Casey Butts on percussion.

While the band has produced three albums of original work, they also regularly perform covers.

“At this point in our career, we can cover pretty much everything,” Phillion said.

The band demonstrated this ability over Halloween weekend, when they played three different shows with three very different themes. They performed the entire Talking Heads album “Speaking in Tongues,” they put on “A Steely Dance Party,” in which they performed several Steely Dan covers, and they also played a “Nintendo Power”-themed show.

In the past they have also covered albums ranging from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

“We’ve been told in the past that we’re like the Andy Kaufman of the jam scene,” Phillion said, explaining that rather than trying to please the crowd, UV Hippo is more concerned with playing music that they themselves will enjoy.

The members of UV Hippo stay true to their own taste by refraining from comparing themselves to other bands.

“Even if they’re the smallest band or the biggest band, we hate comparing because then we just see our faults,” Phillion said. “A small plant can’t grow in the shadow of a large tree, because there’s no light. You gotta get out and you gotta do your own thing.”

UV Hippo makes an effort to ensure that each and every show is different. The band does this by playing a different song lineup every night as well as by devoting a large portion of the show to improvisation.

“I love improv-ing,” Phillion said. “I really like to risk a lot. I’ll do a crazy drum roll just to see what happens. That’s just to push the other musicians to make it a better show.”

The band’s chemistry is what allows them to have such freedom during the improvisational portions of their shows. This aspect has not gone unnoticed by critics.

These improvised jams are arguably the most impressive part of UV Hippo’s live performances. A song that goes on for four minutes at one show could easily last for ten minutes at another. It is common for a jam to build up to the point that the lightning-fast guitar shredding and spacey keyboard tones cause the crowd to explode with dance moves.

UV Hippo recently finished up its most extensive tour to date.

“We played from Seattle to Boston,” Phillion said. “It was a trek. We did like a five week tour, it was the hardest tour we’ve ever done.”

There are also plans to tour Europe in the near future.

“We’re really trying to push people to go out and see live music, live bands, people playing actual instruments,” Phillion said. “We want to push people into the sunlight.”

Their latest album, “Square Pegs Round Holes,” which was released in late March, is still at No. 17 on the JamBands.com radio chart.

Phillion said that UV Hippo will begin recording its next album in January. The band hopes to have it ready for release by April 2012.

“Check our music out,” Phillion said. “Go out to a live show and decide for yourself if you like it. Don’t be a parrot.”

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