Phish bait: Umphrey’s McGee to play 9:30 Club

People often say that if King Crimson and Frank Zappa had a baby, it would be Umphrey’s McGee. Umphrey’s bass player, Ryan Stasik, disagrees.

“If Patrick Swayze and David Hasselhoff had a baby, we might be their offspring,” Stasik said.

It’s that sense of humor that has helped fuel Umphrey’s McGee’s ascent from being a small college band in South Bend, Ind., to often being considered the band most likely to take the mantle from Phish as the public face of the jam band scene.

“We don’t really pay attention to the Phish stuff,” Stasik said. “It really doesn’t make any sense. If people like the music, they like the music. We want to be that Midwest group of guys that throw a party and people come and have a great time.”

After starting off playing parties in basements at the University of Notre Dame (the band’s alma mater) the group took off in the South Bend area and quickly became a top draw. When the band finished school, Stasik, along with Brendan Bayliss (guitar/lead vocals), Jake Cinninger (guitar), Joel Cummins (keyboards/piano), Andy Farag (percussion) and Mike Mirro (drums), packed up and moved to Chicago, where they have been based ever since.

The band began to tour extensively and started to garner a following across the U.S. In 2002, the band released “Local Band Does OK,” its first professional recording, and played at the inaugural Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn. The band has played at every Bonnaroo with the exception of 2003’s festival. The year 2002 also saw Mirro leaving the band for medical school and being replaced by Kris Myers on drums.

Musically, Umphrey’s has the incredible ability to satiate a diverse palate of musical tastes. To simply call Umphrey’s McGee a jam band would be ignorant. Bayliss and Cinninger’s guitars harmonize at speeds that could impress the biggest Iron Maiden fan, and improvise at a level that goes straight to the heart of a Phish head. Cummins’ chops on keyboards would make a regular at a jazz hole “ooh” and “aah,” all while making a Yes fan want to put down his copy of “Fragile.” Stasik, Myers and Farag, the holy trinity of groove, are the glue that holds the band together with their solid rhythm and playful fills.

This is not your typical band.

Last month, the band released another boundaries-pushing album, “Safety in Numbers.” The album features 11 tracks that range from the progressive rock masterpiece “Believe the Lie” to the straight-up rocker “Women Wine and Song,” which features Huey Lewis on harmonica and vocals. “Safety” is just another example of how Umphrey’s continues to synthesize all different tastes in music.

Compared to their 2004 release “Anchor Drops,” Stasik said this album has some key differences. “It’s a little darker. It’s about personal chaos and things that are going on in our lives. It’s a conversation between our guitarists,” Stasik said. Much of the material on the album is inspired by the death of friend Brian Schultz, who was killed after the band’s New Year’s Eve 2004 show.

One song on the album that deserves ample radio time is “Nemo,” which is heralded by a catchy guitar riff and Bayliss’ soaring vocals. For a genre that isn’t known for particularly impressive voices, Bayliss would make you think otherwise.

With the new album out, many great opportunities are coming the band’s way. They recently returned from a trip to Amsterdam to play in a festival with other jam band mainstays the Disco Biscuits, Soundtribe Sector 9 and the Duo. One of the best parts of Stasik’s year was the band’s gig at legendary club CBGB’s in New York City last month. The band is hitting the road this summer to open a few dates for the Dave Matthews Band. Jimmy Kimmel will host the band along with Huey Lewis on May 18.

Things couldn’t be better.

“Everything is being taken in stride. We’re going to keep riding that wave. We’ll continue to write new music that challenges us and excites us,” Stasik said.

Continuing in the great tradition of jam bands before them, Umphrey’s McGee really excels on stage. Providing new set lists every night and pulling out fun covers along the way (last time Umphrey’s played at the 9:30 Club, they started their second set with Smashing Pumpkin’s “Cherub Rock” and encored with Van Halen’s “Panama”), the band finds a way to make everyone feel welcome with their playful banter and electrifying improvisation.

“I think we’re definitely a live band,” said Stasik. “Live, we stretch things out, we do a lot of improv. The band takes a risk, the audience takes a risk.”n

Umphrey’s McGee will play tonight at the 9:30 Club at 9 p.m. Tickets are still on sale for $20.

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