Umphrey's McGee at Bonnaroo 2004
By Adam George
"Local band does better than O.K." is how the newspapers might read. With their sophomore studio release, Anchor Drops, Chicago's Umphrey’s McGee have transformed themselves from a sturdy regional rock act with a penchant for improvisation into a band with an increasingly complex attitude towards music. Their latest is one of those slabs where careful articulation and thoughtful embellishment have been lavished on every aspect. On top of their usual Blue Oyster-ian dual guitar whammy they've layered on acoustic textures and a blue collar philosophizing that incorporates the steel towers and proximity to water of their native city. It is their best work yet and these ears aren't the only ones who think so.

Brendan Bayliss by J. Rateliff
"It crushes everything we've done before. I would recommend for everybody else to not listen to what we've done before," singer-guitarist and chief lyricist Brendan Bayliss tells JamBase. "We feel it's really representative of where we are. The first album we ever did was kind like a demo to just get a CD because it was easier to get gigs with a CD rather than tape cassettes. The next was a live recording because we felt we'd progressed and we needed to get something out. Then with the first real studio effort called Local Band Does O.K. it was our first time in a studio and we'd never done it before. We were freshmen and I think it shows. This time we're much more confident. We really knew what we were going for."

Bassist Ryan Stasik chimes in, "We're still young in the record-making process. We've only been in the studio twice. This time we tried to be more mature about making singer-songwriter material. We tried to sit down and put in some pop hooks instead of just jamming out as much information as possible. Our lyricist, Brendan, really came through on this album."

Ryan Stasik by Susan J. Weiand
Bayliss, a former Notre Dame philosophy major, says, "If you can put something dense in a very small place, it says a lot for a little being said." That approach produces nuggets like "Breath easy. The less you have to offer, the less you have to lose." There's a world-weary density to the current batch of songs that recalls the Steely Dan of Can't Buy A Thrill and Countdown To Ecstasy (though not nearly the master storytellers in that band), and perhaps a time when Steely Dan still toured and played music in the same room together and faced the world with a sharp, cold, cynical eye.

Jake Cinninger by S. Weiand
When asked about being compared to such classic rock units as the Dan and B.O.C. along with the many Phish references one encounters in their press, Bayliss responds, "There's a lot of stuff I read in articles about there being a second generation of jam bands, so we're naturally compared to the forefathers that founded the movement, not that that's unfair. If we're being compared to someone it means we're being listened to at least. In all fairness, it's not up to me. We put out what we put out. If we get compared to another band what am I going to do about it?"

Umphrey's McGee, despite having what I call a "Toad The Wet Sprocket moniker" (i.e. an unnecessarily peculiar name chosen early on that means very little to anyone outside a select circle of folks), have been warmly embraced by the two-set-a-night loving jam fans. In many ways, Umphrey's is a straight rock radio band with the stamina of Olympic athletes and their acceptance into the jam scheme of things has been a mixed blessing.

Percussionist Andy Farag, who describes their sound as a mixture of Yes, Pearl Jam, Rush, and even Nirvana swirled together, says, "At some point you have to be part of something instead of just floating around if you want a following. In that sense, it's good to be a jam band. But people who aren't part of the community may label someone before they actually hear a band instead of listening and making their own judgments."

Andy Farag by J. Rateliff
Bayliss continues, "What's good about it is the community is unlike any other. Everybody is interested and involved and outgoing and accommodating, from festival throwers to festival-goers."

"What's bad is the term 'jam band' has certain connotations to it. Musically, a lot of people think it's become a generic, bland sound because there's been so many (bands) that have come out in the past few years, a lot of local jam bands that sound similar and have the same tricks. There's a preconception of noodling about and having no songs, which is unfair because obviously with Anchor Drops there's real songs."

People who don't spend time with the jam community often don't have a sense of how amazingly diverse this scene is. The nutshell description could well be "Music of quality that's able to deliver the goods live." Umphrey's certainly fits that description.

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