Umphrey's McGee resists definition. The jam-influenced act, which first assembled in South Bend, Indiana, in 1998, takes some of its cues from improvisational groups including Phish, which it counts among its many and diverse influences, but its musical scope is wider than any one source.
"You come to realize that you're a product of your environment," says guitarist Brendan Bayliss, 41, who helped found the group when he was a student at the University of Notre Dame. "When we were in college, [Phish] was a band everyone liked to listen to, but I wanted to go beyond them and figure out what they were influenced by. Through them I got into Frank Zappa and Miles Davis and some fusion stuff that they listened to. We do come from the jam-band world, and that category fits elements of our live shows, where we might play a fifteen-minute version of a song, but there's a connotation to it that I'm not particularly fond of, which is the noodling, the aimlessness and the lack of song structure."
Bayliss and Umphrey's McGee provide a sound that is capable of moving from jazz-inspired meanderings to tight blues-rock-inflected radio-friendly cuts such as their 2006 breakout "Women, Wine and Song," which featured ’80s hit-maker Huey Lewis. With its dual-lead guitar approach and penchant for slow-building atmospheric grooves, the band sometimes risks slipping into cliché, but its ability to incorporate harder-edged fare and punchy sing-alongs gives the act an enduring popularity with listeners of all stripes.
"I don't like people to be turned off by the jam-band moniker and think that they instantly know what we're about, because it isn't that cut and dried," Bayliss says. "Our new stuff is all over the map stylistically. It's really taken on a life of its own. We like to touch on every genre we can, from heavy metal to funk and even acoustic folk. We all listen to different stuff. I'm a big fan of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, and so that sneaks in there. When we started, one guy was into heavy metal and I liked the Indigo Girls. Another guy was into hip-hop and another liked classical. We were all over the place, and that diversity bled into our sound."
The band marked its twentieth anniversary in January this year with a three-show celebration in New York City. For its third and final show of the run, Umphrey's started with its most recent original composition and moved backward chronologically, playing a song from every year of its career all the way to its inception. The group ended the celebratory gigs with a tune from 1998. The band released two new discs in 2018 to mark its vicennial: It's Not Us came out in January, followed by It's You a few months later. Bayliss says the group mostly performs its original music now, with only an occasional cover song finding its way onto set lists.
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"We started out covering Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, the Beatles and other stuff you might listen to in college," Bayliss explains when asked about the artists to which the group likes to pay tribute. "We also played stuff by Toto, the Talking Heads, Men at Work and Lionel Richie. We pretty much just tried to make it a party. But we've had original material from the beginning. At first it was about half and half, but as time went on, our material has come to comprise almost all of our shows. Tonight, about fourteen of the fifteen songs we play will be our own. Some of the first cover songs we jammed out on were tunes like 'Lowrider' [by War] and 'Bathtub Gin,' by Phish. We did 'Help on the Way' into 'Slipknot' by the Grateful Dead for a while, but it's been six to eight years since we've done that. We like to represent, but there are a lot of bands doing Grateful Dead stuff right now, so we figure we'll just let them do it."
With a three-show residency coming up at Red Rocks this weekend, July 5 to 7, Umphrey's McGee, which has played more than 2,200 gigs in its career, has good reason to be proud of its achievements. Lotus, Papadosio and the Record Company provide support over the three-night outing. The band comprises Bayliss (guitar, vocals), Jake Cinninger (guitar, vocals), Joel Cummins (keyboard, piano, vocals), Andy Farag (percussion), Kris Myers (drums, vocals) and Ryan Stasik (bass).
"We do really well in Denver and Atlanta," says Bayliss. "We call Chicago our home base, but we only play there once a year now. Our popularity is sort of spread out geographically. We started out in Indiana and then did the concentric-circle thing. We drove about 90 miles in every direction and six months later expanded that to about 120 miles, and then it was 500 miles and out from there. RedRocks is my favorite venue. To think that this all started twenty years ago in college and now it has taken off to the point of playing three nights at Red Rocks is surreal. We have a bunch of new songs to play, so we're pretty excited."
Umphrey's McGee with Lotus, 6 p.m. Thursday, July 5; with Papadosio, 7 p.m. Friday, July 6; with the Record Company, 7 p.m. Saturday, July 7, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, $42.50, 720-865-2494.