One thing Umphrey's McGee has championed over the years: the fan experience.
From the start, the South Bend, Ind.-based sextet latched on to emerging technologies — the Internet, podcasts, live-streaming options, instant downloads, soundboard-fed headphones at shows (which they've dubbed "Headphones & Snowcones," after one of their songs), a fan-curated "Hall of Fame" recording series, and so on — to spread the word, and to make the whole thing better, for everyone.
It's not exactly altruism, of course; returning fans and extra revenue keep the band afloat. "From the beginning, we realized that we are going to make our living playing live shows and not through CD sales," said guitarist Brendan Bayliss. "It was the same 20 people coming to see us. We realized that without returning customers, we aren't going to have a business in five years."
The band emerged from the Notre Dame music scene in 1998, blending prog-rock, metal, funk, reggae and off-kilter covers. They've since grown into one of the best-known touring acts in the country, with devoted fans descending on every show and twice as many following their progress from their couches at home.
"When we came out in 1998, I had an e-mail address through Notre Dame," Bayliss said. "It was right when the Internet started happening. We figured we could either get on board or get passed by." Even now, they'll regularly convene to discuss the future. "We'll have powwows. We try to anticipate where it's all going to go."
Umphrey's performs twice in our area this week, once at the Klein Auditorium in Bridgeport on Oct. 17 and at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton the following night. If you're curious, sign up for headphones online ($50 rental, plus deposit), then head to the soundboard at the start of the show, and get strapped with a Sennheisser wireless pack and a pair of hi-fi Audio-Technica headphones. Wander around the show, adjust the volume to any level you want, and enjoy. You might be surprised how awesome it all is — and also wonder why more bands aren't doing it. (They will.)
"We'll see kids in the crowd standing next to each other," Bayliss said. "The moments they put [the headphones] on is an 'aha' moment... There's never going to be [another] way for the kids in the crowd to know what it really sounds like, with all the things that come into play that take away from the true sound."
Umphrey's approach to improvisation similarly grew out of the desire to make improvements. In interviews, band members have described it as "exercises in group writing," blurring the lines between composition and free-playing. They'll often agree upon pre-determined structures before launching into a jam and use hand signals and body language to "conduct" on the fly. If you aren't intimately familiar with their music, it can be hard to distinguish what's written and what's not. "We'd be listening to tapes of ourselves in the van, driving from show to show, and we'd say, 'We've just been in A minor for the last 15 minutes'," Bayliss said. "How do we avoid this in the future?"
Enter Frank Zappa, who orchestrated his bands with a series of gestures and facial expressions. "That's where we got it from," Bayliss said. "It was an easy way to get out of a rut." They can get a little complicated, and comical: a half-step forward by the "conducting" band member means "move up a half-step." Rubbing a nipple means, "milk it," or go back to the previous section. Most signals aren't even needed anymore. "I won't know where [other band members] want to go, but I can tell it's time to go," Bayliss said.
Typically Umphrey's talks over the setlist before they go on, leaving certain spots in each set open-ended for improv, but lately, Bayliss said, they've become more spontaneous about structure and cues. "We're talking about things less," he said. "It's just a product of having played together for 15 years. We can read each other's minds at this point."
Charts and drawings used to direct improvisations float around Internet channels, giving fans glimpses into the process. If a particular improv section is successful, the band might grab it for a future composition. It's all grabbable, if it serves the bigger picture. "We have a song called 'In the Kitchen," Bayliss said. "It's one of the more recognizable songs we have. I'd say 60 percent of it came from an improvisation one night... Jake started playing a progression, and I started singing about it being cold in my kitchen. It pretty much sounded like a full composition."
Hardcore fans have caught on to the inter-band communication. And yes, there are plenty of hardcore Umphrey's fans, some with band-related tattoos. That blows Bayliss' mind.
"Honestly, my reaction is: why?" Bayliss said. "It's very flattering. I don't have a tattoo and I don't think I ever would, but that's me. But there have been a couple of the faces of the guys in the band... I don't know how to react to that."
Umphrey's McGee w/ The London Souls
Oct. 17, 8 p.m., $27.50-$30, Klein Memorial Auditorium, 910 Fairfield Ave., Bridgeport, (203) 259-1036, theklein.com;
Oct. 18, 8 p.m., $23.50, Calvin Theatre, 19 King St., Northampton, Mass., (413) 584-1444, iheg.com.