By Michael Lester
Umphrey’s McGee formed on the campus of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., nearly 17 years ago. But it was during a drunken, post-wedding, early-morning, tux-wearing jam session in a hotel ballroom in Pittsburgh back in 2001 where the band truly began to cultivate the brand of improvisational prog rock its known for today.
Band members were celebrating the nuptials that weekend of their Notre Dame friend Jeremy Welsh. After playing Welsh’s wedding reception, the band decided to extend the party inside the Pittsburgh Renaissance Hotel’s Jimmy Stewart Ballroom, named after the Pennsylvania-born actor of “It’s a Wonderful Life” fame, into the wee hours of the morning, recalled UM bassist Ryan Stasik, a Pittsburgh native and founding member of the band.
“We were still in our tuxes,” Stasik, who turns 38 next month, recalled with a laugh. “Everybody was pretty hammered. I think we filmed it. We improvised for four hours.”
Stasik, who became a first-time father 15 months ago to daughter Amelia with wife Mary Welch Fox Stasik, admittedly could not remember if hotel security ever paid a visit to the Jimmy Stewart Ballroom during that early-morning jam session.
“I was so drunk. I don’t even remember,” Stasik said. “Security could have come in at 5 or 6 in the morning. I really don’t remember.”
But he did acknowledge that the ballroom in that hotel of his hometown unquestionably spawned the band’s free-form “Jimmy Stewarts,” the unpredictable and unscripted instrumental free-for-alls that have become the unplanned musical staple of each and every UM show.
“We didn’t have a lot of original tunes at the time,” Stasik recalled of the Jimmy Stewart session. “We decided that night that this was the type of band we wanted to be. We wanted to work on improvisational stuff. That’s kind of how it started. A ‘Jimmy Stewart’ is nothing more than our code word or slang term for free improvisation.”
Umphrey’s McGee will lay down a “Jimmy Stewart” Thursday, Oct. 30 when it visits the F.M. Kirby Center for its first-ever performance at the downtown Wilkes-Barre, Pa., venue. Dopapod, an improvisational electronic band influenced by jazz, the Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa, opens that night for UM.
Like most bands, UM prepares a setlist for each of its shows. But written into each night’s playlist is an improv “Jimmy Stewart” segment, during which someone from the irreverent band of intellectuals ― they’re not sure who until they reach that point of the show ― directs the sextet in an improv jam that may or may not include vocals, Stasik explained.
“We don’t know what it’s gonna be. We try to plan when is the best time. We don’t like to play a long time without vocals,” Stasik said during a recent phone interview as the band was preparing for a private gig at a small college in Richmond, Va.
On any given night, the band leader is spontaneously anointed through a series of hand signals from UM’s extensive playbook rivaling that of a pro baseball or football team, explained Stasik, a rabid fan of Pittsburgh’s Pirates, Steelers and Penguins, who “bleeds black and gold.”
“There are so many,” Stasik said, referring to the gestures. “We use motioning guitars. Smiles. Winks. We use letter signals. Anything you can think of musically, we have a cue for. It really is like a playbook. People have made T-shirts. If we rub our nipples, it means we’re going to milk it, a la Frank Zappa. It allows everybody (in the band) to be a conductor or a leader.”
On any given night, the band’s musical leadership falls to Stasik, guitar-vocalists Brendan Bayliss or Jake Cinninger, or keyboardist Joel Cummins, Stasik explained.
“It really depends on who’s feeling it among the four of us at the front of the stage,” Stasik said. “It’s just like any night on the football field: ‘Who’s feeling it? Who wants the ball? Who’s got the hot hand?’”
It’s that foursome who’s front and center, allowing the band to communicate effectively with drummer Kris Myers or percussionist Andy Farag to the rear of the stage, Stasik explained.
In addition to its quirkily named catalog of originals, Umphrey’s is perhaps best known for its eclectic catalog of live covers by artists ranging from Steely Dan, Toto and Bruce Springsteen to Led Zeppelin, Rob Zombie and Iron Maiden.
“Definitely, everybody tries to bring new covers to the table. We probably know 300 to 500 covers,” Stasik estimated. “I’ve definitely asked and pushed to do some of the heavier stuff ― Tool, Iron Maiden. Tool is maybe my favorite band in the world right now. We like to keep stuff relevant.”
Just don’t expect Stasik to provide vocals for any of these covers ― or UM originals for that matter. Umphrey’s website kiddingly notes that Stasik has no involvement in the band’s vocals.
“There’s a lot of jest and shit-talking in this band,” Stasik said. “We kind of made it a joke. I used to sing when Brendan and I were in our first band. I’m not very good. Long-time inside jokes!”
Stasik was born in Pittsburgh and grew up playing ice hockey and baseball in the Steel City. His father’s job routed the family to Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1988, and he eventually wound up at Notre Dame, where he met Bayliss and other eventual members of the band to form UM.
Stasik originally enrolled as a pre-med student at Notre Dame. But that didn’t work out so well, he said.
“I thought I had everything figured out when I was 18,” Stasik recalled. “I was going to be a neurosurgeon or orthopedist. I didn’t do very well in pre-med. I was playing a lot more music and not going to class.”
So Stasik changed his major to marketing and Japanese, fascinated by the Japanese culture he had learned about from his World War II veteran grandfather.
It just so happened the music gig turned out pretty well for Stasik and the rest of the UM guys.
So what’s with the name Umphrey’s Mcgee? The origin of the name fueled by alcohol too.
The band was preparing for a gig back in their college days, performing as Fat Tony in South Bend, and they gravitated toward a “dangerous” Long Island iced tea slushy machine at a local, now defunct bar, Club 23, Stasik recalled.
They were scheduled to perform in a few hours and decided Fat Tony wasn’t working. Bayliss drunkenly floated the name of his second cousin, Mississippi lawyer Humphreys McGee ― with a silent H ― Stasik recalled.
And a newly named band was born.
“That’s what happens when you’re sitting around drunk and have a gig in the next few hours,” Stasik said.