Seeing Umphrey's McGee live may be as close as you can get to witnessing live composition. The band uses a system of eye movements, riffs and notes -- a kind of secret language -- to guide their performances. "It's like a baseball cue," says guitarist Jake Cinninger, who caught up with CL in Richmond, Va., at the start of another lengthy tour. "If I throw the group a cue, then in the next measure, which would be four beats, that cue will happen."
Their unique brand of improvisation puts them at the crux of a debate. Jam band or not? "We want to sound very intended in our improvisation," explains Cinninger. "Most jam bands rely a little bit more on the so-called 'magic' of improv. So we get pigeon-holed and people say we're not jamming. But we're really trying to pay attention to each other and make these transitions sound seamless."
Onstage, the six members of Umphrey's McGee present an effusion of propulsive and energetic prog rock that also has the climactic ups and downs of jam music. Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss serve as lead guitarists and vocalists, tossing riffs and choruses back and forth in a constant dialogue. Set lists change nightly and often include covers as diverse as Lionel Richie and Metallica. In typical Umphrey's shorthand, the group calls its onstage improv excursions "Jimmy Stewarts," an homage to a hotel's Jimmy Stewart Ballroom where they practiced their improvisational techniques.
With a more progressive rock sound than most jam bands, Umphrey's credits '70s rockers Frank Zappa and Yes for inspiration. Though admitting similarities to jam, Cinninger even goes so far as to dismiss labels altogether, preferring to refer to the group's vibe as simply American rock 'n' roll.
And their story is about as American as it gets. Formed by four Notre Dame students (Joe Cummins, Bayliss, Ryan Stasik and original drummer Mike Mirro), Umphrey's evolved with the merger of UM and Cinninger's band, Ali Baba's Tahini, in 2000. At first they toured relentlessly, hitting an exhausting 150 stops a year. Often competing against jam heavyweights Phish and The String Cheese Incident, they drew sell-out crowds in the Midwest, but it wasn't until Phish disbanded in 2004 that the Umphrey's machine snowballed.
In quick succession, the band signed with SCI Fidelity (String Cheese's record label) and headlined at national festivals like Vegoose and Bonnaroo. By 2004, Rolling Stone was declaring them the successful heirs to Phish's phenomenal following. "It's amazing to us," Cinninger says, "but it really hasn't happened overnight. We've seen the grassroots level and been able to watch the baby steps that crept towards this greater goal."
Still, not everything in Umphrey's evolution has come easy. The band released a third studio album, Safety in Numbers, in 2006, which ended up as the darkest of the Umphrey's catalogue. "We went through a dark time with friends passing away," says Cinninger. "And music will reflect those times."
Despite the rough road to Safety's release, that recording session yielded a plethora of songs, many of which were not used in the album. In 2007, Umphrey's revisited the material to create The Bottom Half, a collection of B-sides and rarities from the Safety sessions. With a growing fan base, they delved deeper into the material on the road, tweaking the tracks to perfection. Bottom also gave fans insight into the process with a second disk full of outtakes, alternate versions and things that weren't quite completed in the studio.
Today, their solid following gives Umphrey's the leeway to explore avenues beyond traditional studio albums. For a band whose shows are taped and traded among the fans, a live album seemed like the logical next step. Live at the Murat, released in October 2007, puts Umphrey's on the path of their jam forefathers in attempting to translate a distinctive live sound to a record. "It turned out to be a studio-like live record. So it sounds pristine, it sounds perfect -- and that's exactly what we were going for," says Cinninger.
A new studio album is slated for release in summer of 2008. And for an ever-evolving band, every new release provides an opportunity to go in a different direction.
So what does the future hold? "We're looking over the next hill and trying to revamp how we want to write music," says Cinninger. "We're kind of at a turning point. But we can't go completely in another direction. It still has to sound like Umphrey's McGee."
Umphrey's McGee will perform at Amos' Southend on Thursday, Nov. 15. Tickets are $20 in advance, $23 on the day of the show. More information at amossouthend.com.