Umphrey’s McGee—Still Taking Chances

For over 20 years, Umphrey’s McGee has been one of the top acts in the jam band community. The sextet of guitarist and vocalist Brendan Bayliss, keyboardist and vocalist Joel Cummins, bassist Ryan Stasik, percussionist Andy Farag, guitarist Jake Cinninger, and drummer Kris Myers push the envelope with a flurry of progressions and riffs while riding a groove. They’re one of those bands where all you have to do is give them a listen and the senses will be hooked. Before you know it, you’ll be checking their tour schedule to see when they’ll be performing in your area. Speaking of touring, Umphrey’s McGee will be kicking off their first run of shows in 2020 at the Beacon Theatre on January 17 and 18, and at Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg on January 19.

The band currently calls Chicago home, but they actually started out on the campus of Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, when Bayliss, Cummins, Stasik, and original drummer Mike Mirro were students there. At a school known more for its football team than anything else, the lack of a real music scene gave the band more freedom to experiment and discover their musical identity.

“It’s interesting because obviously the football team is a huge deal with the students there and we were definitely underground from the start,” Cummins says on the band’s beginnings. “At the same time, there were definitely enough people who were interested in music and seeing stuff live. There really weren’t that many bands at Notre Dame who were out there trying to get things going. When Umphrey’s McGee started, Mike and I were in a band called Stomper Bob that played a mix of originals and covers. We had some relative success up until that point playing shows for three bucks at the door.

“Ryan and Brendan were in a band called Tashi Station that just started doing more original stuff and eventually a couple tunes from that band became part of Umphrey’s repertoire,” He continues. “There were definitely a few tunes that we carried over from both bands into what we have now. It really started out as throwing a weekly party for our friends and one thing we had to our advantage was that we were each enrolled in different classes, so we had different groups of friends. It was literally automatic that no matter where we played we would have between 150 and 200 people show up.”

The Beacon Theatre has become a tour staple for the band this decade, with it seeming to be a yearly occurrence for them to be taking the stage there. Cummins views it as an honor to play music at such a historic venue.

“There aren’t too many places where you can say some of the greatest rock bands and musicians in history have played there,” He talks about the significance of playing at the theatre. “You can just go down the list with the Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers, and so many others…. There’s also Steely Dan and so many great musicians that we’ve looked up to over the years who have revered that place as well. I think there’s a certain perception that goes with playing the Beacon Theatre that feels like we’ve come a long way from playing bars in South Bend. New York City has always been a center for music along with being the most important market in the United States, so that plays into it, too. It’s one of the best rooms in the country in one of the most important music cities in the country so it always gives us the opportunity to get on stage and do something special.”

A notable stop on the upcoming tour is Rockjavik, which is a festival taking place at the Eldborg Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland from March 20-22. No special guests have been announced yet, but it’s a new experience for the band as they perform in a place they’ve never been to before.

“My wife and I travel quite a bit, we’ve been to a lot of places, but this is one country that has been on the bucket list for a while,” Cummins mentions. “We were fortunate enough to have a friend of ours who’s a promoter who wanted to do this, he’d been bugging us about it for a couple years. We typically do an event in the Caribbean called Holidaze with the Disco Biscuits and Sound Tribe Sector 9, so the fact that we weren’t doing it this year opened up the window for us to do something else internationally. People only have so much of a budget to spend so it’s tough for us to do more than one big international event a year, [but] we thought that we’d take a chance on this.

“We weren’t sure how the response would be on whether our fans would be down to see us in Iceland but the fact that it sold out in minutes is a complete surprise to us and obviously a very pleasant one,” He adds, “We’re really excited that so many people are into going over there to see some shows and hopefully going to see some Northern Lights.”

Sometimes with Umphrey’s McGee and at times by himself, Cummins has gotten to perform with the likes of Huey Lewis, Sinead O’Connor, Buddy Guy, Damian Marley, Les Claypool, and even Skrillex. It’s understandable for him to have difficulty choosing his #1, but a certain jazz saxophonist sticks out. “It’s tough to pick favorites,” he mentions. “There are a lot of different experiences with the different musicians I’ve worked with and the styles that they play. We’ve had Josh Redman play between 25 to 30 shows with us and he’s somebody who is a world-class musician, an incredibly gifted and creative player and a really great listener as well. Whenever we play with Josh I always feel like the music is being taken to the next level.”

It’s been a little more than a couple years since Umphrey’s McGee released a new album, but things are in the works for an upcoming full-length release.

“We’re always working on new music and we actually went down to Nashville to work with a great producer named Ryan Hewitt back in September,” Cummins says about the band’s plans for the new year. “We’ve been putting out some new singles over the past couple months, one called “Crucial Taunt” and another one called “Ride On Pony.” We have some new stuff to put out, I’m not totally sure how we’re going to release it but we will gradually be putting these new songs into the catalog. That’s always exciting for us and I’m sure we’ll be going back into the studio again in 2020.”

Be sure to catch Umphrey’s McGee at the Beacon Theatre on January 17 and 18, and at Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg on January 19!!