Umphrey’s McGee is one of the most popular bands in America on the Jam Band scene. Its sound can attract an eclectic audience with hints of Rock, Jazz and R&B and the well-rounded, phenomenal musicians in the lineup. The band has been touring nationally for over 15 years and is a staple on the summer festival scene. Umphrey’s have produced eight studio records; its most recent offering, Similar Skin, was released in the middle of last year.
CityBeat caught up with keyboard player Joel Cummins and discussed the changes over the years on the road and the fun and challenge of making every show a unique experience for the audience. The band plays the big room at the Taft Theater tonight at 8 p.m.; TAUK opens.
CityBeat: Your band is so famous for having ever-changing set lists. How do you determine what you are going to play each night?
Joel Cummins: We use a lot of different ways to figure out what to play. One of the main ones we use now is a website called allthings.umphreys.com, developed by a friend that has a complete tour history and everything we have played. It is a really interesting and interactive site that the fans can use to see what they haven’t seen us play before. We use it to look back and see what we have played in certain markets or make sure we do something different and don’t repeat the same thing. It is a really useful tool.
As far as making the set list, I will compile a history of whatever it is that we have played and whoever is feeling it that day will pick songs and make a set list for that night. It’s interesting — one of the things that makes it fun for the fans is that any combination of the six of us can write a set list, we try to mix it up throughout the tour so it is staying fresh for us and the fans every day. And now that we have about 180 original tunes, we have quite a few to choose from every day. So it is nice to be able to play for five or six days in a row and not have to repeat a song.
CB: I am just amazed that you can remember that many songs over that period. It is very impressive.
JC: You get to a point where you learn a song and as you are thinking about it and connecting the thoughts to the hands … after a while it becomes muscle memory. I think the only reason we are able to do this is because we made sure we play all these songs at a minimum once every couple months so you still remember it and we know how to play them. When we do different covers, one or two every show, we may only play those once or twice a year so that is something where we will run those entire songs the day of the shows and pick what we want to do to get it back. Thank God for muscle memory or we’d be in big trouble otherwise.
CB: You guys have been together for almost 20 years now. Have you experienced multi-generational fans yet?
JC: We have. It is a pretty cool thing. There are a lot of things I never expected to hear when we were talking to fans. Certainly one of those things is finding parents and their kids who are both fans, finding all these people that have said they make great friends at the shows and (travel) around the country to see each other, maybe somebody met their husband or their wife at a show. Those personal connections and stories that have happened with the band because of our music I think are one of the main things that keep me looking forward to the shows because I know that there are a lot of people out there that this means a lot to. It’s an engaging thing musically, but it has become a really cool social event bringing people together. Our fans, more than most bands, like to have a good time but they are there for the music. You go to our shows, you are going to meet some friendly, hopefully intelligent people. Our fans aren’t starting fights or getting crazy. It is cool to see the community develop as it has. It is something I never imagined that would happen.
CB: I (photograph) a lot of different genres of music and talk to a lot of different people. The Jam Band music scene seems to be a little more collaborative and supportive group with each other. You have collaborated with a ton of artists over the years. Do you have any favorite collaborations you have done? How do you go about choosing who you are going to work with next?
JC: I think some of that sense of community emanated from the festival scene. It is interesting because it is a shared thing with the bands as well as the fans. One of the things I do is Jam Cruise; I have done 11 of the 12 of them. I know all the artists like family. It’s cool to have these bonds develop and I think because of the style of music we play, because it is more collaborative and there are a lot of good musicians on the scene, it encourages the idea of collaboration.
If I had to name one as my favorite, we actually just got to play three concerts in New York with Joshua Redman, who is this really talented, really adventurous sax player. He has won Grammys and played with the best of the best, and the fact that he still wants to come back and play with us every once in a while is a really great challenge for us and really engaging to do. I think we have one of the most extreme varieties of styles in our music. As a result, we either play with people like Josh, who are in the Jazz scene, or someone like Mavis Staples, who is obviously a legendary R&B singer. We are friends with Huey Lewis, who is one of the most amazing guys out there in the music business, (and we’ve played more) current things like something Electronic with STS9 or something acoustic with Yonder Mountain String Band. I think we are lucky that we are in the time we are because bands used to be more closed off and competitive with other acts out there. It is a lot more fun when you can be friends with people and make music together.
CB: You lost your original drummer, Mike Mirro, last year.
JC: Yeah, inevitably things come up (about him) all the time. Most of the time it’s funny things that he said or jokes that have carried on. Most recently, we did a holiday show with some members of the band in Chicago. He actually has a charity now in his name, the Michael A. Mirro fund for Neuroscience Studies. We were able to give a pretty sizable chunk of money to that. It is good to have his presence pop up in daily conversations, but even more than that, the charitable aspect of trying to contribute to studies that help people who have the challenges like Mike had. We miss him dearly and he was a close personal friend, so even though he wasn’t with us in the band anymore (when he passed away), we had collaborated a bunch of times since he left the band. It was a really horrible, tragic loss.
CB: The festival lineups are being announced really early this year. Can you tell me what you look most forward to with the festival performances? What do you think is one of your greatest festival moments?
JC: I think the artist camaraderie is a really exciting thing with festivals. We have been lucky to play so many great festivals. One of our favorite annual ones we always do is Summer Camp in Illinois and that is something we co-headline with moe. and they always have other great headlining artists. Steve Miller Band is going to play this year. Widespread Panic is going to come back. There are a lot of great artist always at that one.
As far as career defining festivals for us, I’d have to go with Bonnaroo. We played the first one. Up to that point we had been playing at clubs in Cincinnati like Ripley’s, and maybe the Southgate House. We got asked to be a part of that first Bonnaroo. We were nervous because we got like a 5 p.m. Friday slot. We were wondering if anyone was even going to be there yet. We ended up playing in front of 10,000 people that day, a completely jam-packed tent. It was in 2002, and that was our first moment where maybe people knew who we were on a national scene. That is something I will always remember.
CB: You mentioned some bars you played in Cincinnati over the years. Do you have any favorite Cincinnati moments or memories?
JC: There are lots, to be honest. One of the early ones I’ll never forget. We played the last night at Ripley’s before it closed with our buddies Ray’s Music Exchange, a great Cincinnati band. That was kind of an emotional and cool night. That was the first night of us going out on a tour on the East Coast and Ray’s was headed out to the West Coast. I also remember probably just three or four years ago, one of my favorite things we did (was when) we played at Moonlite Gardens and Mad Dog, who is Ray’s former trumpet player, put together a horn section for us. We did a little back and forth competition, playing songs back and forth, and we had the horns up in the balcony and we were on stage and it was just one of those cool unique moments that hasn’t happened before. People are always trying to come up with fun things like that to do. You never know with Cincinnati because there are guys looking to get some kicks out once in a while and do something interesting and out of the box.
The Taft is one of our favorite rooms to play. I think we have only played there twice before. It is exciting to come into one of your favorite rooms and play for a sold-out crowd.