music / Columns

Jam Central Station: Umphrey’s McGee

October 15, 2016 | Posted by Jeff Modzelewski

Umphrey’s McGee is a unique band in among unique bands. While they’re unequivocally a “jam band,” they have very little in common with their jam brethren beyond the extended shows and long improvisations. While other bands noodle, Umphrey’s rages. While other jam bands move into bluegrass or jazz, Umphrey’s McGee covers Tool and Nine Inch Nails. Their motto of “Rage, Rest Repeat” has launched them into the top tier of modern jam bands, headlining festivals and selling out venues across the country. This local band has certainly done O.K. by any measure.

Umphrey’s got their start as a college band at Notre Dame. Brendan Bayliss, Joel Commins, Ryan Stasic, and Mike Mirro quickly became well known in the area, and they released their debut album with the tongue in cheek title Greatest Hits Vol. III after less than a year together as a band. The album was released primarily as a way to promote the band’s live show, with Bayliss later saying that it was easier to get booked if they could say they released an album. Percussionist Andy Farag joined the band shortly after, and his father took over as manager of the group. The band occasionally faced difficulty at some of their early shows, since Andy was under 21 and wasn’t allowed in some of the venues the band played. Soon after adding Farag the band released the live album Songs For Older Women. Both of these early releases included songs that continue to be staples of the band’s live repertoire, including “Divisions,” “All In Time,” “August,” and “Hajimmashite.”

In 2000 the band added guitarist Jake Cinninger to the mix. Jake was in the regional band Ali Baba’s Tahini, and he brought with him numerous songs from that band to Umphrey’s. The band again released a live album to commemorate adding Jake to the mix. With the band starting to tour full-time, they had the opportunity to play some bigger shows. The festival scene was getting rejuvenated, and the band was a part of the first Bonnaroo in 2002. They also released Local Band Does OK, widely considered their true “debut” album. They were dealt a blow when drummer Mike Miro decided to leave the band to pursue medical school. After considering breaking up, the band instead added drummer Kris Myers to the mix.

The band didn’t slow down with the addition of a new drummer. Instead, they played over 150 shows in 2003 and continued to branch out in their songwriting and improvisational abilities. They became one of the first bands to release their shows directly to fans, selling the shows on CD immediately after the show ended. They also put out another live CD and their first DVD. In 2004 the band finally secured national distribution for their albums, signing on as a part of The String Cheese Incident’s label. Anchor Drops helped bring the band to new fans, although the band was still honing their studio abilities. Their lives shows continued to be high-energy and full of improvisation. They played shows and festivals with many of their jam-band contemporaries, but they spent most of their time on the road putting on two-set headlining shows anywhere they could.

The band played a memorable late-night performance at Bonnaroo in 2004, and, in 2005, they took advantage of new technology and began releasing podcasts. This opened up their live performances to fans all over country who could now instantly download the podcasts. They were recognized by the jam band community for their song “In The Kitchen,” which won a Jammy for “Best New Jam.” They developed a friendship with Huey Lewis, performing with him and asking him to appear on their next album. Safety In Numbers featured two songs with Huey Lewis, and the band performed with him on the Jimmy Kimmel show. They quickly followed the album up with The Bottom Half. Although the album consisted of songs recorded for but not included on Safety In Numbers, the album still included many classic Umphrey’s songs.

The band continued their non-traditional ways by releasing an album consisting of their best “Jimmy Stewarts” of 2007. Jimmy Stewart was the band’s way of setting aside time for improvisation in live shows. The band’s ability to improvise within a song or within a show has always been something that set them apart, and by releasing an album focused on these improvisations they chose to highlight this ability. On tour, they continued to be staples in the festival circuit, playing Bonnaroo on a regular basis as well as establishing an identity as one of the lead acts at Summer Camp. They won another Jammy for the live album Live at the Murat, and, in 2008 they played their first mash-up Halloween show, taking two (or more) songs and combining them in new ways.

2009 was a banner year for the band. They released Mantis in January, an album that consisted of brand new material. This was in stark contrast to what they did in the past, road-testing material before releasing it. They also encouraged pre-ordering the album by offering a huge amount of exclusive content to those who ordered the album early. The album came out to rave reviews and the band rode that momentum on tour. They played two nights at the second Rothbury festival, shows that are often credited for launching the band to a new level of popularity. They also came up with innovative ways to set apart certain shows, including low-attendance improvisation-only S2 events where audience members would guide the band’s performances as well as the UMBowl, an annual 4-set show where each set has a different theme.

By early 2011 the band was working on another new album. They initially planned to release a series of EP’s but switched up the plan to release another full-length album. Death By Stereo didn’t get the same reception that Mantis did, but that didn’t slow down their live shows. More Bonnaroo performances followed, including an epic 2012 set that was nearly 4 hours. They continued their ambitious touring schedule, playing 150+ shows a year, although the venues continued to grow. They started headlining Red Rocks on an annual basis, and their multi-night Halloween and New Years runs would sell out in advance. In 2014 the band released Similar Skin, which again featured both new and previously-played songs. The album was well received and is considered one of their best to date, despite the lack of jamming. They were able to distill the songs down to their core for the recording, leaving room open to jam on them and interpret them differently in a live setting.

The band has continued to use various “gimmicks” to add some unique spins to their shows. Their Halloween shows (and the lead up to those shows) include various “mashups” where the band puts multiple songs together. It started out by mixing just 2 songs, sometimes covers and sometimes UM originals, but has expanded to the point where the band is throwing elements of 4 or more songs into a mashup. A full album of mashups is going to be released in November. They’ve continued with their UM Bowl, adding new elements to the shows. They also continue to use a variety of guests, covers, and different theme shows such as their S2 events to keep their live shows interesting.

When I have a friend that I want to introduce to the jam band world, Umphrey’s McGee is typically my go-to band. Their studio songs are accessible enough that they’re not going to turn of anti-jam folks. They bring great energy to their live shows. They’re not afraid to bust out unexpected covers. And, frankly, they’re at the top of their class musically. They have tremendous chemistry and there’s simply no sign that they’re slowing down.

Winter Wondergrass Announces Lineup
Winter Wondergrass will take place in Steamboat, CO from February 26-27 next year. The winter festival announced their bluegrass-heavy lineup. The festival will feature Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, Elephant Revival, The Infamous Stringdusters, Fruition, Sam Bush Band, Steep Canyon Rangers, Billy Strings, Brothers Comatose, and many others.

Hillberry Harvest Moon Festival
October 13-16
Eureka Springs, AR
Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, The INfamous Stringdusters, The Travelin’ McCourys, The New Mastersounds, Turkuaz, Larry Keel

Suwannee Hulaween
October 28-30
The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL
3 nights of The String Cheese Incident, My Morning Jacket, Umphrey’s McGee, STS9, Big Gigantic featuring The Motet, The Claypool Lennon Delirium, Lettuce, Grensky Bluegrass, The Revivalists, Snarky Puppy

Dominican Holidaze
December 1-5
Breathless Beach Resort & Spa
Punta Cana
Umphrey’s McGee, The Disco Biscuits, STS9, Joe Russo’s ALmost Dead, Lotus, Lettuce, Shpongle, The Floozies

Strings & Sol
December 9-13
New Sapphire
Puerto Morelos, Mexico
Yonder MOuntain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, The Infamous Stringdusters, Keller & The Keels, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass

Jam Cruise
January 20-25
Sailing from Miami, FL
The Original Meters, moe., GRiZ, Galactic, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Benevento Russo Duo, Lettuce, Kamasi Washinton, The Revivalists, The Motet, Beats Antique

Los Muertos Con Queso
January 25-28
Riviera Maya, Mexico
The String Cheese Incident, Bill Kreutzmann & Bob Weir with Dave Schools, Jeff Chimenti, and Tom Hamilton, Chris Robinson Brotherhood

Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds: Three Concerts On The Beach
February 23-25
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Winter Wondergrass
February 26-27
Steamboat, CO
Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, Elephant Revival, Infamous Stringdusters, Sam Bush Band, Fruition, Brothers Comatose, Steep Canyon Rangers, Billy Strings

Panic En La Playa
February 27-March 3
Hard Rock Hotel
Riviera Maya, Mexico
Widespread Panic, Orgone, Southern Soul Assembly, Playa All Stars

Wanee Festival
April 20-22
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL

Sweetwater 420 Festival
April 21-23
Centennial Park
Atlanta, GA
Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio Band, Slightly Stoopid, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Anders Osborne, Dark Star Orchestra, Twiddle

Mountain Jam
June 16-18
June 8-11
Manchester, TN

Electric Forest I
June 22-25
Rothbury, MI

Electric Forest II
June 29-July 2
Rothbury, MI

August 24-27
Arrington, VA

Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll be back next week with more jam. Until then, check me out on Facebook and Twitter for up to the minute concert announcements. Until next week, Jam On!