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.

As far as our sound... we've been trying to get into this structured improv. We're trying to create our own niche, trying to almost compose on the spot. The problem is I can't describe the sound because it's based on improv, and improv by nature you don't know what's gonna come from it."
--Brendan Bayliss : Photo by Jon Leidel

One of the nicest new wrinkles on Anchor Drops are the folksy breaks on songs like "Plunger," or the full-blown acoustic balladry on "Bullhead City." After starting an unplugged set at this year's Bonnaroo festival (which got rained out), the band went on to perform a similar concert at the Skyline Stage in their hometown this past August.

Stasik & Bayliss :: Skyline Stage
By Adam George
"I personally love it. It adds to the diversity and mixes up the album so it's not all the same instruments," states Bayliss. "It's a lot easier on the ears, fresher. I learned how to play the guitar on the acoustic and tried to learn all the Beatles and Zeppelin acoustic stuff and Neil Young, too. It strips everything down and you can't hide behind anything."

This is also the band's first recorded work with drummer Kris Myers, in place of founding member Mike Mirro, who left to pursue medical studies 18 months ago. What Myers brings to the table is a disciplined edge that's spilled over into the entire band.

"Mike was the only drummer I'd ever really played with before he quit and then Kris came along. Mike and I, obviously, didn't go to school for music. Kris has his masters in jazz. Playing with Kris was just whoa," states Stasik. "It brought the band to a whole new level. I'm not trying to dis Mike's playing at all but Kris is just a Houdini behind the drum kit. He made everybody listen. He made everybody play tighter. We're just more into the music now."

Umphrey's McGee by Adam George
Bayliss continues, "First and foremost, we're lucky as hell to still be doing this and that's all because of him. Now, in my mind, we sound so much better. I don't know what other people think and I really don't care. In my mind, it sounds so much more professional. He's as good a drummer as we could have hoped for. I love Mike but he's just not as good. So, we lucked out."

"In the studio you really get to isolate everybody for their good and bad qualities and Kris just rocks. His style is much more aggressive, and that was kind of the direction we were heading anyway, more in your face, not physical music, but it's definitely not as passive."

Joel Cummins by Susan Weiand
Much of the attention the band has garnered tends to focus on the guitar virtuosity of Bayliss and fellow singer/six-stringer Jake Cinninger. In many ways this misses the huge contribution to their sound from the disciplined rhythm section and keyboardist Joel Cummins, who like SCI's Kyle Hollingsworth, may be the single most talented, inventive member of the band.

"Part of the problem with that guitar-driven analysis of the music is we're a live band primarily and a lot of the improv stuff starts with guitar themes and basically everything's based on that," says Bayliss. "When we do a lot of improvisations, it's really easy for me and Jake to hook up because we can see the other guy's frets and see what he's doing."

"As far as our sound, right now live we've been trying to get into this structured improv. We're trying to create our own niche, trying to almost compose on the spot." Bayliss elaborates, "The problem is I can't describe the sound because it's based on improv, and improv by nature you don't know what's gonna come from it."

Cinninger & Stasik by S. Weiand
Bayliss laments, "It's unfortunate that we have to write with the live shows in mind. If I'm working on something and realize we're not going to play it live, I almost stop working on it. We have to write out of that context because we still have to play just to survive. With the new album, if it picks up, I'm not expecting anything monetarily from it but would like to just be able to open up the possibility to write for music's sake and not just because something will sound great live."

And what of the days ahead?

"We want to increase the production (values) of our live shows," Stasik tells us. "We want people to come and say 'Holy shit! That was the greatest set I've ever seen, I gotta come back again.' We're not ready to play arenas or Red Rocks but pyrotechnics, we're all about it. Now leather and make-up, I don't know if we're ready for that. We're definitely ready for flames and fire."

Bayliss takes a more pragmatic view. "My concept of success is getting everyone in the band medical insurance," he says laughing. "The goal has always been to keep doing it. Success would be getting to that comfort zone where we don't have to worry, everything will be fine and we can keep doing what we wanted to do from the beginning."

"Every single person is different in this band, personality wise, but we're such a democracy everyone gets along," says Stasik, breaking down what keeps them running. "A lot of bands let people stop hanging out together and you can see that up on the stage when they're making music together. If you really hate somebody you're not going to listen to what they're doing and it will ruin the music. We get beyond that. If someone is being a little bitch one day we call him out and we make sure that shit ends so when we end up on stage it's professional and we're all getting along and the music is pure. There's no room for egos in music. We try to keep it diplomatic in all things."

Dennis Cook
JamBase | Oakland
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