When your entire career soars along with few prolonged breaks, you perfect the ability to mix business with pleasure.
Take Umphrey's McGee. The Chicago band recently celebrated 13 years of finding common ground among jam band-style accessibility, prog rock-level instrumentation and a sense of songcraft devoted to generous doses of pop. But before another busy year of touring, along with final studio sessions for its next album, the band headed to Mexico. It took along a pair of compadre groove troupes — Disco Biscuits and Sound Tribe Sector 9 — and played a mini festival along the white sands of the Mayan Riviera, 20 miles south of Cancun.
Technically, it was work. But the scenery sure beat Chicago this time of year.
"While we were there, I think it was minus-2 degrees in Chicago," said Umphrey's McGee co-guitarist, co-founder and co-vocalist, Brendan Bayliss. "The stage was set up 20 feet from the ocean. It was ridiculous."
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The recordings of those Mexico shows — you can find them on UMlive.net, along with a library full of legally downloadable performances by the band — certifies a level of invention to which most jam bands don't even aspire. Highlights include a Spanish interpretation of the concert favorite In the Kitchen and a playful but unanticipated cover of Snoop Dogg's Ain't No Fun.
But the real fun came on the festival's final evening, with 12½ minutes of All Things Ninja. It's one of Umphrey's McGee's earliest works, but it has mutated over the years into a soundscape of abstract ambience, chunky guitar dialogue and jazzy interludes propelled by Rhodes piano. In essence, it's an old tune turned new again.
"There was this band out of Cincinnati called Ray's Music Exchange that we used to open for," Bayliss said. "I remember being so impressed by them that I went home one night and tried to write something evil and dark, something with a lot of dissonance that embraced the same kind of music they were doing. Really, we just wanted to have a piece of music for the next time we played with them that they would like.
"We've put that song down so many times that when we pick it up again, we always do something different with it."
Before All Things Ninja, and before the band's 1998 debut album, Greatest Hits Vol. III, Bayliss and future Umphrey's McGee bandmates Joel Cummins (keyboards) and Ryan Stasik (bass) were students at Notre Dame. Bayliss was studying English and philosophy, or as he calls them, "deep thoughts about unemployment."
"I was a senior in college when the band started. We did shows for fun and beer money — well, that and the fact there was nothing else going on in South Bend, Ind."
In subsequent years, Umphrey's McGee, which eventually expanded to a sextet with percussionist Andy Farag, drummer Kris Myers and second guitarist Jake Cinninger, became a jam band logistically more than artistically. A devout Internet following helped to spread the word of concerts loaded with lengthy improvisational instrumentation. But the sounds, styles and inspirations that went into that music were removed from what new- generation jam bands, including Phish, were generating in the late '90s.
"First for me when I was about 14 or 15 was The Beatles' songwriting," Bayliss said. "The second big inspiration was (Led) Zeppelin. Jimmy Page practically taught me how to play guitar. I remember getting into Guns N' Roses at the time, too. Then once I got really serious, I started getting into jazz and people like Stanley Jordan (known for pioneering a style of playing multiple melodies simultaneously). That's when I discovered a whole different world of playing."
The explorations didn't stop there. On Umphrey's McGee's most recent album, 2009's Mantis, we multiple musical worlds collide. The mingling of guitar and keyboards suggests Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The times when guitar goes it alone to crank things up hints at present-day prog champs like Porcupine Tree. But there remains that generous pop spirit. At times, the melodies move and melt in a way that bring the psychedelic work of The Beatles to mind, while the vocals reflect an arsenal of unexpected inspirations, most notably Joe Jackson.
"It's the most involved and finished recording we've made," Bayliss said. "Usually, we haven't been able to set aside more than 10 days to finish a record. This was the first time we didn't have a deadline. But I think we're going to head in a simpler direction on this next one. We got out our progressive outfit and hat for Mantis. Now we're going to simplify. We never like doing the same thing back to back."