Depending on how you tell it, the story of Umphrey's McGee could be one of an intensely ambitious band seeking finely calibrated control over its sprawling compositions and free-flowing improvisations, or a selfdeprecating bunch who are eager to poke holes in their sense of importance, and turn the content of their shows over to the fans.
In fact, it's both.
"We try to take the music part of it pretty seriously, and try to take ourselves very un-seriously. That tends to lead to the best results," says keyboardist Joel Cummins, on the phone from the band's home base of Chicago.
This is a band that spends hours listening to its most recent live recordings, looking for areas of improvement and making sure it remains on its game, but was casual enough to wryly title its first studio album "Greatest Hits Vol. III."
Umphrey's McGee, soon to enter its 15th year, has been as creative in its re-imagining of the musician/ fan relationship as it has been in its pursuit of in-the-moment musical discovery. Its six members often use self-created sign language onstage to carefully shape the precise direction of an improvisational excursion, but it whimsically calls its improvs "Jimmy Stewarts" to avoid the plain-old word "jam."
Umphrey's McGee plays the Calvin Theatre here tonight.
On special occasions the band has even invited the audience to send enigmatic text messages meant to inform the direction of an open-ended exploration. (Past fan tips have included "Middle Eastern metal" and "soaring uplifting jam pt. 2.") For its Halloween show this year, it prepared a slew of rarely played covers, in response to an online poll.
"If you have people that are passionate about your music, why not make it a personal thing?" Cummins says of efforts to engage the audience. "It's not something where we want to take a survey with the fans every night and say 'What do you want us to play?' because there needs to be some sort of inherent identity that's pushing forward as well, but I think it's a really fun thing to have them be part of that conversation."
The band - also including guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger, bassist Ryan Stasik, percussionist Andy Farag and drummer Kris Myers - is heavily influenced by 1970' s- vintage progressive rock and jazz fusion, with a healthy taste of hard rock and a millennial sensibility for electronic music mixed in. This comes in the context of the jamband world, where each show is an individual creation in terms of not only the setlist but also the direction any number of songs may take.
Plenty of bands make active use of social media and online tools to give fans a sense of participation, but Umphrey's stands apart in its efforts to invite fans into the creative process.
Four themed sets
An annual event dubbed UMBowl features four themed sets (called "quarters"), including things like the text message exercise as well as a "Choose Your Own Adventure" set that shifts direction based on snap polls.
In this year's incarnation of the event, the band revisited jams from throughout its history, re-contextualizing them in its present voice. The exercise was conceived as a one-time thing, but the band has since found itself revisiting these bits of music in concert.
" Looking back on it six months after the fact, we have three or four different pieces of music we've revisited and played live because we played it at UM Bowl. That's been a fun repercussion that we didn't necessarily anticipate," Cummins explains. "We're not trying to play it note for note. It's definitely more of a framework or an outline; it's something that should still be alive and breathing in the context of what's happening right now."
Yet, Umphrey's doesn't simply walk onstage and pump out a jam. (Excuse me: a Jimmy Stewart.) Building from its members' sharp instrumental chops, it pens complex compositions that leapfrog time signatures and moods, perhaps sidling into an electronicainformed groove from a whiplash- inducing rock intro. The songs are built to stand on their own when necessary.
"I'd like to think that, for the most part, they set each other up," Cummins says of the mix between composition and improvisation in the band's musical project. "We want to have that mix of having some really interesting, complex compositional stuff in the shows, along with some other open-ended and fluid, flowing things happening as well."
That mix has propelled the band from its low-key origins at Notre Dame to status as the group most-often cited as the most popular and artistically successful jam band after Phish.
While Phish still plays large summer sheds and hockey arenas, though, Umphrey's has so far gotten to the point of filling large theatres.
"We've been very fortunate to have kept a very consistent yet evenly paced, upwards trajectory; the result has been a very comfortable and slowmoving ascent for us," Cummins says. "We're really paying attention to detail with the music and we're also really trying to pay attention to detail with the business as well."