Umphrey’s McGee Makes Intentions Clear
Although Umphrey’s McGee has never played in North Dakota before, they are not strangers to the Midwest. The band was shaped beneath the golden domes of the University of Notre Dame in the late 1990’s by guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss, bassist Ryan Stasik, keyboardist Joel Cummins and drummer Mike Mirro. Since then, they have amassed a large and dedicated following based out of their hometown of Chicago.
The band’s sound is eclectic to say the least, and the need to classify often lumps Umphrey’s McGee into the jamband category. But they are clearly more progressive than any jamband—a label that they do not embrace. The band has cited influences from a broad range of acts including King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa and Iron Maiden—all the way to The Police and Genesis, and they have been known to surprise an audience by covering anything from Toto, to Radiohead, to Cee Lo Green. All of these influences are evident in the band’s shifting live performances that typically take a concertgoer through nearly three hours of precisely executed music.
During a live Umphrey’s show, one should expect the unexpected. With structure, intricate signals and intuition, the band oftentimes plows through several songs in sequence before returning back to the beginning again. The revolving force between crowd and band that is formulated in these moments drives the songs forward, and the listener can be rewarded with astonishing musical peaks. Guitarist and chief songwriter, Brendan Bayliss, normally conducts the orchestra as guitarist Jake Cinninger, superbly-gifted drummer Kris Myers and the rest of the talented cast follow instinctively.
Umphrey’s McGee is currently recording new material as a follow-up to their 2009 release “Mantis”. “Mantis” is the band’s most progressive and artistically consistent album to date, but guitarist Jake Cinninger has stated that the band is moving in a different direction with the upcoming release of multiple EPs. The plan now is that each EP will be centralized around a style or theme, and Cinninger hopes to involve a new producer like Joe Berassi (Tool, Bad Religion, Queens of the Stone Age) or Joe Chicarelli (Frank Zappa, The Shins, White Stripes/Raconteurs). Up to this point, longtime soundman/recently-turned office-guy, Kevin Browning, usually played that role.
As fans await new studio recordings, the show goes on and a concert is where Umphrey’s McGee should be experienced first. Since their inception the band has toured relentlessly and played some of the largest rock festivals in America (including the local and now defunct 10,000 Lakes Music Festival which they played three times). With over a decade of consistent touring in, thousands of live concert recordings are available for any listener to sample or grab for free on websites like archive.org.
These live recordings which the band has always encouraged, helped propel Umphrey’s forward in their early years. Since then, the band has not forgotten, nor been afraid to give back to the faithful fans who oftentimes travel the world to experience Umphrey’s McGee live. In 2005 the band started UM Live to offer fans quicker and better sounding recordings. For a fee, UM Live allows a fan to walk out of the concert with a soundboard recording of the night’s performance. These recordings are also available on the band’s website where they can be downloaded later as mp3, flac or hd-flac files. UM Live was just the start of how the band started giving back.
On the same day in January of 2009 that fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama was sworn in as President, Umphrey’s McGee embarked on an adventure of their own. With the release of their fifth studio album “Mantis,” they set out to change preconceptions of how an album could be released. The pre-order campaign for the album allowed buyers to unlock unique bonus materials based on how many pre-orders were taken in through the band’s website. Studio outtakes, rare unreleased songs, and live recordings were all made available as the orders grew. It was a complete success as hours of material were eventually made available to everyone who pre-ordered.
Since the release of “Mantis,” Umphrey’s McGee has reached even further to lessen the gap between band and fan. In the fall of 2009, the nationally acclaimed Stew Art series (S2) was developed and put on display in select cities where the band was already touring. Branded after “Jimmy Stewart,” the name given to their live improvisational jams, S2 is a concept where fans control what the band plays with the use of interactive technology. The fan directs what the band is playing by texting in ideas that appear on a big screen near the stage. The band then interprets these ideas in real time, and glides through them one after another with their Midwestern humor ever-present. After the fan-directed improv performance, the fifty participants get time to meet the band, take photos and ask questions. Last fall, “Time” magazine spotlighted Stew Art and the band’s innovative marketing ideas in an age when the old music industry model is dying.
Umphrey’s McGee is intent on doing things their own way. Their devoted following began with the live experience, and that is where they are still making new fans today. This is their first stop ever in North Dakota. It should be impressive.
IF YOU GO:
Who: Umphrey’s McGee
Where: The Venue
When: Sun., March 6
Cost: $20 in advance, $25 day of show
Written for High Plains Reader for their March 3rd, 2011 issue.