Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Jon Ashley
It's the ambivalence that seems to suit Chicago group Umphrey's McGee the best. It's the mixed bag that they enjoy thrusting their hands into, pulling out fistfuls of glitter and honey and all other assortments of stuff they didn't think they were going to pull from the depths. The members of the long-running band, which initially formed on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, in South Bend, Indiana, are the kinds of people who take Sunday drives and let themselves travel those roads blindly, practically begging to get lost.
They leave maps and phones, any kinds of navigational tools behind just so they can meander, zig and zag to wherever their instincts want to take them. If they don't get to somewhere that they recognize in the next three minutes, they'll loop it at the fencepost and head back in the direction of where they started their adventure. What happens next is that those three minutes turn into 10, they get all twisted up in the new course that they've woven and they find that they're having more fun than they could have ever imagined had they stuck to any sort of plan. They keep pushing forward, over another hill, past another pasture - and the scenery's too lovely to ignore.
They find that they're falling in love with their decisions and their digressions, which, if they were to be charted, plotted and mapped out, would appear on paper the way a pile of wet spaghetti noodles would look. Even with and throughout the twists, there are those spots where the road evens out and they come to these clearings, where the ideas thin into one abiding line, a cohesiveness that then goes on to squiggle back out, the nuances and experiments in jazz and jam and funk and blues and 80s soft rock all washing together in a swift flood. Umphrey's is most arresting when it lets it all cave in on itself, when its collective and individually expert chops nimbly suss out where a song is going to go, where it might never think to go on its own. It's this wall of sound, this hodge-podge of abject tastes and influences that makes it as interesting of a musical handyman as there is on the jam circuit today.