Putting Some Umph into It | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

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Putting Some Umph into It

For the last ten years that the Grateful Dead hauled its gypsy-rock caravan across America — that golden decade of 1985 to 1995 — the band was the highest-grossing touring act in the country, outselling pop superstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna. After head Deadhead Jerry Garcia went the way of Casey Jones, Vermont quartet Phish filled the pied-piper role. It didn't do too badly either; before calling it quits last year, Phish had the 15th most lucrative U.S. tour, right behind the Rolling Stones. The band grossed more than $38 million in 2003 — more than a million bucks per show over a 28-city run. That's a lot of veggie burritos.

Factor in national festivals that bring in hundreds of thousands of fans annually — Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, the revived Lollapalooza, plus local events like Langerado and Jamcruise — and it's obvious that there's a mint to be made from hippie kids with disposable income. So when you hear hallowed talk of "the next Phish," it's not just nitrous-huffing underclassmen tallying their wish lists. It's also revenue-hungry execs at Clear Channel, Monterey Peninsula Artists, and other music-industry megaliths talking pure dollars and cents.

"That's a really unfair pressure and an unfair comparison," says Ryan Stasik, bassist for Chicago prog-rockers Umphrey's McGee, who pull into Revolution on Thursday, October 20. "I'll be perfectly honest with you: We really don't think about that." Of all the improv-happy, hard-touring bands to emerge in the post-Phish era, his is mentioned most often as heir to the throne. The hoopla really picked up last year, when Rolling Stone proclaimed Umphrey's "the odds-on favorites in the next-Phish sweepstakes." Much buzz surrounded their most recent release, Anchor Drops, a dizzying, dissonant, surprisingly listener-friendly blend of complex chord changes, pressure-cooker instrumentals, vocal harmonies, and oblique lyrics.

"I don't think that affects anybody or changes our musical direction or the way we've approached what we do," Stasik says of the media attention. "We've always done it the same way, from the grassroots and word of mouth, and we've always just made music from our hearts that's intense, that's progressive. We just ride the wave, and whatever happens, happens. We don't really look into being like, 'We want to have this title, we want to have this sort of following. '"

But it's not just the media's need for a story that drives the hype. Without Phish, the rudderless jam-band nation needs a captain to follow (preferably one that unspools 15-minute guitar solos with a pupil-popping light show). Or does it?

"There's never gonna be anything to compare to that anyway," Stasik says of the Phish phenomenon. "And if there is, it's gonna be something completely different."

The truth is, although corporate financial priorities favor a single successor, it's hard to imagine any of today's crop of improv bands rising to the top of the heap. Which is ultimately a good thing. While pop music is all about homogeneity and overinflated, undertalented starmaking, the improv scene has become a breeding ground for diversity and a place for artists' direct connection with fans. Why else would freestyle acts like Umphrey's, Sound Tribe Sector 9, Ween, and Medeski Martin, and Wood play a hundred shows a year? Many of these bands have a strong enough following to maintain a flourishing scene at a rather comfortable level. And since none of them possesses the commercial appeal — or, it seems, the desire — to blow up on a huge national level, they're happy to reach as many people as they can while staying true to their DIY roots. For Stasik, that means plying the schizoid, chameleonic rock that his band is getting famous for.

"We're so young, and there's so many things we wanna accomplish as far as records, as far as live show themes and stuff like that," he says. "That's one of the things I'm really proud of, is that we try to excel in most genres. This word gets used even more than the 'jamming' thing: We're very ADD. We really are. We jump from one thing to another. It's like the way kids are today — they channel-surf, play video games, and they don't even listen to a whole CD from beginning to end. They jump around. We like to do a little of everything so it's not just one formula that gets boring and monotonous."

And even if not having a formula is a formula in itself — one that can get boring and monotonous to hook-hungry, ADD listeners — it's gotten the five guys of Umphrey's where they want to be. "We hope that people come out with an open mind and just listen, and if our humor and the characteristics of the people in our band grab people and it's likable, join the family," he continues. "The more the merrier. If not, see a show or see how it is, but nobody's looking to progress into world domination.

"When you say jam bands and that kind of thing, there's metal bands and progressive death-metal bands that've been doing it for years but just have a different following. They go about the same process of making music and touring and doing the same thing. Metallica, until they really went commercial with the Black Album, did the same thing. They have nine-minute metal tunes, and they have a loyal following, but it's never compared to the Dead or Phish because it's a different scene."

And that's exactly the point — sizing up the next big thing in this amorphous improv realm is absurd. The next Phish? Hell, Umphrey's McGee has you in its sights, Lars.