This ain’t no stinking Phish

Perhaps it’s best to clear the air about one little thing before delving into the remarkable intricacies of Umphrey’s McGee.

When the band’s meaty new disc — Anchor Drops, on SCI Fidelity Records — hit shelves this summer, longtime Rolling Stone critic/editor David Fricke opined that the Chicago-based sextet had “become odds-on favorites in the next-Phish sweepstakes.”

Isn’t that nice.

It is, after all, nice to compare this nimble young group to one of the most interesting and — like it or not — important bands of the last quarter century. Isn’t it?

As the lowercase-god of Phish, Trey Anastasio himself, might reply: “Maybe so. Maybe not.”

In Fricke’s brief blurb about a rising band sporting its own distinct sound, the convenient, but ultimately shortsighted, namedrop rates as a tad irresponsible — for a number of different reasons. First off, a lot of people hate Phish, for, well, a number of different reasons. And while some interesting similarities in form do exist between the two — including amazing chops and complex jazz-rock structures — the buck on the Phish comparison pretty much stops there.

In other words, if you hate Phish, you might just love Umphrey’s McGee that much more.

“It’s a good problem to have,” admits Umphrey’s founding father/dash-rip-rock guitarist Brendan Bayliss about the recent trend in the heaps of praise being thrown their way by everyone from RS to The Washington Post. It’s not a terribly surprising metaphorical blunder, either — especially from the Stone, a publication that’s spent too much time in the new millennium pontificating on Britney Spears’ T & A to have much left over for insightful commentary about jam music.

So, to be clear, the McGee boys ain’t no stinking Phish.

To musically compare the two in any serious way is to misunderstand them both, and to completely overlook at least one glaring contradiction in their respective executions: namely, how Bayliss’ brilliant chops opposite the equally jaw-dropping fretwork of axe-mate Jake Cinninger can run NASCAR laps around Trey’s more tricycle-oriented rock licks.

Trey often had to call on other people’s songs (Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein,” ZZ Top’s “La Grange”) to find Phish’s most rollicking moments. But Bayliss and Cinninger apparently awake each morning with a juicy, giant-sized rock ‘n’ roll loogey in their respective throats — one they ably dislodge via hair-raising originals every time they perform, as well as on Anchor Drops.

Umphrey’s McGee sports a genre-blender of styles that screams pureed prog-rock or even prog-metal more than it does caviar or catfish. Comparisons to the musical adventures of the late Frank Zappa or to the angelically dirty coo of Steely Dan are more precise analogies. And if we must evoke a contemporary “jam band” to get our claws around their busy-in-a-good-way artistic approach, it would be far wiser to recall the magical nerd rock of the equally underrated moe.

The inherent comedy found in all three of those musical entities is also more on Umphrey’s level. For instance, moe.’s 2003 Halloween gig in UM’s sweet home Chicago featured a hilarious dose of ’80s-metal costuming. And Umphrey’s own latest stab at this kind of shameless humor comes with their decision to invite Mini-KISS to open their upcoming New Year’s show, also in Chicago.

“They’re, like, midgets that play KISS covers, right?” I venture to confirm.

“Exactly. You said it, not me,” he responds wryly about these, ahem, little people who mimic the classic KISS ensemble — complete with face paint, leather and blood spewing.

In contemplating whether or not to invite an opening band, Umphrey’s settled on Mini-KISS as “kind of a middle compromise … someone had seen them on Conan O’Brien or something,” Bayliss goes on. This reveals yet another noteworthy quirk: Conan’s nerdy but hilarious approach to his own work is definitely more Umphrey’s bag than the L.A. glitz of Leno or the NYC crass of Letterman.

And the quirky factor wasn’t something they merely picked up along the way, either: Witness such early Umphrey’s McGee record titles as Local Band Does OK, not to mention their 1997 debut, Greatest Hits Volume III. (The latter impressed a European DJ so much he wrote the band to request all the original records used for the “compilation.”)

Umphrey’s has had a huge year, admits Cinninger: “It’s easier to say that now, having [had] more time to look back on it — but right now I realize where we were when we started, and we’re a lot further along.”

Indeed they are. Beyond the magnificent Anchor Drops, Umphrey’s toured incessantly all year, stepping up big when it mattered most at Southern-jam anchors Bonnaroo and HarvestFest — delivering blistering, ass-kicking jam-a-thons in both cases to some notoriously picky fans.

In a century or so, when the next David Fricke sits down to pen the annals of the History of Jam, Umphrey’s McGee might find itself in the same chapter as Vermont’s Phinest. For a Greatest Hits project like that, the comparison may have some merit, but on closer inspection, attentive ears will notice Umphrey’s writing their own thick treatise on the malleable nature of the genre — with a few chapters, even sequels, to finish before they’re done.

[Stuart Gaines is a contributing editor to An Honest Tune, and writes Mountain Xpress’ “Junk Journal” column.]

Umphrey’s McGee plays The Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave; 225-5851) on Thursday, Dec. 2. 9 p.m. $14 ($12/advance).

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4 thoughts on “This ain’t no stinking Phish

  1. kraig

    claiming umphrey’s to be the next phish would be one of the deadliest blows to the jam band scene, now umphrey’s is a great band but they could not pick up the torch phish held for nearly two decades, for a while it looked as if string cheese incident would be taking over but now they are breaking up (and good riddance might i add, they were drifting too far away from what set them apart from phish) but now that we are in the twentieth century i would say it is the future of jam bands that is begining to unfold, so i would say the next big jam band, given they play their cards right, would be StS9

  2. Tom

    whats up with all this umphrey’s dissing? quit drinking the haterade and realize they probably are the next phish

  3. kevin

    “Trey often had to call on other people’s songs (Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein,” ZZ Top’s “La Grange”) to find Phish’s most rollicking moments.”

    For real??? Are you honestly trying to say that Trey didn’t write songs that rocked? If you’re trying to say what I think you’re trying to say, stop furthering the unworthy association of Phish with Umphrey’s and go listen to the prog-esque, tastelessly overt complexities of Umphrey’s without dragging Phish into the conversation. Umphrey’s doesnt flow at all. Its got that same Dream Theater sound where you can tell they try to force odd-time sigs into the songs just to sound like they’re complex. Good bands throw in odd-time sigs and other musical complexities so well that you barely realized they werent playing in 4/4 until the second time you listened to it. Umphrey’s is overrated… talented in many respects, but vastly overrated and nothing like Phish. Bands like Umphrey’s and moe are killing the jam band genre by labelling themselves as such. I dont have a problem with the music, but stop comparing them all to Phish. Phish is not GD, JGB, Umphreys, moe, disco biscuits, or string cheese incident, and trying to compare them is like comparing Led Zep to Rush (in the case of GD and JGB) or Rush to Nickelback (in the case of pretty much the rest of them).

  4. Jon

    Phish is good. Umphrey’s is awe-inspiring. Comparing the two is impossible… However, where phish sticks to more contemporary aspects of jam structures, Umphrey’s Mcgee goes far above what is familiar. The highlights of a phish jam is a drug out Trey solo over a handful of repeating chords for QUITE awhile. Umphrey’s guitar players, who both rival Trey’s chops, trade off and accompany each other while smoothly transitioning from one genre, time signature, tempo, and key to the next. Similar to the Dead who mixed genres and styles from their time and before, Umphrey’s creates a stew of new aged genres such as metal, jazz fusion, hard rock, and trance along with the obvious blues, country, bluegrass, etc… Furthermore, the Jimmy Stewart portions of their live performances are jams built from the ground up intertwined in their written songs. These jams are the quintessential example of what a “jam” should be. Hand signals, eye contact, and familiarity among the band members act to create a musical flow that a highly intelligent musical conversation between the 6-piece.

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