Jake Cinninger (left) and Brendan Bayliss’ guitar partnership began shortly after Bayliss sought out Cinninger for guitar lessons. “He was the guy—the best guitar player in the region,” Bayliss says.

The secret prog-rock band’s guitar duo doubles down on their radical sounds and makes a fearless, recombinant new album, it’s not us.

Fortunately for Umphrey’s McGee fans, Brendan Bayliss is not easily deterred.

When the guitarist, singer, and founding member of the band tried to get into the University of Notre Dame’s music program, the program’s director was less than enthusiastic. As Bayliss recalls, these were the director’s words: “You can’t read music. You have no formal training. What you’re trying to do is like me trying out for the Cincinnati Reds. You’ll never have a career in music. Go somewhere else.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Umphrey’s McGee—one of the top-drawing acts on the thriving jam-band circuit, with 11 studio albums and more than 2,200 shows under their belt—and it’s apparent Bayliss was wise to take those words with a grain of salt. Along his self-styled path to musical enlightenment, Bayliss sought out lessons from one of the top guitarists in the South Bend, Indiana, area: Jake Cinninger. Little did he know that Cinninger would join Umphrey’s ranks two-and-a-half years later.

Bayliss and Cinninger have coalesced into an impressive dual-guitar team, and—with the help of bassist Ryan Stasik, drummer Kris Myers, percussionist Andy Farag, and keyboardist Joel Cummins—they interweave myriad sonic ingredients into a genre-defying stew that’s still evolving. In fact, though the term “jam band” might be accurate to describe their milieu, audience, and penchant for improvisation, it doesn’t fully capture the band’s essence. Elements of prog, blues, jazz, funk and math rock—even heavy metal—inform Umphrey’s McGee’s sound. And though they’re willing to let things get pretty chaotic as they explore the outer edges of improvisatory mayhem, for the most part, there’s a lot more precision involved in their music than the term “jam band” typically connotes.

“Jimmy Page probably taught me more than any single guy. Obviously, you get the blues, but you also get the acoustic stuff, the open tuning stuff, the slide guitar stuff.” —Brendan Bayliss

The band’s voracious appetite for a wide variety of styles is evident on their latest album, it’s not us. “It represents the band, because it basically runs the gamut from prog-rock to dance,” Bayliss says in the press release. “We’ve mastered our ADD here. The record really shows that.”

Lead track “The Silent Type” is a catchy, concise, radio-friendly rocker, with Bayliss delivering a cautionary tale about poor decision-making. “Looks,” a Cinninger tune, starts out with a heavy funk-rock groove, but ventures into proggier territory courtesy of Cummins’ vintage-sounding synth interlude and Cinninger’s dissonant, angular solo. “Whistle Kids” is Bayliss’ ode to the joys of negotiating fatherhood with a hangover, and it features a delightful laid-back groove and some of Cinninger’s tastiest guitar work on the album. (Cinninger handles most of the lead guitar work in the band, though Bayliss is a fine instrumentalist himself.)

Things start to venture into the prog/math-rock world on the odd-meter “Maybe Someday,” with Cinninger channeling his inner Eddie Van Halen near the song’s end. The band’s tendency to indulge a hodgepodge of influences is most evident on “Remind Me,” which starts off as a funky roots-rocker before taking a series of left turns: first to a frenzy of feedback and noise, then to a metal-style freak-out featuring double-bass-drum-pedal propulsion and searing guitarmonies.

Other highlights include the sweet acoustic ballad “You & You Alone,” a love song Bayliss wrote for his wife; the jazz-funk workout “Speak Up,” featuring legendary jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, who frequently sits in with the band; and “Dark Brush,” in which Cinninger gets to fully indulge his metal tendencies.

TIDBIT: Bayliss says that Umphrey’s McGee’s new album, the group’s 11th studio recording, “Represents the band, because it basically runs the gamut from prog-rock to dance. We’ve mastered our ADD here.”

Premier Guitar recently spoke with Bayliss and Cinninger, who discussed the new album, their unique approach to improvisation, and their cutting-edge methods for enriching the audience experience.

The lead track of the new album, “The Silent Type,” is a solid, concise radio-rock tune. It’s three-and-a-half minutes, no jam—not necessarily what people expect from Umphrey’s McGee.
Brendan Bayliss:
It’s kind of an introduction. If you haven’t heard us, this is right down the middle.

There’ a cool octave part on that song.
I’m doing a clean octave with a delay. I’m doing one on the left side. And then the one on the right is behind it by one or two beats. So it sounds kind of like a delay effect, but it’s really just two separate parts, split.

Jake, on the solo toward the end of “Looks,” it almost reminds me of Mahavishnu Orchestra-era John McLaughlin. Lots of dissonance and chromaticism.
Jake Cinninger:
Yep. There was a lot of angular triad stuff. Sort of that Adrian Belew atonal quality. I just love Adrian’s playing. He’s a good buddy of ours and has toured with us quite a few times, and he’s done quite a few sit-ins with us.

I really like your playing on “Whistle Kids,” too. That’s some of my favorite guitar on the album, because I love that laid-back behind-the-beat feel.
It’s the New Orleans swamp guitar kind of vibe. What I’m doing is plucking almost behind the bridge pickup really hard, to get all that tension on the note, which is almost a Dick Dale thing. And then playing really behind the beat, so the notes are dripping behind the drums.

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A Southern-music original returns to his Tennessee birthplace—and his sanity—to capture his own bold vision of blues and rock with his new trio’s roaring debut, Let It Slide.

The term “the blues” can mean several things: a style of music, a sense of being downtrodden or neglected, a feeling of melancholy or impending doom. Mark “Porkchop” Holder is intimately familiar with all three of these definitions—perhaps more than he would like to be—but that serves him well on the debut album with his new band MPH, Let It Slide.

In fact, Holder has soldiered through such a mean case of the blues that the very existence of Let It Slide, which is credited only to him on its cover, is something of a miracle. Just a few years ago, Holder, who is open about his struggles with mental illness and addiction, spent roughly a year living in the woods of Northern California in an RV with no electricity or running water, feeling too paranoid to interact with anyone.

But after some months in a psychiatric hospital regaining his bearings, Holder reemerged, revitalized and ready to bring his music to the world again. In April 2016, he began to record Let It Slide, and the results were so powerful that a few months later he signed a deal with Alive Naturalsound Records, a respected independent label that’s been home to a wide range of top-shelf artists, from the Black Keys and T-Model Ford to the Plimsouls and Beachwood Sparks.

Originally from Chattanooga and residing there now, Holder—the son of a 20-year Navy man who became a Baptist preacher—lived all over the South growing up. He started making waves in Nashville in the mid-aughts when he was playing in the punk-blues outfit Black Diamond Heavies. (The band continued as a two-piece after Holder left in 2006, and are currently Holder’s label mates on Alive.) All the while he was immersing himself in the blues canon, studying legends such as Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, John Lee Hooker, and others. For a couple years, Holder spent most of his days busking in Nashville’s Lower Broadway tourist district, perfecting his skills as a solo performer.

“It all goes back to the fact that I’m mentally ill and I have medicine I have to take to control that. And when I don’t take it, I live in the woods in Northern California and I’m too paranoid
to talk to anybody.”

Let It Slide marks the first time since his Black Diamond Heavies days that Holder has dedicated himself to the band format, after years of predominantly performing solo. He enlisted Chattanooga-area music scene veterans Travis Kilgore on bass and Doug Bales on drums, both of whom play on the record and have been touring with Holder.

Holder’s recent struggles provided fodder for one of the album’s strongest tracks, “Disappearing,” the lyrics of which Holder wrote on a napkin while he was in the hospital, gravely ill and longing for a visit from the woman he’d been seeing. The lyrics paint a haunting picture of a man at the end of his rope: “They say that all things must pass / Well I hope that it’s my time at last / Come and see me child, I’m fading fast / Disappearing, carry me away.” A propulsive drumbeat creates a sense of urgency, as does Holder’s guitar work, which features a lot of flat-fifths that heighten the sense of doom.

“My Black Name” is a classic blues lyric about dealing with a bad reputation—and not giving a damn what other folks think. It features the nastiest guitar tone on the album, reminiscent of some of Dan Auerbach’s sounds with the Black Keys.

Holder lays down some of his finest guitar work on “Headlights.” He channels a little bit of both Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, and with some cowbell in there to boot, the track sounds like a nod to vintage early-’70s Stones. Holder’s reimagining of the popular folk tale “Stagger Lee,” meanwhile, leans toward classic Zeppelin—particularly the reverb-drenched harmonica parts, which he also plays.

Although Holder used his National Tricone Baritone on Let It Slide, he travels with the less-rarified Fender Squier Bass VI, which he plays on the album’s cover photo, to generate low and ferocious slide tones in concert.

Let It Slide is not only an incendiary debut from a budding blues-rock force, but a moving testament to one man’s triumph over some very formidable personal demons. Holder recently took time while touring the Northwest to speak by phone with Premier Guitar about the new record, his musical evolution, and his internal battles.

Where did you record Let It Slide?
I recorded it at a studio in Chattanooga called Tiny Buzz, owned and operated by a fellow named Mike Pack. He’s an old friend. He was the engineer on the first Black Diamond Heavies duo album—the two-piece album they did when they got signed to Alive. He’s a great producer and engineer. He coproduced.

You’ve played solo for a while. How long has it been since you played with a band?
I’ve been playing by myself for years. I’ve done occasional things with a rhythm section. It’s funny … these two guys—Travis Kilgore and Doug Bales—had not played together, but each one of them had played with me separately prior to doing this album.

How’s the tour been going?
Really well. We’ve really enjoyed the shows. We’ve had a really nice time playing major cities—Los Angeles, Seattle and all that—but at the same time we played a gig the other night on an island that has 2,000 people on it in Puget Sound. Rode the ferry out there and played for those folks.

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Even at 79, the folk and bluegrass legend feels compelled to make his flattop ring and write songs that speak truth to power.

On Norman Blake’s new album, Brushwood: Songs & Stories, the acoustic music legend covers a lot of ground. Over the course of 17 songs and two spoken-word tracks, he shines a light on fascinating lesser-known historical figures, empathizes with the plight of the poor and downtrodden, provides some pointed and timely critique of our current political climate, and takes on Wall Street and the NRA. And as always in the world of Norman Blake, there are train songs.

But what may be Brushwood’s greatest accomplishment is evident within the first 23 seconds of the album, before Blake has uttered a single word. He fingerpicks an elegant intro to the opening track, “The Countess Lola Montez,” and at the 13-second mark, he effortlessly slurs and sweeps through the sort of split-second flurry of notes that makes aspiring guitarists hit rewind countless times, and leaves transcribers scratching their heads as they struggle to notate it. It’s a beautiful musical embellishment by any measure, but what’s most astounding about it—and the album as a whole—is that Blake was 78 years old when he recorded it. He turned 79 on March 10.

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