When you begin listening to Jam Bands, should you be so inclined to do so, one thing seems to be a constant critique or thought. “All of the songs sound the same.” Sure upon first listen this can be very true, especially if you’re not used to the live format of a jam band.
Taking multiple songs and weaving them together through instrumental experimentation based on certain chord structures and melodies. A band can play sometimes up to 30 minutes without stopping, however, they may have just played three songs in that time span. For fans of this format, you find intrigue in how the band works through those songs, and somehow find a way back to the original song or onto multiple songs. The most famous and basic example of this is the Grateful Dead’s now very famous setlist format of “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire on the Mountain.” Each song shares a similar chord structure that serves as a vehicle to jam, experiment, and merge the songs.
Now, this connotation toward jam bands often is lazily used to say that all jam bands sound the same. However, that is far from the truth. Even looking at the most famous bands of the genre, The Grateful Dead, Phish, and even now Goose are all very different bands, who focus on very different influences of music. Of course, without the Dead, there would be no jam band, however, what they did laid the bricks for bands like Phish. But sonically they are very far apart.
Phish took more influence from bands like the Talking Heads and the arena rock acts of the ‘70s than the Dead. Their delivery and format are the same, however, like any artist they have their own sound and influence.
The same can be said for the third phase of jam bands. This is when the reign of Phish was at its highest. 1997, Phish were playing every sold-out minor league hockey arena in the country, to MSG and everything in between. It was the most popular a jam band had been since the days of the Grateful Dead selling out Giants Stadium.
You also had the first commercially successful jam band Dave Matthews Band, who appealed to a more general audience. Of course, the Dead saw massive success with “Touch of Grey,” but there was still so much of a dense catalog the pedestrian fan felt there was too much to dive into.
With that more beginner’s level jam band show by Dave Matthews, the idea of it becoming a genre truly began to grow. Artists like Blues Travelers, moe., and festivals like the Horde Fest, gave birth to multiple jam bands. Although many of these bands came from Coastal states, there was one band from South Bend, Indiana, that took influence not just from Phish or the Dead, instead they took influence from the music of their time. That band was Umphrey’s McGee.
In 1997, Nu-Metal was one of the most popular genres in America. Limp Bizkit, The Deftones, and System of a Down, to name just a few, saw massive commercial success. Bands that leaned on the angst and aggression of metal, with some melody. This also came after a nearly 20-year stretch of massive cultural and commercial success of popular Metal and Hard Rock. Metallica, Gun’s and Rose’s, eventually morphed into the more alternative divergence of Grunge music.
Umphrey's, although of course built their live performances around the structure laid by Phish and the Dead, their musical influences are much more akin to the Metal, Grunge, and Alternative Bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s with a blend of funk, math rock, jazz, and progressive rock.
If Phish’s influence was the Talking Heads, Umphrey’s McGee’s would be bands like Rush, King Crimson, and even Van Halen with their pop sensibilities. A sound that is rarely ever touched by bands that fall into the “Jam Band” scene. The only true contemporary would be King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, however, they seem to take more influence from the era of Thrash Metal. Umphrey’s loves the melody, harmonies, and synth of more contemporary 80’s rock.
Umphrey’s McGee was founded in South Bend in 1997, formed by original members Brendan Bayliss, Ryan Stasik, and Joel Cummins, at the University of Notre Dame. Playing colleges and house parties mixing in originals while creating their own covers of popular songs, along with covers of Phish and the Dead. To start the band followed the same road map of their predecessors, allowing fans to freely trade live tape recordings, the sort of pollination method that made bands like the Dead and Phish so popular.
Since their formation in ‘97, Umphrey’s has grown to have one of the most consistent fan bases in the jam band scene. Partnering with other jam bands like moe., to host festivals like Summer Camp, and serve as a headlining draw to jam band festivals around the country.
Now, over 25 years of touring the band made another stop to Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati with their unique interpretation of jam band music. Friday night, Umphrey’s took the stage at MegaCorp Pavilion in Newport, Kentucky to a nearly sold-out indoor show.
Starting around 8:30 the band would take the stage for the next four hours with a dedicated fan base eager to hear both the band's classic and new material, with the occasional cover.
Kicking the show off with “Flamethrower” into a live staple, “All In Time,” a fast paced tune that captures Lead Singer and Guitarist Brendan Bayliss and Lead Guitarist Jake Cinninger dueling guitars, and their longstanding trust with one and other on stage. The song then leans on Keyboardist Joel Cummins, to provide that more space synth aspect that Umphrey’s is so well known for. There is clearly an element of ‘90s Electronic Music that seeps into their music, that serves as the more euphoric and blissful release brought on by the tension from the guitars.
Then followed by “Comma Later,” a much more smooth jazz, almost Yacht Rock vibe that would foreshadow later songs. “The Crooked One,” is a track that allows Bayliss and Cinninger to give more of that metal chucking of their guitars, and a bit of a math rock sensibility with their precision on guitar.
Running threw a slew of tunes like “Glory,” an instrumental 4-minute bereavement from the more intensive and dense guitar parts of “The Crooked One.” The song’s peaks are reminiscent of Phish’s “Divided Sky,” without the avant garde jamming. To “Whistle Kids,” a song that showcases Bayliss' ability and desire to show his more pop-sensible writing ability.
As the first set came to a close, Umphrey’s broke into the unrelenting “Wizard Burial Ground.” An ‘80s Heavy Metal influenced tune in name and sound. This song is what Eddie from Stranger Things would air guitar to, and think it was something straight from Ronny James Dio. Cinninger and Bayliss at their heart clearly wanted to be head-banging guitar heroes as kids. Listening to bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden to emulate their dueling guitars. However, just when you think you have a jam band pinned down, they pull the rug out from under you to reveal a much more complex jam that truly takes you on a journey, sober or not. The song then breaks down to a wide open, uplifting jam. Jumping between the two opposing sounds to build into an epic finish.
As the second set started, Umphrey’s broke into a newer track off their 2022 record, Asking for A Friend, “Escape Goat.” You cannot deny the jam band world's ability to use fun word-play. This tune leans toward their more prog rock sounds. With Cummin’s droning synth intro, Bayliss’ reverb filled vocals, and the staccato guitar picking, are reminiscent of Genesis’ ‘80s deep cuts.
As the band continued to run through originals, then treated fans with a staple of their shows, a mash-up cover that you simply would not expect from five white-guys. Introducing, one of their percussionists referred to as “Cousin Eli,” who then performed Warren G’s “Regulate.” Then breaking into Micheal McDonald’s “I Keep Forgetting,” with an incredibly accurate impression of the Yacht Rock legend’s iconic voice. “Regulate,” for those who do not know samples of McDonald's ‘80s hit and made complete sense for the band to mash together.
After returning to through this mash-up to one of their originals, “Utopian Fir,” the band departed from the stage before their encore.
With roaring applause and not a single fan leaving the crowd, Umphrey’s returned to stage for two more songs. 2011’s “Hajimemashite,” a song that features harmonica on the intro, felt like an ode to their Heartland roots. The song feels tranquil after that intro, Bayliss’ vocals build with the drums to have this release that feels very Phish-like and even gives hints of Pearl Jam’s “Given to Fly.”
This jam then brought us back right back to the beginning, a reprise of “All in Time.” This time engaging the crowd to sing along, “All in Time.”
This having been my first time seeing Umphrey’s McGee I was excited to see what made this band so different from many of the jam bands I have followed and seen in the past. What had I been missing all of these years? And would they have the same effect on me that so many of their contemporaries have had? The short answer is yes. I loved the unique sound that they had. They stand far and away from their peers in so many ways, while still staying true to the genre and scene as a whole. Of course, there are face-melting solos, there’s spacey jams, however, they also incorporate much more sinister sounds, they are pulling from influences that so many other jam bands cannot or have no interest in trying to do. Each band no matter where or when they started have touchstones they reference. The Dead loved jazz, bluegrass, and country. Phish used their influences and added hints of avant garde rock, alternative sounds from bands like the Talking Heads and Pavement, and even Goose have created a relationship with Vampire Weekend and reference them and Bon Iver as huge influences. Umphrey’s does the same but instead with that ‘80s metal music nerd flair.
This was the first of many shows I will be attending of theirs in the future. You can listen to the actual show on nugs.net and their studio music wherever you stream music.