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Former student band gains popularity

Observer Scene | Thursday, March 2, 2006

Notre Dame is not exactly known for its music scene. With limited local venues besides AcoustiCafe for campus bands to play, most fade away by graduation. But that was never the case for Umphrey’s McGee, an exceedingly popular rock band that formed at Notre Dame in December of 1997.

Led on vocals and guitar by Brendan Bayliss – the son of longtime men’s tennis coach Bobby Bayliss – Umphrey’s McGee has certainly evolved. The group once known for headlining downtown South Bend’s State Theater and Mishawaka pubs became a rock band that has headlined the Bonnaroo Music Festival, played with Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead and released 2004’s “Anchor Drops,” a critically acclaimed studio album that featured the Jammy Award winning song “In the Kitchen.” To say that Umphrey’s McGee has solidified itself as one of the best bands to emerge from Notre Dame in decades is an understatement.

The band’s new album, “Safety In Numbers,” is a tour de force. Songs like “Passing,” which evokes a plethora of images of both loss and life, propel the collection of 11 songs into each listener’s psyche. No longer just a “jam-band” that hooks listeners with its dynamic live shows, Umphrey’s McGee has obviously invested itself in the studio creation of its songs as sonic structures built upon more than three-chords, verse and melody. All six members of the band, from keyboardist Joel Cummins to drummer Kris Myers, leave their own marks on each song – allowing the album to have a complex tone yet approachable accessibility.

Produced by the band and its longtime live sound coordinator Kevin Browning (of the Browning cinema family), “Safety In Numbers” is ambitious from start to finish. It moves beyond Umphrey’s McGee’s muscular live rock performance into intimate acoustic numbers surrounded by an eclectic euphony of guitar effects, soaring vocals and passionate band interplay.

More King Crimson, Beck and Allman Brothers than Phish, Umphrey’s McGee is pushing the jam-band genre into a new direction that deviates from its comfortable Deadhead past. The band can jam for hours on end – for proof listen to its recent live DVD release “Wrapped Around Chicago: New Years at the Riv” – but it can also contain itself to a point that is about the simple relationship between the words of Bayliss and the intelligent riffs of lead guitarist Jake Cinninger.

The album begins with the meandering rock song “Believe the Lie,” featuring Bayliss emotionally singing about the plastic nature of modern society where “If you believe in every lie / You’re never free to walk away.” That track segues into the richly introspective acoustic song “Rocker,” a song in memory of the life of the band’s friend Brian Schultz, who was killed by a drunk driver a year ago.

Umphrey’s McGee has been touring constantly since its members graduated from Notre Dame in the late 1990s. Just a few months after the group’s first gig in 1998, the band released its own CD, the cleverly titled live album “Greatest Hits, Volume III.” The group’s first major studio album, “Local Band Does OK,” won Umphrey’s the raves of rock critics across the country. It is understandable why Rolling Stone magazine calls Umphrey’s McGee “the leading contenders for Phish’s jam-smeared crown.” The band’s music has an indelible energy that has infected listeners from South Bend to Amsterdam.

“Safety In Numbers” has a decidedly inward approach to its subject matter, most notably on “Rocker” and the powerful “Words.” At first listen, one may think that Umphrey’s McGee makes each song too much of a labyrinth, with crescendos hidden among melodies and sporadic notes. “Safety In Numbers” features a guest performance by sax sensation Joshua Redman and even a cameo by veteran rocker Huey Lewis on the upbeat anthem “Women, Wine and Song.”

If listeners love music that takes chances, has the spirit of Frank Zappa and builds harmonies upon crunching guitar solos and passionate lyricism, then Umphrey’s McGee’s “Safety In Numbers” should undoubtedly be in their collection.