Umphrey's McGee, bassist show staying power

URBANA — The rest of the band calls Ryan Stasik "Umphrey's McGee's Cal Ripken."

The bassist and founding member is the Iron Man equivalent of the baseball legend who broke Lou Gehrig's longevity record.

Over 15 years and 120 shows a year, Stasik and his five-string are a constant in Umphrey's McGee, which will play a sold-out show at the Canopy Club in Urbana on Sunday.

"I'm the only one who hasn't missed a gig in 15 years," he said.

Stasik formed the progressive rock band with fellow Notre Dame students in South Bend, Ind. There have been lineup changes, but the current band has six members. The others are Brendan Bayliss, guitar and vocals; Jake Cinninger, ditto; Joel Cummins, keyboards, piano and vocals; Andy Farag, percussion; and Kris Myers, drums and vocals.

The band's enigmatic but catchy name is borrowed from an obscure cousin of Bayliss, Stasik said.

Besides its originals, the band plays lots of Frank Zappa and Yes — even though Stasik grew up on Foreigner, his parents' favorite.

"I listened to whatever 45s they had," he said.

Umphrey's McGee doesn't always hew to the progressive sound.

"We like to cover everything, from old-school country to Muscle Shoals to hip-hop," he said.

The band has a decidedly funky sound, too, and with a jazz-trained drummer, polyrhythmic fills.

But Umphrey's McGee is best known for its improvisations — and is often compared to Phish.

Stasik says the band rarely plays the same song the same way, although a few of the shorter numbers "are great songs just as they are and don't require a jam."

The constant improvisation keeps the bassist from getting bored. Also, it keeps the band supplied with new material.

"We'll jam on a riff live. We tape everything. Later on, I'll listen, maybe I'll hear a melody coming out of this," Stasik said.

Cinninger "records everything with his four-track, and Andy (Farag) makes a lot of beats" on computers, he said. "We have a big pool of songs to pick through. In the studio, you could tell the six of us have our heads in the same space," he said of a recent session that leaned on heavy rock traditions.

The band will play something by Chick Corea and jam on it, he said, both live and in the studio.

"Sometimes the younger ones don't know who Yes are — is. Sometimes they don't even know Nirvana," Stasik said.

At any given show, "we don't know who's the ringleader until it starts."

As an improvisational band, Umphrey's McGee members depend on eye contact to know what direction to go.

That can be a challenge for Stasik, who sometimes plays fretless bass and needs to see where his fingers are.

"We work on it," he says.

The band loves Champaign, he said.

"It's very old school. We feel at ease playing there," Stasik said.

 

If you go

What: Umphrey's McGee

When: 9 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17

Where: The Canopy Club, 708 S. Goodwin Ave., U

Tickets: sold out (Prices were $27.50 in advance)

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