Umphrey's McGee: Musical Alchemists of Progressive Improvisation

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Photo: Umphrey's McGee ( Click To Enlarge Photo )

Formed at the University of Notre Dame in December 1997 by guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss, bassist Ryan Stasik, keyboardist Joel Cummins, and drummer Mike Mirro, Umphrey's McGee combined members of Tashi Station and Stomper Bob, two Notre Dame rock bands. Early concerts consisted of both originals and cover songs, including Guns N' Roses' "Patience" and Vince Guaraldi's Peanuts theme "Linus and Lucy" as well as songs by Phish, moe., and The Grateful Dead. According to Cummins, "The name originated from a distant relative of Brendan's who shares a similar namesake. We've altered the name slightly, but let's just say that Humphries is an interesting individual. I heard that Brendan discovered another guy in the family with the name. I think they're both suing us."

When the band was together for only eight months, they released their debut album, playfully titled Greatest Hits Vol. III. Though long out of print, this debut album contains songs that remain staples of Umphrey's live sets, such as "Divisions," "Phil's Farm," "FF," and "All in Time." Following its release, as their concert appearances rapidly increased, they added a fifth member, percussionist Andy Farag. Farag's father became the band's agent, and a second pressing of Greatest Hits Vol. III featured Farag in the album's inner sleeve and credits. Now one of the most popular bands in the South Bend/Notre Dame area, they began performing outside of the area at colleges and house parties. As with the Grateful Dead and Phish before them, they allowed fans to tape and trade their music freely. In 1998, the band released their first live album, Songs for Older Women.

Guitarist Jake Cinninger joined the band in September 2000, bringing a heaviness to the Umphrey's sound, as well as a large repertoire of original music. Jake had previously been a member of another South Bend/Notre Dame band, Ali Baba's Tahini. Umphrey's also adopted several songs written by Ali Baba's Tahini's former frontman Karl Engelmann. Shortly after Cinninger's arrival, the band released another live album, One Fat Sucka, which contained live performances recorded in the summer and fall of 2000.

Photo: Umphrey's McGee ( Click To Enlarge Photo )

Fans who have followed Umphrey's McGee for any period of time know that there are only two guarantees: you never know what you're going to get, and Umphrey's always delivers.

How else can a band be relentlessly innovative in both music and fan relations for 13-plus years? The latest expected twist arrives in the form of their newest studio album (and first with ATO Records) Death By Stereo (9/13), the follow up to 2009's Mantis. Mantis surprised fans with a collection of music never before played, and surprised the music industry with an innovative marketing campaign that catapulted the album past the Heatseekers chart, debuting at #62 on Billboard's "Top 200" chart without any radio play or television appearances.

Death By Stereo's concise melodic approach and accessible songwriting is everything fans had hoped for, but not what anyone expected. Death By Stereo is disarmingly straightforward. Sure, you can dance to it, but the clever arrangements, meticulously crafted chordal interplay, and virtuoso instrumentation put Umphrey's McGee in a category all their own.

"Our live show is malleable and every night is its own thing, where you never know where things are going to go," keyboardist Joel Cummins explains. "People aren't used to us playing three-and-a-half to four-minute songs back to back, so this album is a completely different experience than our live show, which is certainly something we were trying to do."


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