Umphrey's McGee is a jamband, just like the Grateful Dead and Phish, but where the Dead jammed Folk and Country and Phish jams Jazz, Funk and Prog, Umphrey's jams everything. The main focus of their music might be described as "improg" (a term their bassist, Ryan Stasik, coined), but there are almost no genres they have not ventured in: they play Metal, Funk, Reggae, Mozart and whatever else enters their mind.
The band came together in 1998 at Notre Dame university, where Brendan Bayliss, one of their two guitarists, met Joel Cummins, their keyboard player in a class on music theory, Ryan Stasik, their bassist, and Mike Mirro, their first drummer. Later Jake Cinninger and Andy Farag joined as second guitarist and percussionist and when Mike Mirro amicably quit the band Kris Myers took over as a drummer, a formation that proved stable for the years to come.
While they often switch between different genres in one song, certain stylistic signatures persist: they really like odd time signatures, the composed parts of their songs are tightly structured, and a light sense of humor always lingers in the background.
Umphrey's McGee has a unique approach to improvisation, based on intense visual communication during songs. So for instance there are special handsigns for when someone should take the lead or hold back, or when it is time for a transition between different parts of a given song. They also had improvisational sequences called Jimmy Stewarts that were somewhat more planned out than others, in that for instance a specific order of time signatures or genres was agreed on beforehand. In recent years however they developed a more purely ad hoc approach.
Being a jamband with almost no mainstream recognition, Umphrey's has developed a close relationship with its fanbase, the core of which, the umfreaks, is intensely devoted, but also highly critical, and forms a tightly knit community and is one of the main reasons to keep attending concerts. The main online incarnation of this community is the bort. The band goes to lengths to solidify the connection to its fans, as evidenced by the UMBowls, where they let the fans decide in real time which music to play.
While Umphrey's allows taping of their shows, they also put soundboard recordings of their shows on nugs, where they, along with those of some other bands, can be streamed for a monthly subscription fee. They also stream their shows for roughly the prize of a ticket. The streams sometimes run into technical difficulties, but in those cases customers are compensated with either their money or another free stream.
Umphrey's McGee provides examples of:
- Epic Rocking: Songs performed in under ten minutes might be considered short. Some of the longer crack the 30min mark.
- Everything Is an Instrument: "Whistle Kids"
- Genre Roulette: They often jump between several similar genres in one song.
- Location Song: The tourism bureau of Chicago solicited them, together with Buddy Guy and Chicago to record an ode to the city. The result was... unsatisfying. The band never talks about it, although certain elements of the fandom make sure they won't forget.
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: Glory is a 1, Wizard Burial Ground is a 7, their other songs are in between.
- Never Trust a Title: Their first album is called "Greatest Hits Vol. 3"
- Nonindicative Name: They are named after one of Brendan Bayliss relatives. Well, according to Joel Cummins: "his name is actually Humphrey Magee but its not possessive with the apostrophe s"
- Jimmy Stewarts are called this way because the first time they did one was in a Jimmy Stewart ballroom.
- Silly Love Songs: "You and you alone"
- Sixth Ranger: Joshua Redman plays with them quite often, for instance when Jake got sick.
- Jefferson Waful is responsible for their lighting, which is an important visual element of their shows. He talks about his job here.
- Thanking the Viewer: One of their albums is titled "It's not Us". Shortly after it was released it received a companion: "It's You".
- Uncommon Time: Where to start?
- "Jajunk" is a good example: it starts in 7/4, then goes to 4/4, then to 9/4.