Umphrey’s McGee ready to jam in Boston

BMS talks with lead singer and guitarist Brendan Bayliss

, Staff Writer

Fresh from two stellar performances over the holiday weekend at the Rothbury music festival, Umphrey’s McGee bring their unique combination of jazz, prog, rock, and straight up jamming to Boston for what is bound to be a satisfying evening for all those in attendance at the Bank of America Pavilion on Tuesday night.

Lead singer and guitarist Brendan Bayliss was kind enough to speak with us about the life of a band that has made its mark with constant touring, long, exploratory songs, and a devoted following.

Boston Music Spotlight (BMS): Regarding Rothbury, Is there a difference between performing at a usual venue and performing at a festival?

Brendan Bayliss (BB): We didn’t get a chance to play Rothbury last year, and that was one of the only gigs we really had regretted not doing. There’s definitely a difference – the crowds, the timeslot, what stage you’re at…typically we’re given three hours to fill at club show, whereas, at a festival, you have less time. But want to get as much [playing] in, so you kinda have to pick songs differently, play for people who have never seen you before.& The club show is usually more of your fans.

BMS: What would you want a fan who has never seen Umphrey’s McGee to take away first from the performance?

BB: I want someone to come with an open mind. They might have some assumptions that aren’t correct. I’d like them to take away, and [have them leave] pleasantly surprised that they saw a band not very stereotypical of the genre.

BMS: When going through a Jimmy Stewart, is it hard to strike a balance between the spontaneous sound of improv and the notion of songwriting in front of a live audience? [An Umphrey’s McGee jam is known as a “Jimmy Stewart”, and is different from strict improvisation in that the band is continually in a sort of “active songwriting” mode, fleshing out melodies and generally allowing a musical form to develop]

BB: It is tough to find the middle ground, yeah. Sometimes when a good [Jimmy] happens, it can kinda be where you almost don’t need it, like at the end of the night – curfew’s in 15 minutes, we start one that’s great, and it sucks cause you literally get the plug pulled. Sometimes you try to do one and you have the whole night to play and it’s just not there.& It’s just the nature of the beast. You wanna keep it spontaneous, cause that’s where you can hear the honesty, and really good things will happen. If you’re trying to force it, it’s just a coin toss each time – it could be really bad or it could be something you’re happy with.

BMS: Is there still room for aimless noodling in an Umphrey’s set?

BB: We try not to – we want to be concise and to the point. Noodling doesn’t interest me, or any of the guys, really. Comping and letting a guy solo, we could do that for a long time, but just meandering about, like, with our eyes closed, trying to find magic, that’s not how we do it. Maybe to some people it sounds like noodling, but we try to be more direct.
Before “Jimmy Stewart”, we tried to do the ESP thing, listen to shows in our van driving to the next gig, “What were you thinking there…we were in a minor for 45 minutes, let’s try to get out of there”. So the next step was, if we developed hand signals, we could use visual cues to navigate out of mediocrity.

BMS: Do you listen to many of your recordings?

BB: We do try to listen when something kind of obviously worth mentioning happens during a show. We’ll walk off and someone will mention it, and we kinda all know it was something that was worth repeating. And some nights we’ll know that there was nothing good, and we won’t bother.

BMS: Does the region you’re playing in have any effect on the setlist for the night?

BB: If we’re in the Midwest, usually we have to be a little more creative, since we’ve played around there more often. Whereas we don’t get to Arizona or New Mexico that often, so if we’re there it can be a wide-open pallet, you know? You have to be careful in places you’ve been frequently, make sure you’re not doing the same thing.

BMS: Phish’s reunion tour has done well to stoke new interest in the genre – has this played out for Umphrey’s McGee in terms of concert attendance?

BB: We haven’t been playing that much since we got back, but in my mind I thought it was a good thing for the whole music scene – it just brings more attention to it, makes things a little more interesting, maybe kinda revitalizes people who were jaded and stopped caring.& I think it’s nothing but positive things, unless you’re playing across the street… But we haven’t been playing enough for me to see the difference yet. By the end of the summer we’ll be able to answer that for you.

BMS: Umphrey’s McGee usually will showcase new songs in a live setting before recording them in the studio. For your newest album, Mantis, most of the songs were recorded without being performed live. Did this affect the creative process at all?

BB: It didn’t really affect anything – we just all took a collective leap of faith. We figured we were due at this point to try and do something like that, to have a whole new project, so I don’t think it affects much – when you play things live, you get to see what works and what doesn’t work, so you& kinda self-edit, whereas with this you don’t really know. I don’t think it changes the writing process…Maybe the editing process, refining the songs, but I don’t think it changes the fundamental writing process.

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