Those eager to partake of Umphrey's McGee's fruitful outpouring during the recording sessions that resulted in 2006's Safety In Numbers can rejoice. On April 3, 2007 the sextet plans to release...Expand
Those eager to partake of Umphrey's McGee's fruitful outpouring during the recording sessions that resulted in 2006's Safety In Numbers can rejoice. On April 3, 2007 the sextet plans to release The Bottom Half, a double-disc of unreleased songs, bonus material and odds and sods that will essentially tell the whole story of those extraordinary sessions.
Upon its release in the spring of 2006, Safety In Numbers, their third studio album, helped Umphrey's McGee attract new waves of attention. The highly anticipated release charted on Billboard's Top 200, peaked high on the Heatseekers Chart, and received a 4 Star review in Blender. Umphrey's sold out shows coast to coast in support of the album, appeared at both Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, and made their late night television debut on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live. Contrary to its name, The Bottom Half is a top-rate sequel to Safety In Numbers. The double album is full of spontaneity and intrigue, fresh ideas, and the kind of dazzling musicianship we have come to expect from Umphrey's. The first disc packs ten recordings that didn't make it onto the initial work, while the second serves up over two-dozen outtakes, alternative versions, dialogue, a cappella recordings, and other offerings designed to sneak glimpses into the band's creative process. As with Safety In Numbers, famed album artist Storm Thorgerson designed the cover of The Bottom Half.
"Originally," says keyboardist Joel Cummins, "Safety was planned as a double album, a set of one electric disc and one acoustic disc. The variety of material spanned genres and styles, tone and content." But that good-humored m.o. changed abruptly when the band lost dear friend and band ally Brian Schultz to a drunk driver on New Year's Eve 2004. Umphreys' songwriting focus shifted to more emotional terrain. The mood of the sessions had changed and so did the band's recording goals. "Because we were going through this emotional period for Safety In Numbers, the songs became heavier and more deeply felt," says guitarist Brendan Bayliss, "and we left the fun, upbeat, more progressive stuff behind." Until now.
The Bottom Half ropes the sessions' surplus and ties it neatly into two capsules. Cummins explains: "The first disc is finished tracks we worked really hard on, songs that could have made it onto Safety. The second disc is excerpts, and more about unfinished material and insight into how the band makes its music." Umphrey's used different songwriting sources as well, including frequent band guest Karl Engelmann ('Bright Lights, Big City') and arranger Jeff Coffin ("The Bottom Half," "Higgins"). The band toured with Bela Fleck on the Acoustic Planet tour and ended up collaborating with the banjo virtuoso on Disc One's "Great American." "We opened it up to other contributors for the first time," Cummins says, "and it really added new dimensions to our sound." Of course, Safety In Numbers already boasted pretty impressive dimensions of its own. "We're all proud of how that disc turned out," says Cummins. "We wanted to focus more on the songs and we felt it was a real achievement from an artistic standpoint." "We had kind of a crazy year and it all came out on that record," adds Jake Cinninger, guitarist and vocalist. "Though it's not all obviously dark, there's kind of a theme that runs through it." That theme along with a cool, hip vibe, permeate the material on The Bottom Half.
In fact, UM has, since forming in the late 90s in the South Bend, Indiana area, cultivated an impressive presence both live and in the studio, quite an accomplished when considering their humble roots. Cummins, Bayliss, bassist Ryan Stasik and original drummer Mike Mirro all studied at the University of Notre Dame near South Bend, Indiana, while percussionist Andy Farag at the South Bend branch of Indiana University. Cinninger, from Michigan, had a South Bend-based band called Ali Baba's Tahini as well as an open invitation to join Umphrey's, which he accepted in the Fall of 2000. His addition, along with Kris Myers" arrival in 2003, proved critical to the band's success. Together, the gifted collective elevated its game. Just a few months after their first gig in 1998, the band released their first album, the cleverly titled live document, Greatest Hits Volume III. Songs for Older Women and One Fat Sucka followed as did their first ever DVD, Live from the Lake Coast. Building a reputation with the critically favored studio recording Local Band Does OK (not to be confused with Local Band Does Oklahoma a live EP released soon after) and honing their groove as a stellar live act, by the time 2004's Anchor Drops was released to raves, the buzz on Umphrey's had grown loud. Rolling Stone tipped them in their Hot Issue and the Washington Post named the band "rock's undisputed lord of sonic shape-shifting." And if you need further convincing, one look at their second DVD-2005's Wrapped Around Chicago: New Year's at the Riv says it all: Umphrey's had arrived.
The jam crowd hoisted the band up on their proverbial shoulders as heroes, heirs to the Phish throne. Fans reveled in Umphrey's flair for inventive improvisation, incredible covers, and unpredictable moments. The band had also developed an uncanny visual language onstage that includes dozens of unspoken cues a happy face, for example, symbolizes a major key, while a sad face indicates a minor one that make their signature "jazz odysseys' and "Jimmy Stewarts" legendary on the jam scene. These cues manage to keep things tight and prevent their improv interludes from spiraling into hippie jam orbit. The band retains space, breath, and patience in performances, yet maintain masterly control in the process.
These days, Umphrey's spends half the year on the road habitually flooring audiences. Their anything-goes musicianship, humor, and good-nature all make remarkable entertainment. The band shuttles between styles with precision, from straight-up pop and rock to jazz, prog-metal, and classical. If you can name it, chances are Umphrey's can play it. To that end, The Bottom Half might just be the best-recorded representation of the band's peripatetic ethos, serving as it does as a kitchen-sink collection. "Overall, even though it's all over the place, I think we've been able to come up with a cohesive vision of what we're trying to do," says Cummins, about the band and the new collection, "which isn't easy for bands that don't play only one style of music. But we often use the studio to find our voice and you can see through that process on The Bottom Half."
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