Umphrey's McGee -- maybe you've seen the name before, and like most Chicagoans you've either written it off completely (is it a leprechaun band?) or take them for granted as part of the city's musical wallpaper. They're one of those bands that's just always ... there. They've been in the local listings for nearly 15 years. Someone goes to the shows. You don't know anybody, but someone must.
Then again, they're a "jam band," the rock genre for whom the Grateful Dead, Phish and their all-afternoon guitar solos have become iconic and for which the adjective "noodling" found new usage.
"That word, 'jam,' has certain connotations to certain people, not always good," says Jeremy Frazier, who's been writing about Umphrey's McGee on his Chicago Jam Scene blog for a couple of years. "It's the hippie thing, or it's long, meandering songs that don't neatly fit into the three-minute iTunes model."
"There is a certain stigma that is attached to the 'jam band' label, which is perpetuated in large part by websites like Pitchfork Media that like to make easy generalizations about 'endless, self-indulgent noodling' and 'patchouli-drenched, tree-hugging hippies,'" says Jefferson Waful, who designs the band's expressive light displays and has watched them develop for several years. "While there may be some truth in these stereotypes, there is also some really unique, sophisticated improvisation that has only been paralleled by jazz musicians."
When the band itself chimes in, they just blame the name.
"It's a goofy name. People shrug it off and don't take it seriously," says Brendan Bayliss, the band's founding singer-guitarist. "It sounds like an Irish drinking band. ... If I was someone else flipping through the Sun-Times and saw a band with our name, I'd jump to certain conclusions about them, as well. ... It was the dumbest thing we ever decided. We were in college, we weren't exactly forward-thinking. But life goes on."
Fortunately for them -- and the rest of the band includes guitarist Jake Cinninger, bassist Ryan Stasik, keyboardist Joel Cummins. drummer Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag - the life that goes on involves playing regularly sold-out shows across the country. Umphrey's McGee (could be worse, the full original name was Hubert Humphrey's Traveling Band featuring Flappy McGee) enjoys a level of success that would make simply rechristening the band commercially unfeasible.
Today, the band releases its sixth studio album, 12th overall and first for Dave Matthews' ATO record label, called "Death by Stereo." The first single, "Miami Virtue," was premiered online via Time magazine.
Bayliss says the new material, most of which has not been previewed live, per the usual m.o., might even shake up some of those preconceived notions about jam music and the band itself.
"The first two songs are polar opposites. They sound like two different bands. One is a dance party song ['Miami Virtue'], one is an in-your-face rock song that the hippies will definitely not like ['Domino Theory']," Bayliss says. "Most of the songs are radio length, 3:45 or 3:50 -- more concise melodies, easier to serve on a plate. The last album ['Mantis' in 2009] was consciously more self-indulgent. The title track was 12 minutes long. We just follow what comes."
That definitely describes the band's live shows, which feature large blocks of time dedicated to free-wheeling improvisation. Umphrey's McGee members refer to these moments as "Jimmy Stewarts," named for a particularly inspiring 2001 jam session in a hotel ballroom named for the actor.
"They'll start a song and then break into a Jimmy Stewart, and you know that this version -- what's happening in this moment, no matter what it is -- is unique to this night," Frazier says. "It works way more often than not. ... Last New Year's Eve, they went into a classic song of theirs, 'All in Time,' and started a Jimmy Stewart that completely changed the energy. It's a bright, happy song, and the improv went dark and murky, and they really controlled the energy of the crowd."
The improvs happen in the studio, too. Bayliss says "Miami Virtue" was born out of a Jimmy Stewart caught on tape.
"We've talked a lot about how the Talking Heads would do a lot of albums where they would play live for 30 minutes, completely jamming, then listen to the playback and isolate a two-minute groove that locked up -- and that's what they'd base the song on," Bayliss says. "We tried that, letting the tape roll, and it turned into 'Miami Virtue.' It really came out of nothing.
"For us, improv is a necessary thing, live or not. On stage, if we lean back, that's the cue to the others to go into it. The crowd knows what's happening, they know we're pulling it out of our ass. Sometimes it doesn't work. But sometimes we leave the stage and go, 'I think we just wrote a song!'"
What makes a person cross over from "who's Humphrey McGee?" to becoming one of the bands' many die-hard fans?
Bayliss: "Catching us live. ... That's when people go, 'Oh, that's what they are. I get it.'"
Frazier: "You just have to see them live."
Waful: "Honestly, the way that most people discover the band is by seeing one show and being swept away by the power of the live experience. There is an indescribable synergy that occurs, a symbiosis ... With the death of the recording industry, bands like Umphrey's McGee hold the secret weapon for survival: the live experience."
That chance is available again this holiday season -- but not on New Year's Eve, at least not in Chicago. The band has booked annual end-of-year shows in Chicago for nearly a decade. This year, Umphrey's McGee will be in St. Louis for NYE. Their new holiday stand in Chicago will be over Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 25-26 at the Aragon Ballroom.