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).