The men of Umphrey’s McGee have seen their star rise in the 21st century by doing things the old fashioned way, which is to say with musical prowess, relentless touring and fan-friendly vibes. The hard-edged Midwestern jam rockers just barely made the inaugural roster for the Bonnaroo Festival in 2002, with an early afternoon slot that was missed by many. But the band has since eclipsed the drawing power of several of their peers who were higher up on the bill that historic weekend (at least in Los Angeles, where “Umphreaks” filled the Wiltern Theater for the third spring in a row.)
Keyboardist Joel Cummins and drummer Kris Myers have even made the relocation to become residents in the City of Angels, an understandable move for anyone who’s lived through the long cold winters of the Midwest. PopMatters therefore felt it appropriate to check in with Cummins preceding the show to get his take on the band’s early days, how they engage in the high level improv they do amidst the impressively progressive song structures they favor and why living in LA just works best for keeping his mojo working.
But truth be known, the idea for the interview was actually catalyzed by a Twitter thread down memory lane where Cummins (@goldlikejoel) is a frequent commenter amongst the jamrock cognescenti. It was Jambase.com’s Scott Bernstein who posted a throwback series of messages from the old “rec.music.phish” newsgroup from late 1997 “in which RMP learns that Joel Cummins is not a bad tape trader”. Harken now to those late 20th century years preceding the advent of digital music, even before compact discs became the music standard, when Phish fans would trade shows with each other on cassette tapes like the Deadheads before them.
It turns out that Cummins and this reporter were involved in a trade involving tapes of Phish’s debut appearance at the majestic Gorge Ampitheater in George, Washington in the summer of 1997, yet one of the tapes received here in California was incomplete, missing the second side. Memory is foggy on such history, but the record shows a message was apparently dispatched to Cummins back at the University of Notre Dame, to which he replied he’d send a replacement. Weeks went by with no replacement tape, after which this reporter (and Ohio State fan) apparently posted a message at RMP naming Cummins as a “bad trader”, with a disparaging remark about Notre Dame, to boot. The tape ironically arrived just days later however, after which another message was posted clearing the future jamrock star’s good name.
Neither party had much recall of this incident, but it certainly made for an amusing Twitter thread. It was also a reminder of what an impact on the music scene Phish had in the ‘90s, for Umphrey’s McGee are now living the dream of many college music fans from that decade who started their own bands in hopes of joining the rock ‘n’ roll party. Cummins says it was a dorm mate at Notre Dame from Connecticut who first turned him on to Phish, which led him to attend his first show in Chicago in June 1994. Cummins was blown away by the performance but soon found that Phish was flying well under the radar of his contemporaries.
“I actually had to take an advertisement out in the school newspaper to find someone to go with me because nobody knew who Phish was”, Cummins says of his second Phish show in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is how he met future UM webmaster Jeremy Welsh, who was the person that responded to the ad. Thus began the addiction of not only attending Phish shows, but trading for coveted recordings of the performances that were not readily available as they are in today’s golden age of digital music downloading.
Cummins would go on to co-found Umphrey’s McGee at Notre Dame toward the end of 1997 (and it was here apparently that the Gorge tape was lost during a big party, a likely story.) As with Phish’s Trey Anastasio renouncing the Grateful Dead early in his career due to a creative desire not to be too influenced by the band, Cummins says he decided he should stop listening to Phish so that UM could better find their own voice. But an ironic moment would occur after Phish’s stunning 2004 breakup when Rolling Stone published a story asking “Is Umphrey’s McGee the next Phish?”
“We were like ‘Oh man,” Cummins says, simultaneously flattered yet wary of such a potentially burdensome comparison. It was an easy one to make however, what with the band’s vast and diverse repertoire and improvisational inclinations. Cummins cites the addition of guitarist Jake Cinninger in 2000 as a turning point in the band’s sound, noting that Cinninger was less into Phish and more of a Deadhead and metalhead who was also a country music guy. “He had this pretty incredible versatility coming into it that really helped open the sound up and then when [drummer] Kris Myers joined the band in 2002 that was kind of the final piece of the puzzle for our sound where we could do all kind of things at this point”, Cummins adds, citing a creative palette that included everything from R&B to heavy metal.
Umphrey’s McGee was also influenced by the dual-guitar sound of moe., the upstate New York band that was one of the earliest to becoming a national touring entity in the second wave of jambands that followed in the wake of Phish’s success and Jerry Garcia’s untimely departure from the planet in 1995. moe. were playing a coveted late night slot at that first Bonnaroo Festival in 2002, when guitarist Al Schnier told a story about a band that had sent them a tape where they covered moe.’s epic masterpiece “Rebubala”. That band was Umphrey’s McGee and Schnier brought out UM guitarist Brendan Bayliss to assist on the song that night.
“We looked up to those guys for a long time”, Cummins says, noting that it was Bayliss who introduced him to their music, followed by several bandmembers going to see moe. at the Vogue Theater in Indianapolis in 1998. They were invited backstage for an awkward meeting in the band’s cramped dressing room and the friendship would eventually lead to the bands touring together. “The moe. guys will always have a very special place in Umphrey’s McGee lore because they were one of the first bands out there to give us a shot as an opener.”
But while the two bands share a two-guitar format, Cummins adds an extra element to UM’s sound with his diverse keyboard skills. There are times where the band’s guitar-driven hard rock edge seems to leave Cummins’ keys on the curb, but he employs a tried and true strategy for such moments. “If I’m getting drowned out by the guitars, I just turn it up, haha,” Cummins chuckles. “It’s an interesting balancing act with six people in the band. That being said, I think we try to approach setlist writing in a way that will really highlight different aspects of the band as the set goes on”.
The keyboardist, who earned a degree in music theory at Notre Dame, says that listening is the key, especially in the improv sections. “Listening is just so important, whether I’m leading or following, a lot of times we’re creating sections live… It’s just a constant process of challenging each other to come up with new ideas and also being able to listen and react to what’s happening”.
This is especially true in the band’s collaborations with renowned saxophonist Joshua Redman, which Cummins says have occurred around 20 times since he first sat in with UM in 2004, including last year’s Wiltern Theater show. “He’s like our official seventh member, if there’s one person out there who really gets how we improvise and what it is we’re doing, it’s Josh. He has some of the biggest ears out there and knows right where he fits in with our sound”, Cummins says. “So much of it is allowing the space to pass by and not force the idea”.
Cummins says they met in 2002 after he and Cinninger had recorded an instrumental duo album titled Common Sense with Cinninger mostly on drums and bass. They were called in to open for Redman’s Elastic Band at Chicago club Martyrs, where Redman dug what they were doing. A personal and musical friendship soon followed. “It’s just nice to have another new voice in the mix, we all obviously really look up to him and respect him,” Cummins says. “And from the get-go, he told us, ‘Look I don’t wanna just solo over the top, I wanna be integrated into the texture and write my own parts for what’s happening.’ We really thought that was a cool perspective to hear from somebody of that caliber.”
Cummins remains fond of his time in the Midwest, but made a permanent relocation from Chicago to Venice in 2011, where he now enjoys the endless summer and eternal counterculture vibe. “Trying to have a healthy lifestyle, coming off the road in January and February and being able to go outside… it really promotes a healthier style of living. That gets hard in Chicago in the winter,” Cummins notes.
Living in West LA also proved fortuitous in the opportunity to jam with Arthur Barrow, former bassist for Frank Zappa, another influence on UM’s dynamic sound. Cummins was invited by a mutual friend to jam at Barrow’s place in Venice, which led to a gig at Santa Monica’s TRIP club and then to Barrow sitting in with UM at the Wiltern Theater on this night for a stellar sequence. Local Umphreaks had gotten well lubricated at the Southland Beer taproom down the street, as well as the Novel Cafe next door where a variety of music took place both before and after the UM show. A rowdy energy therefore infuses UM’s first set.
The band shows their ability to blend hard rock with pop rock and prog rock early on with “Educated Guess”, featuring tight staccato guitar riffs, ‘80s synths and wicked drum rolls that conjure a sound as if the Police had bumped into Rush and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. A high energy vibe goes up another notch when bassist Ryan Stasik steps aside to give Barrow a chance to sit in on “Soul Food I”. The prog-rock guitar riffage is well suited to Barrow’s high-level chops, while Cummins also stars with an electric piano solo recalling Herbie Hancock. Barrow then leads the band through an adventurous bustout of Zappa’s “Treacherous Cretins”, a prog-rock romp which benefits like the rest of the set from lighting director Jefferson Waful’s entrancing psychedelic lightshow. Cinninger and Bayliss are clearly in prog-rock heaven with the instrumental song’s lead guitar lines tailor made for their virtuoso skills.
Barrow’s sit-in concludes with the triumphant rock of “Glory”, which opens with melodic piano from Cummins matched by complementary guitar lines in one of the band’s most accessible tunes. The song quickly elevates into an uplifting jam and Barrow helps the band deliver a standout rendition here. Things get weird as Stasik returns for “Piranhas” with an extended prog jam that swims through a psychedelic sea before morphing into a mesmerizing guitar rock blowout. The band goes full metal jacket with set closer “Wizard Burial Ground”, which sounds as if John McLaughlin and Joe Satriani sat in with Metallica. The crowd rocks furiously as the band blasts the Wiltern with the full power of their groovy metallic might like few other bands can.
UM comes charging out of the gate for the second set with the rocking “40’s Theme”, endearing themselves with lyrics about fried chicken, 40 ounce beers and “getting freaky on a Saturday night”. Then it was back to the metal show on “Puppet String”, with Cinninger shredding licks that could have made Umphrey’s McGee a regular on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball if they’d come on the scene a decade earlier. A cover of Mark Ronson’s “Daffodils”, with Myers on surprise vocals mixes things up with a dancey jam where he and percussionist Andy Farag conjure a groove that could fit in on local radio station KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” show.
The trance dance majesty of “Wappy Sprayberry” highlights the set on a masterful jam that mellows the metal edge a bit with funk psychedelia and more sonic spacing to let the jam breath. It’s here that Stasik lays down a danceable groove while the guitars lay back to give Cummins space to step out on a spacefunk synth jam that has the Wiltern lifting off towards the outer limits. No one knows what a “Sprayberry” is, but everyone loves the taste of it.
Umphrey’s McGee aren’t likely to ever fill arenas, which is not to say they don’t have the talent as their sonic skills can be downright astounding. The band likes to say UM is “musicianship for the masses” and there’s certainly much to learn for any musician that studies this prodigious unit. But the reality is that UM’s advanced musical stylings aren’t really cut out for mass consumption. There aren’t many college bands from the late ‘90s that are still going strong with a 20-year anniversary looming next year though. Heads up muggles!