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Umphrey’s unique rock back in South Bend

Maddie Hanna | Friday, September 8, 2006

With first-home-game hype luring tens of thousands to Notre Dame this weekend, it’s easy to label Umphrey’s McGee’s concert tonight in South Bend a local band’s well-timed homecoming.

Which it is, of course, since the jam-prog rock band – two of its six members were raised in the Michiana area and four are Notre Dame grads – got its start in late 1997 and was soon playing gigs on and off campus.

But it’s more than that. This isn’t the Umphrey’s of 1998, or even the Umphrey’s of 2004. Like its music, the band is constantly evolving.

“I think a lot of it is choosing our spots and being more dynamic,” keyboardist and vocalist Joel Cummins said. “Our live show has a tendency to be a fun party vibe – and it’s cool, we’re into that. But we want to develop our personalities.”

Tonight’s Umphrey’s is a band coming off its third – and strongest – studio effort, the 2006 “Safety in Numbers.” In August, the album hit No. 186 on Billboard’s Top 200 – not exactly common for groups in the jam band vein, who draw the vast majority of their support from live show devotees.

Tonight’s Umphrey’s is a band propelled by a recent wave of critical acclaim. Since appearing in Rolling Stone’s 2004 Hot Issue, the sextet has won raves for both “Safety in Numbers” and its groove-charged shows, where improv is second nature. (“If somebody’s hot and really taking it, [we] let them stretch out a bit,” Cummins explained.)

Tonight’s Umphrey’s, however, is also a band still coming to terms with the death of a close friend.

Brian Schultz, a 1998 Notre Dame graduate, was leaving Umphrey’s New Year’s Eve 2004 concert when a drunk driver struck his cab.

Schultz, Cummins said, was “somebody whose presence makes you want to be a better person.” The accident was a “thoughtless tragedy” no one expected to happen.

“But it did, and life goes on.”

For Umphrey’s, life took shape in “Safety in Numbers.” The album has a noticeably more serious tone than 2002’s “Local Band Does O.K.” or 2004’s “Anchor Drops.”

“It’s definitely a very personal, time capsule sort of thing,” Cummins said. “It felt right to make an album like this.”

Cummins was the driving force behind “Words,” a richly retrospective song with lines like “Your words occur to me sometimes/line the reasons why we’re here.”

“We try to not let the emotion overwhelm us” on stage, Cummins said. “I obviously have to keep it together when I’m up there playing. It’s definitely challenging. … This guy was probably my best friend outside of the band.”

Best friend outside the band – because inside the band, they’re best friends too. Cummins met then-drummer Mike Mirro, guitarist and vocalist Brendan Bayliss (son of Irish men’s tennis coach Bobby Bayliss) and bassist Ryan Stasik when they were undergrads at Notre Dame.

The four all had different bands, Cummins said, but found each other relatively quickly, thanks to the less-than-vibrant Notre Dame music scene.

“It’s not too cool to play music at Notre Dame, you know?” Cummins said. “It’s better to play sports.”

After a series of late night jam sessions at Cummins’ apartment in College Park, the guys decided to give it a shot. The first gig was at former student bar Bridget McGuire’s on Jan. 21, 1998 – which, coincidentally, got busted that weekend, Cummins said.

“That Saturday night, we were down at Lafayette Square and saw people just running,” he laughed.

As word of mouth spread, Umphrey’s began playing shows at the Stepan Center, Morris Performing Arts Center, State Theater, St. Patrick’s Park and Mishawaka Brewing Co. Some band members graduated, but others were still in school, which Cummins said “ended up being a good thing.”

“I remember once having $135-a-month rent,” he said. “We were generally able to do OK, just playing shows.”

In summer of 2000, Umphrey’s moved to Chicago, and the national touring began. The word of mouth that nudged the band into the Bend exposed it to a much larger audience. Cummins credits much of Umphrey’s success to the Internet and the “copies and copies” of live shows spread by band members and fans.

Now, a more seasoned Umphrey’s – which now includes guitarist and vocalist Jake Cinninger, percussionist Andy Farag and drummer Kris Myers – is coming off of a successful tour to Europe and Japan, as well as prime slots at Lollapalooza and Dave Matthews Band shows. Rolling Stone went as far as to dub the guys “odds-on favorites in the next-Phish sweepstakes,” a categorization that Cummins considers “for the most part, definitely an honor.”

“We look at it as a positive thing – they’re one of the greatest bands out there,” he said. “It definitely makes sense for our attitude toward music, our influences … But you know, music is a hard thing to categorize.”

And Umphrey’s – whose influences range from Frank Zappa to metal of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, to country and classical – certainly doesn’t fit neatly into any musical mold.

Which is fine by Cummins. With “cookie-cutter” music, he said, “you kind of lose being in the moment and creating something.

“In the moment – that’s the real important thing for us.”

Umphrey’s McGee plays tonight at the Robert J. Fischgrund Center for Performing Arts at St. Patrick’s County Park. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and the concert begins at 7:30. Tickets are $25 and on sale through Umphrey’s Ticketing, www.umphreys.com

The all-ages show is a benefit for Hannah and Friends.