For several years now, Umphrey's McGee has been touted as the new band most likely to fill the void left by the breakup of the hugely popular group Phish. Reaching a larger audience would undoubtedly be a welcome development for Umphrey's McGee; in fact, the group would like its popularity to reach beyond the jam-band scene. As singer/guitarist Brendan Bayliss notes, Umphrey's McGee already began to break through to a new audience with its 2006 studio CD, Safety in Numbers.
"I think it took us out of the jam-band thing a little bit, just because there were songs on it and the whole jam-band thing is, we're a band that jams," says Bayliss. "I think that we showed we can actually sit down and write a two-minute song, a three-minute song, with two verses and a chorus, which kind of gets you just a little bit out of the jam-band category."
Still, it's easy to understand how Umphrey's McGee became the logical heir to Phish's jam band crown. Even in more structured song settings like Safety in Numbers, the group comes closer than just about any other current band to exploring the kind of genre-defying, jazz-inflected brand of rock that was Phish's specialty.
And clearly, the members of Umphrey's McGee Bayliss, guitarist Jake Cinninger, keyboardist Joel Cummins, bassist Ryan Stasik, drummer Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag have the kind of instrumental skill that Phish so often displayed. They've also followed the Phish tradition of giving fans a steady stream of music since the band formed in 1997 in South Bend, Ind. (They later relocated to Chicago.)
Between 1998 and 2002, the group released three live albums and a studio CD, followed by the studio releases, Anchor Drops, in 2004 and Safety in Numbers in 2006.
At one point, Umphrey's McGee had grander plans for Safety in Numbers, Bayless says, thinking it would be a two-CD set, with one disc acoustic and the other electric. The songwriting, though, didn't develop along those lines, and the band decided to make it a single CD, followed by a second release featuring 10 songs that had been left off. That second CD, The Bottom Half, came out in April 2007.
Live sets find the band rotating through a repertoire of about 100 rehearsed songs. With the songs from the last two albums now being more than two years old, Bayliss says, they have evolved some in a live setting.
"That's one cool thing about playing live," he says. "It's kind of a curse, too, because when you write something and you record it in the studio, you don't have the time to develop it as much as you want. Then two years later you're playing the song and it sounds completely different than it did on the record."