By Steven Robenault, Staff Writer
With nothing to do on a Saturday night a friend talked me into going downtown to see Umphries McGee. I knew their reputation as an extremely talented jam band and was mildly curious. “If they can fill the Filllmore, I guess that means something” I told myself.
A name like Umphries McGee conjours up images of a grizzled mountain man or a crooked prospector panning for gold. It is also the name of the progressive electro-rock band from South Bend, Indiana. Their silly name belies their exceptional musical talent and genre-blending style. Typically categorized as an “improg” band (meaning a combination of improvisation and progressive rock) they also add elements of metal, blues, funk, jazz, electronic, folk and bluegrass into their songs.
According to keyboardist Joel Cummins the band’s name originally came from a distant relative of Brendan Bayliss, one of the groups guitar players. “We’ve altered the name slightly” says Cummins.
Both Brendan and Joel are two of the founding members of the band along with bassist Ryan Stasik and drummer Mike Mirro. The four men formed their band in December of 1997 while attending the University of Notre Dame. The band quickly gained local popularity with their repertoire of unique covers and originals.
After eight months together, they released their first album “Greatest Hits Vol. III.” Following the release Andy Farag was added as a percussionist. The same year they released their first live album “Songs for Older Women.” In 2000 their second guitarist Jake Cinninger joined.
Despite growing success and popularity from their performance at the inaugural Bonaroo Festival in Manchester, Tennessee that year, Mike Mirro decided to leave in order to pursue medical school. Avoiding a break up, the band added Kris Meyers who previously played drums for Kick the Cat.
Umphries McGee, better known as “Umph” to some of its more devoted fans, not only bends rules in its music. As part of the UM Live program in 2003 all live performances were recorded, copied onto CD and available for immediate purchase after the show. This helped spread the bands influence and endeared many fans as well.
As a result, the band partnered with Disc Logic, and over the next year they released two new studio albums “Local Band Does Oklahoma” (2003) and “Anchor Drops” (2004) and a DVD entitled “Live From the Lake Coast.” The partnership with Disc Logic also landed all of UM’s music in stores nationwide.
To further extend its reaches, Umphries began producing podcasts in 2005. Each podcast was about 75 minutes and had about 20,000 listeners. Over the course of the next few years the band enjoyed more exposure from collaborations with stars like Huey Lewis and an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. As the new millennium continued the members of Umphries produced five more studio albums along with many more live releases and DVD’s.
For more than a decade the members of Umphries McGee have explored and mastered a funky, eclectic sound few others can compare too. Their talent and passion for producing authentic music shines through in their performance like a pulsing neon laser on stage. Perhaps what makes a live show so entertaining is their mix of classic songs with improvisation and personal flair.
For all of their accomplishments it is plain the musicians of Umphries take things lightly. This free spirit attitude flows over into the audience as well. There was certainly no shortage of odd balls roaming around. But what else can be expected from a band named like a hilarious Irish farmer?