On stage, they have always felt brave, assured about where the music would go. But during the recording of their latest album, Anchor Drops, the guys of Umphrey's McGee were scared. It was the first time the band tried to translate its free-wheeling live show to the studio.
"It was nerve-wracking," says lead vocalist-guitarist Brendan Bayliss, who's calling from South Bend, Ind. "Being a live band, we're used to an immediate response, and you don't get that in the studio. You just trust each other and your gut."
The prog rock group has garnered favorable reviews for Anchor Drops, which came out last year. Indeed, all the fussing and second-guessing in the studio paid off. The CD is well-crafted and, despite the absence of an enthusiastic audience, still retains the feel of one of Umphrey's live shows. They perform at the Recher Theatre tonight and tomorrow night.
"It's pretty much a representation of the direction we're going in," Bayliss says. "This is our first studio experience where we can overdub and correct things. But we're definitely not a studio band."
Combining Frank Zappa-like rock, Steely Dan-influenced deftness and Pearl Jam-inspired energy solidified the sextet's respected reputation on the national progressive rock scene. Bayliss and his band mates -- keyboardist Joel Cummins, bassist Ryan Stasik, percussionist Andy Farag, guitarist Jake Cinninger and drummer Kris Myers -- concoct sprawling mini rock epics on Anchor Drops. But the music doesn't overwhelm you, and it's all amazingly accessible -- a testament to each member's sharp skills.
Bayliss says, "The major problem with the [progressive rock] scene is a lack of song [structure]. We get off on having the freedom to do whatever the hell we want. But we want to cover all the bases, but do it where it makes sense."
Each member of Umphrey's McGee (the band was named after one of Bayliss' older cousins from Mississippi) has an affinity for different styles. And all are reflected in the band's overall sound. Influences range from Cat Stevens to Led Zeppelin. From time to time, the spirit of Miles Davis and John Coltrane can be felt in the mix. But make no mistake: Umphrey's McGee is a rock band -- aggressive and charged.
The playing throughout Anchor Drops, whose title refers to the group feeling more musically grounded these days, is precise but never antiseptic. At times, the musicians noodle a bit too long. But the instrumentation, for the most part, feels inspired, the arrangements complex and interesting. "We try to make the music very dense," Bayliss says. "There are six people pulling in a lot of directions, so you're gonna get a lot of energy."
The band mates met in the mid-'90s while studying at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend. The musicians had been playing in various campus bands before forming in 1997. Soon afterward, Umphrey's recorded its debut, Greatest Hits, Vol. III. Although the album didn't generate much buzz outside the South Bend area, word about the band's live act continued to spread. In 2000, the guys moved to Chicago. From there, the group picked up gigs throughout the Midwest, occasionally hitting other markets and netting a sizable underground along the way.
With the addition of Cinninger in 2000, the band included guitar pyrotechnics in its show. The songwriting improved. And subsequent Umphrey's albums, all released independently (Songs for Older Women, One Fat Sucka and Local Band Does OK) sold well. In 2003, the band issued its first DVD, Live From the Lake Coast.
Bayliss says the band is grateful for the warm reception of Anchor Drops. But collectively the group isn't satisfied. With so much music among them, the band members are always restless. There's always a new direction.
"We're not a studio band, so this isn't our best," Bayliss says of the acclaimed album. "We still have more to say."
See Umphrey's McGee at the Recher Theatre, 512 York Road in Towson, tonight and tomorrow night at 8. Tickets are $15 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting www.ticket master.com.