New Year’s Eve shows are special events for most bands — even more so for those that sling totally different setlists each night and cut their songwriting with extended live improvisation. The New Year’s Day show, meanwhile, tends to be a mellower affair. Everyone’s bleary-eyed and worn out, but, somehow — always — coming back for more. But how should a band navigate that tone?
In place of a typical Jan. 1 show this year, Chicago-based prog-jam juggernauts Umphrey’s McGee decided to roll out a new documentary culled from 18 years of video footage. Fans were treated to a special evening of nostalgia amid never-before-seen perspectives on life with the band. Later that night, the band played a set of original music curated by the fans themselves and shared the stories behind those songs.
The “Reel to Real” event was a fresh, unique event for a band that revels in that kind of stuff. For the fans and the band members alike, it was a celebration — a rare opportunity to glance backward at a rich history of music.
“I had probably seen about eight minutes of it — of the 65 minutes total," guitarist and singer Brendan Bayliss tells Scene about the run-up to the event. "I like to think of myself as forward-thinking. We used to listen to every show when we were in a van, you know, six hours every day between shows. But the older I’ve gotten and the more we do, I’m less worried about what we’ve done and I’m more worried about what we have to do.”
Indeed. What they’ve done speaks for itself.
The band formed in late 1997 at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and began gigging around the area in the early part of 1998. Right off the bat — via albums like Greatest Hits Vol. III and the live recording Songs For Older Women — the guys demonstrated a penchant for extremely tight, rapid-fire song construction. (We hit the archive to dig up some old ‘98 bootlegs, which feature some absolute gems.)
To say their rise within the regional and national jam band touring circuit was mind-blowing would be an understatement. There’s always talk of “the passing of the torch” in the jam scene — i.e. from Phish, particularly after Coventry, to the next in line — and, even as a young band, Umphrey’s landed on that shortlist with alacrity.
But talk like that has always been a bit unfair. Listen, Umphrey’s McGee is a Great American Rock Band in that they’ve created a world unto themselves. As Bayliss puts it, hey, they’re just regular dudes from the Midwest, making music and trying to take each new experience further than the last.
About a year ago, the band went really far out there and traveled to London, where they cut a new album in one day at the famed Abbey Road Studios. It was a certain highlight of the year for Bayliss. “We basically went to church,” he says. “I grew up on the Beatles.”
The resulting album — The London Session — culled together older tunes that had never been given the studio treatment and others that called for an update. Why not?
Organically, Umphrey’s has been evolving steadily over the past 18 years. Band members bring in new equipment, adding sounds to their arsenal, and in-the-moment jams (“Jimmy Stewarts”) often lead to future songs and new approaches to the very craft of writing. The band, Bayliss says, is always writing. Their songwriting style has remained rooted in progressive rock, even as their lyrical output has shifted from the fast-paced and goofy (“Got Your Milk (Right Here)”) to the airy and more serious (“Final Word”).
As long as they keep their eyes and ears open, Bayliss says that their improvisatory chemistry lights the path ahead. “The best moments that we have are the surprise moments where we didn’t talk about [what happened onstage] and something fantastic happened,” he says.
Chemistry with the audience plays a role, too. The band has always held onto that fact.
“We’ve always been about fan interaction, because we quickly realized in the beginning that we were playing for the same 20 people every night,” Bayliss says. “So, it’s, OK, if we want to keep these same 20 people and grow, we have to get some honest feedback from them.” He cites the Stew Art series shows, the UMBowl events, and the recent Reel to Real fan-voted setlist as examples of that sort of feedback.
“There’s a delicate balance,” he continues. “I feel some bands don’t pay enough attention, and you’ve got to remember that these are the people who are feeding your children. You want to cater to them. At the same time, if you do too much of that, then you’re not listen to yourself. At the end of the day, the fans aren’t there to listen to themselves.”
Of course. The fans — you — are there to listen to whatever the band is laying down. The turnout for the New Year’s Eve run and the Reel to Real event surely showed the band how much their fans appreciate their growth these past 18 years.
“It was a reminder of how far we’ve come and what we’ve been through,” Bayliss says. “And I think the biggest thing I took from watching the Reel to Real was how much we’ve grown and how bad we used to look. Like, I can’t believe I used to dress the way I used to dress 18 years ago. I thought that my hair was OK, and I went out in public and went onstage looking like that. We’ve grown in so many different ways.”
The band returns to Cleveland Jan. 27, another notch in a storied lineup of terrific House of Blues shows over the years here. And the year ahead in general looks sweet for Umphrey’s.
Bayliss says they’re kicking around plans for “new studio project” this year — but not much more can be said right now. “It’s gonna be different,” he adds.
The band debuted three new songs during New Year’s run — and at least one more since Bayliss spoke with Scene. He says there are still five or six waiting in the offing.
“For me — and for us — it’s about not resting on our laurels and just trying to write the best songs we’ve ever written,” Bayliss says. “I honestly feel like we haven’t done it yet. We’re trying to find new covers and new originals to get into the set, because that’s gonna be our lifeblood.”
Umphrey's McGee with Special Guest Joshua Redman
8 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 27, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $30, houseofblues.com
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