The Path of Least Assistance

Umphrey's McGee goes in new direction and fans follow

For a band, to expand its sound can be a dangerous and often detrimental experience. The first risk, albeit not necessarily the most important one, lies with critical disapproval.

As many would say, any publicity is good publicity. However, it's hard to believe that musicians, as artists, would want their creation discredited or, worse yet, devalued by critical entities. Artists seek validation, and it's not a coincidence that promotional copies of material are sent to various critical sources prior to being put on shelves. There is a hope that praise garnered in advance of the release of musical material would encourage listeners to purchase the material, thus allowing the artist to make a living off their passion.

Things are a little different when the artist has gathered a strong fanbase, as these diehards become just as important to an artist’s success as any critical outlet. The more calculated risk involved in expanding an artist’s sound lies with these fans. Growth is not often relished. Most people want their favorite artists to fit snugly in their pocket for years to come, churning out the same brand of music they have grown accustomed to hearing and playing all of their hits when they choose to attend a show. It is rare that a band is able to convince a fanbase that a new direction is a viable option.

Umphrey’s McGee has developed into one of the heavyweights of the neo-Jam Band scene. They were formed in the late ’90s at the University of Notre Dame, quickly moved to their new home base of Chicago and exploded onto the scene in the early ’00s with their improvisational wonder workings.

In talking with bassist Ryan Stasik, he describes their sound as “distinctly Umphrey’s,” which can mean anything from 20-minute improvisational jams to face-melting two-minute guitar solos to succinct, four-minute Pop/Rock gems. What they have become most known for is their extended live sessions, where audience members groove to a combination of light and music unlike anything else currently being explored in the music world, and albums that put songs explored in these sessions on record.

With Mantis, the band’s latest studio effort, Stasik explains how the band wanted to approach the recording process a bit differently.

“We sat on all of these songs over about a two-and-a-half-year time span,” he says. “We didn’t play them live, as we usually do. Had people heard some of these songs and had they developed into something better or different than the recorded version, people would have been disappointed. But because they all had legs on their own, and because they fit a unique style for us, Mantis really took on a life of its own.”

And what a life that is. Mantis represents the most stylistically diverse output in the Umphrey’s catalogue and one that is very reminiscent of the times in which we live. Darker and more emotionally heavy than their past works, Mantis really represents the musical establishment of Umphrey’s McGee as more than just the jam band scene’s torchbearers. They have become a musical force to be reckoned with, mixing everything from Country to Metal to Blues to guitar flurries second to none. Mantis debuted at No. 62 on the Billboard charts, truly unprecedented territory for a band known primarily for their live soundscapes.

“For the sanity of the band, and the enjoyment of the fans, we have to get outside of the box, so to speak, and really take risks with our sound,” Stasik expounds. “I think the great thing about our fans is that they are willing to explore that space with us, which may be different than what other bands experience. Part of it is that Jam Band fans are more willing and open to that, and part is just that our fans will stick with us no matter what, which we appreciate.”

Sticking with the band has not been hard for fans, as they have developed a strong following due partly to rather inexpensive ticket prices. And you always get what you pay for when it comes to an Umphrey’s show, with varied song choices and mammoth setlists being the norm rather than the exception. They have debuted a new light show for this tour and approach special guests from the local areas to join them on stage, providing fans with a unique experience every night. At their stop at the Taft Theatre, for instance, bassist of local band Super-Massive (and Umphrey’s friend) Nick Blasky will be joining the band on stage for a few songs.

“We’ve always done things from a grassroots mindset,” Stasik says, “and never really strayed too far from that. From producing everything ourselves, to having final say in just about everything related to Umphrey’s McGee, we haven’t felt too much outside pressure to create anything that wasn’t uniquely us or something we weren’t exceptionally proud of. I think the fans can sense that honesty, and that ultimately keeps them coming back.”

This progression is unique in an industry that usually coils at such leaps of faith. But Umphrey’s McGee has never been about abiding by industry standards, and they have succeeded in spite of (and because of) it. By expanding their sound, they have expanded their fanbase. Even more fans, not just limited to the jam band scene, consider themselves followers of the Umphrey’s train. As they continue down the path of musical progression, Umphrey’s McGee will undoubtedly reach even greater heights because of their grounded nature and phenomenal talent.

“I hope we’re like a fine wine. I hope we get better with age,” Stasik says with a chuckle.

Umphrey’s McGee plays the Taft Theatre Thursday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.