The Boys Are Back in Town: Umphrey's McGee to Play Two Shows at North Coast Music Festival, Q &A with Joel Cummins of Umphrey's McGee

The Boys Are Back in Town: Umphrey's McGee to Play Two Shows at North Coast Music Festival, Q &A with Joel Cummins of Umphrey's McGee

Chicago Umphrey's fans have been in dire need of some home-turf face-melting.  Even though it's pretty common for Umphreaks to hit the road following their favorite band, it used to be just as common to catch them at home upwards of five times a year.  This weekend's late night at the Concord theater will break a two-year dry spell within the city limits and I think it's fair to say: everyone is ready to RAWK.

 "Summer's Last Stand," pet name for North Coast Music Festival, welcomes back the six-piece Chicago band (originally of South Bend, IN) to play three sets of music.  Led by the aforementioned sold out late night, then followed up by Sunday's two-hour-extended set on the Coast Stage beginning at 8 PM.  The longest set time of the festival, Umphrey's is not messin' around.

"When we originally started discussing the set length, we were really clear that we needed two hours," said Joel Cummins, Umphrey's McGee (keys).  "We wanted to make our fans happy."

Joel Cummins, Umphrey's McGee

Joel Cummins, Umphrey's McGee

Sure, the metal-infused jam cocktail we thirst for that is Umphrey's McGee has played upon Ravinia's suburban stage one night apiece the last two summers, but it's been since their three-day stint at Chicago's Uptown Riviera Theater in February 2014 that they've played Chicago-proper.  This weekend's shows will close the longest gap to date since the band started touring in the late 90's, and perhaps as a thank you for our patience in Chicago Umphlove, I think the question that everyone is asking is:  will there be a New Year's run announcement this weekend?

Later than usual for the New Year's eve announcement, my guess is that we can expect to hear the plans from the band sometime before Monday's holiday.  Perhaps we'll even find out they'll play the New Year's shows here in Chicago, since it seems a poignant place to do it.  As North Coast celebrates its seventh year running, let us not forget that Umphrey's headlined its inaugural year as well, in 2010.


"We love North Coast," Cummins said.  "It's a special one. There are very few festivals that we got in on the ground floor and have been a part of it since the beginning.  I love the mix of genres of North Coast.  It seems like they've really come up with their own identity of what a festival is. Centering around electronic music, but then also surrounded by some of the more improvisational bands that are out there today as well.

And that really is true across all genres of improv, which is a testament to the talent buyers there as well.  Across the producers of North Coast, there are some really diverse musical tastes.  Personally I love festivals like this to also introduce ourselves to some new fans as well.   You know, with headliners like Zedd, Bassnectar, and Odesza, three of the biggest electronic artists out there right now, that maybe...younger age group of fans should be well-represented in the audience as well."

When asked if Umphrey's caters their setlists to a different sound depending on the type of festival, Cummins explained that they basically always maintain a middle ground of Umph-ness, or in other words, always stay true to themselves.

"You know it's not like that, it's more of a chance for us to go in there, play what we play, and do our thing. And maybe make people who came to hear other kinds of music scratch their heads a little bit even. (Laughing).  We may have some dancier things, but we may even just go the opposite direction. Super heavy. Acoustic maybe.  You know, showcase the diversity of what we can bring to the table at North Coast than what every other artist can bring.  Don't you think when you're attending a festival the sets that stand out, are the ones that...stand out?

The fact that the North Coast audience skews a bit younger may not be a favorite aspect of our older crowd, but, for us, we really like it.  It's almost like the yin-yang of Ravinia, you know? Where Ravinia is like the older crowd."

This is actually true, and a hilarious observation.  Joel pointed out that during setbreak at Ravinia last summer, UM manager Vince Iwinski came back to check in with the band.  His report on the crowd outside: "It's crazy! It's like the hippies and the Republicans are all out there getting along!!"

"So this is kind of the antithesis of that," Cummins said.  "Let's be honest, if someone discovers the band when they're 20-21, they  may have another 10-12 years of shows before they have to put their money towards family, kids, etc. So, it is an important thing for us as a band to keep reconnecting with the next generation. That's something that we see now, that we've been playing for 18 years, people come up who to talk who saw us in 2001 and now they're there with their kids! One show recently, we even had three generations of family there. We love that stuff.

Also, we have a variety of different fans that we hope have a good time. too. While some of the vets may complain about "No Diablo," if we look out and we see a bunch of people singing a long, then, we're gonna keep playing it.  That's their experience. Maybe they haven't been to 50 shows, but maybe they will if we don't lose them early on by speaking to someone with a more...extended musical palate.   So we're trying to keep all our fans happy, and I think people forget that sometimes.   We need that balance that happens every show.

North Coast has got to be a particular point of pride for the city of Chicago.  React and Silver Wrapper especially have a really good handle on what is coming up in music, and what people are into.  There's so many great events, but this one has filled a gap in the scene by doing something over Labor Day weekend.  It is a cool event for us especially since we'really a Chicago band, and this is really a Chicago festival."

Joel discussed the overlap of Umphrey's fans with Greensky Bluegrass fans, the power-string band playing the preceding set at the Coast Stage (6:15-7:30), as well.  Personally, I am expecting something collaborative between the two bands in one set or another. The bands are buddies, as Joel described them going back and forth with little jokes as they see each other around the festival circuit based on backhanded compliments and their friendly bond.

Joel is no stranger to keeping it prankster, either.  You may have seen this photo floating around of Joel attending Phish at Wrigley Field earlier this summer:

Photo by Graig Adler

Photo by Graig Adler

"No one knew I was going," Cummins said, speaking of the first night of Phish's two-night stand at Wrigley Field.  "But I decided to do a little JamCruise vibe with it."  Notorious Cubs fan and Chicago property owner, it was no surprise that Joel was in attendance, but what made it hilarious was how he did it.  Pictured above, he rocked a blonde wig and cowgirl(?) hat just for laughs.

"It was so great messing with my friends. I knew right where they were standing so I didn't tell anyone I had a ticket or was going, and I just kinda...secretly rolled up to the group in my wig.  Everyone was surprised to say the least (laughing)."

I expect Saturday night's late-night at Concord to be a huge rager. I think that goes without saying.  Probably some dark, windy improv at times, as part of a long Stew, seems eminent.  Especially across three sets!  That is going to rage.  The flavor of the dark, indoor backdrop illuminated by Waful's lights and bottled energy after being at North Coast all day, should pair nicely as the yin to Sunday's outdoor, likely more sing-song'y Bayliss-led yin set to close out the weekend in appreciation, and in classic UM style.  These are, of course, my predictions, but no matter what happens.. I know I'm looking forward to both flavors of UM shows.  In the famous words of Chicago legend Ernie Banks, "Let's Play Two!!"

Three-day passes for North Coast are now sold out. Single Day tickets are available here for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, GA and VIP.  Members of UM will participate in Tauking McGee + Vulfpeck on Sunday at Concord for the North Coast after-party; tickets are available here.


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