My Years of Umphrey’s McGee

It occurred to me that all of these posting circulate around the Grateful Dead. They’ve been a bit distant from my experiences in the jamband world. I wanted to talk about my time following a band around. I had that right of passage similar to Phish or the Dead. But it was with neither. It was with Umphrey’s McGee.

My college years coincided with Phish’s breakup between 2004 and 2009. I don’t anguish in not having Phish around during the period of time. Yes, those would have been great touring years. But I saw other bands. In fact, I don’t know that I would have seen as much diverse music as I did if Phish were around. I cherish those years not only as my coming of age but as a golden age for other bands to blossom. But that is not to say there wasn’t one band I loved to see more than the others.

On Halloween of my Junior year in high school my friend Brooks convinced a group of us into seeing a band called Umphrey’s McGee. I knew nothing about this band. To prepare myself I listened to a little music and blindly stared at their setlists. From what I could gather, they didn’t shy away from playing covers and they played a song called Jimmy Stewart a lot. Being a Halloween show for a band I had never heard before, it was a bit overwhelming but incredibly fun. I don’t know if I was enamored but I was definitely intrigued to want more. I started collecting tapes and after seeing them in parking lot show the next year I was hooked.

For those unfamiliar, Umphrey’s McGee was founded in South Bend Indiana in 1997. The band consisted of Brendan Bayliss on guitar, Ryan Stasik on bass, keyboardist Joel Cummins, and drummer Mike Mirro. In 2000 the band added lead guitar player Jake Cinninger and auxiliary percussionist Andy Farag. In 2002, Mike Mirro left the group and was replaced with Kris Myers. The lineup has since remained unchanged.

That Halloween show was 10 months after Kris joined the band. In their documentary Reel to Real released in 2016, the band alludes to this replacement allowing a revitalization of the band’s music and energy. They were a band with upward momentum. They were a six year old band with two records selling self printed T-shirts and stickers. They were scruffy a bit loose and fun. And whereas many bands lore had already been written, Umphrey’s was just forming. We could be part of the book as it was being written.

Umphrey’s does have their unique story to tell and show to put on. In the wake of Phish’s breakup, a handful of improvisation oriented bands saw an increase of their fanbase. Money that was once spent on Phish summer tour could be spent on the booming festival scene or more shows from a single band. Within that community Umphrey’s McGee was the most progressive and arguably most technically proficient. Combining that proficiency with improvisation, composition, and pop sensibilities across all genres makes them a band to marvel at. Combing the right amount of heart, humor, and spectacle, I always left their shows with a smile on my face. And in a community where transferring that energy to a record is an uphill climb, they seem to it better than the rest. Rolling Stone after the break-up of Phish declared that “Umphrey’s McGee have become odds-on favorites in the next-phish sweepstakes”. Regardless of how they felt about that title, as someone who has always felt a little low on cultural capital, there was a bit of a thrill seeing a band in a parking lot that Rolling Stone felt would be playing amphitheaters sooner than later.

There was a strong community too. Their forum the Bort was an interactive, tight knit, but welcoming group. Umphrey’s would occasionally disseminate information through their online postings. I remember reading the bands pleas to stop bringing glowsticks to concerts and to help find Jake’s lost licks book. They were a reachable band. I would eventually meet all the members in one way or another. While attending Indiana State I had a chance to interview Andy Farag and later published that interview in the school’s IQ Magazine. Later I met both Andy and Kris and watched a Terry Bozzio show in LA. They weren’t rockstars. Just guys on the road trying to make something of their music.

Umphrey’s tours a lot. During their 2003 to 2009, they were playing upwards of 130 shows a year not including side shows. Going to an Umphrey’s show was absurdly accessible, especially for someone in the heart of their home turf. They would play multiple nights. They would string shows close to one another and tickets were affordable. On occasion by happenstance, the band had an uncanny ability to be in town whenever I traveled. Because of all this, I saw at least 3 dozen shows between 2003 and 2009. Some of the highlights I was able to watch were that first Halloween show, a great pair of shows at Navy Pier in Chicago, and New Year’s 2005.

Unlike other bands with grueling touring schedules, Umhprey’s discovered an avenue for writing new music on the road through their Jimmy Stewart and Jazz Odyssey jams. In short, pre-selecting riffs or musical ideas and working them out live on stage provided a space and time to work and formulate songs while touring. This allowed the band to be prolific. Releasing 6 studio records, 2 solo records, 3 live records and 3 DVDs from 2002 to 2012 gave a wealth of content to digest. In addition, Umphrey’s has always welcomed and encouraged live taping of their shows. With unique setlists, Jimmy Stewarts, and covers there was always some riveting new content to discover.

In addition to new content, Umph does covers. They do A LOT of covers. But unlike Phish or the Dead who took particular covers into their repertoire and made them their own, Umphrey’s utilized them as an ice breaker. Spanning everything from GZ and hustlas to Rosanna by Toto Umhprey’s would cover equally well. Carefully placed in a setlist, they would always send a jolt of energy back into a show.

I had a lot of love for that band. And that is why I’m a little surprised I have I haven’t seen them since 2009. I’ve thought a lot about what happened. Whether I grew out of the band, the shows became a bad experience, or if I started to dislike the band on a personal level have all crossed my mind as reasons. Ultimately I attribute to it being the major loss of camaraderie between those friends whom I’d seen the band since high school. After graduating college many of my friends moved away and Umphrey’s was no longer a reunion. I did go to shows alone and reflecting back, I’d make friends at those shows with those around me. It was always a positive community to be a part of.

I’ve replayed their records and tapes in a hope to rekindle a desire to see them again. I’m happy to report that the blistering Triple Wide off of the Live from Murat album forced me to stay in my car and listen to it play through. Hopefully they’ll play in my area soon or fate will make it convenient once again.

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