Umphrey's McGee Returns to Chicago for Three Night New Year's Eve Stand: Joel Cummins Q & A

Umphrey's McGee Returns to Chicago for Three Night New Year's Eve Stand: Joel Cummins Q & A


Rock show curators and handsome deviants Umphrey’s McGee are coming back to Chicago for their first hometown New Year’s run since 2009/2010, and it’s sure to be a party.  Their three-day Uptown stand kicks off at The Riv tomorrow night, then moves to The Aragon for both Friday’s show with The Motet and Saturday’s three-set New Year’s Eve spectacular.

Chicago has been missing the Umph, and their fans haven’t been quiet about it. UM is “finally” giving the people what they want and they’re thanking them in return. Rounding into Umphrey’s Eve with 12/29 and 12/31 sold out, and only a handful of tickets remain for 12/30 at The Aragon. Buy tickets here.

Born and raised in Chicago, UM Keys Wizard Joel Cummins said of their likeness:

“Umphrey’s is like a peaty scotch. Some people love it, and some people taste it and go, ‘What is this?'”

Chicago stays drunk, so you know where we fall in this simile. Like a metal old bitty that first sampled the peaty scotch twelve years ago, I relish in the past New Year’s memories of UM at The Congress, The Vic, The Aragon and other Chicago relics; some of which have been replaced by prettier surfaces and plans for gut rehabs, but where the foundations still remain.  Back when the band shared keg beer and took shots with the crowd, shouting out The Blackhawks when they still sucked. Really really bad.  Before there was Mantis, and mashups, and our friends and the band members didn’t even have kids yet, let alone bring them to the shows with their cute little headphones. But we’ve all grown since then, and therefore so has the greater UM family, and we all have a lot to celebrate as we usher into a bold new year. But most importantly, let us not forget the true meaning of the season: ROCK N’ ROLL.  

These Chicago boys are coming home \mm/ Let’s do this thing.

Photo by Abby Fox

Photo by Abby Fox

ChicagoNow: Thanks for chatting with us today, Joel. You’ve been super busy it seems this month, what have you been up to?

Joel Cummins: I’m just getting home from Mexico now. I was first there for Holidaze, then was in Chicago for the UM Holiday show, where we raised a bunch of money for a scholarship in my Dad’s name for Math Education, which I’m pretty excited about.  I also had a show with DJ Williams, Tycoon (Lettuce bassist Jesus Coomes’ brother), and Marcus Rezak, another Chicago guy!

I then headed to meet my wife Dasha at Strings N Sol, who was working at that event, and also at Closer to the Sun, Slightly Stoopid’s event. So she has had a super busy month too.  We just decided to stay down there and have a few personal days to chill and hang out before the madness of the holidays.

Q: That sounds awesome. How was the music you saw?

A: Well, I was only there for about one day at the fests, and hadn’t really gone to bed since my gig the night before (with traveling).  So I think I was asleep early that night, like by 10PM (laughing), and didn’t see much music at all. But, I did get to catch Stick Figure, who were great.

Q: And they’re opening up for you the first night at Red Rocks, right?

A: Yup, exactly. They are the first act that will play our three-night run this year. I’ve seen them twice now, the first time was earlier this summer at Electric Forest, and that really put them on the radar for me. They’ve got a kind of progressive edge to the reggae sound, where a few of their original tunes are a bit harder than you usually hear in the reggae world.

Overall we love to book the type of bands on our bills just like that.  The kind of bands that have a different fan-base than us, but both fan-bases would enjoy the other band. I think it will be a great pairing, and with the variety of music with Snarky Puppy and Bruce Hornsby, too, we’re really excited.

Q: Did you have a tough time keeping Hornsby under your hat ’til it was announced?

A: You know, it’s one of the rare things that happen like this.  We first sat down as a band and threw out about 50-60 bands we’d like to book with us for those shows at Red Rocks.  Then I remember sitting at Lockn, talking to Marc Allen, Bruce’s manager, and he told me that not only was Bruce touring next year, but that they also have a new live album coming out.  I of course asked him right then if they’d consider playing one of the Red Rocks shows, and now here we are.

So to have something as an idea that kind of popped into my head, that kind of just was brought into reality is just pretty cool, you know?

Q: I do know, as I sit here and talk to you. That exact thing is happening for me as we speak (laughing).

A: Well, exactly (laughing).

Q: And you know, that’s how a lot of the good stuff happens. By trying out ideas, which Umphrey’s does very well.

A:  Totally. The last few years, the Red Rocks lineups have been a really great thing for the band. It’s kind like we curate a mini-festival, sort of vibe with the bands we book.  We almost say to our fans, “If you don’t know this band, you should.” And that’s also part of it. We want to expose our fans to other good music that we like, and that we listen to, too.

Q: You see so many bands touring all over the country and playing festivals. Who are some other openers you’d love to get on your bills?

A: Someone I continually mention, one of the best keyboardists out there, is Cory Henry.  He used to play with Snarky Puppy but now has his own band, The Funk Apostles, and they are pretty amazing. We’d love to have him back with us in addition to Snarky (Puppy).

White Denim has been a band that we’ve been interested in having for a couple years. We got to hang out and talk to James at Lockn this summer.  It was nice to make a bit of a personal connection, and I’m hoping we can collaborate with those guys and that can happen in the future.

For our 2017 dates, we have Spafford on a lot of those shows. They’re doing some great things for improvisational rock. I think it will be one of those shows where hopefully we make them some new fans, and vice versa. There is definitely a diehard crew of Spafford fans out there that are very vocal that I think will be really excited to come out to those shows, which will be fun for sure.

Another band that I discovered through a friend last year…this one is kind of fun, their name is Organ Freeman.

Q: Incredible Name.

A: I know, right? It is hilarious. They’re awesome too. I was introduced to them, then had some conversations with my good friend Dan Rucinski used to play with us in Digital Tape Machine, who’s now doing some work with Silver Wrapper and manages some artists. So you know, I introduced him to them, and he ended up picking them up and now they’re working together, him as their management. So that’s awesome, I hope we can get together on that.

Q: That name sounds really familiar, isn’t he now working with Aqueous too?

A: You know, he is.  They’re another band I saw at Electric Forest, I actually sat in with them. I really like those guys, they’re great. I had also played with them in Denver when I was out there doing something, I really dig those guys’ sound. I also remember a fest we did with them in Buffalo or Rochester a few years ago, too. So I’d say they’re definitely on the radar, too, we’d love to have Aqueous out for a few Umphrey’s shows.

Q: Awesome connection. And as far as looking toward the future, it seems like UM is constantly coming up with new concepts. With the recent release of Zonkey, as well as the announcement that there will be no UMBowl this year, what are you excited about in 2017?  Anything you can share?

A: Well, we’ve kind of been asking around amongst our fans; what they want to see, and how we tour. And the feedback we’ve gotten has been that people want to see 2-3 night stands in fun places, so we’re focused on that type of model.

In a sense, you don’t really need more than that.  You know, a great venue, in a cool city, with three nights and a bunch of music and friends. Right?

So I think part of what we’ve realized going into 2017 is: Don’t overthink it too much. 

You know, we’ve kind of built this thing up now for 18 years. People (fans) can only do so much travel-wise, and with their time. We also know who we are more than ever before as a band, and we also know what people are most interested in, as far as what we can deliver to them for shows. So, I’m looking forward to a lot of these 2-3 night stands; we’ve got this New Year’s run in Chicago, Atlanta, Richmond (VA), Detroit, Asheville, Missoula, Sandpoint (ID), the Bay Area, Red Rocks… man, it’s gonna be awesome. That’s probably all we’ve announced besides Summer Camp.

Q: You’re lined up for an awesome year it sounds like. That Summer Camp lineup is pretty stacked, huh? I think a lot of the bands we’ve talked about are actually on that lineup as well. So you’ll get your chance with some of them.

A: Ya, the Goldberg’s (Summer Camp production team) do a great job at booking great bands.  They make it seem easy but it’s not.

And yep, that’s true. Aqueous, White Denim, and Spafford are all on the bill this year.

Les Claypool too, in Primus as well as The Lennon Claypool Delirium.

Q: And Trey and Gordo’s bands! It’s crazy that is just the first announcement.

A: Totally. I love that Trey’s band has embraced the festival, it’s very cool. The first year that they played, there was an insane lightning storm. It was kind of happening off in the distance for the first set, but I couldn’t believe they started playing the second set to be honest (laughing), it was so bad.  I remember being stuck on site after the epic rainstorm and there were like three inches of standing water! It was insane.  But, this will be the third visit for Trey’s band, so I guess it ended up okay.

It’s so interesting to me, because I feel like my feelings for Summer Camp and what “it is” have really evolved over the years.  There were surely a lot of things to improve, and over the years, the production is a lot better, and we’ve made some changes that have really benefitted the experience overall for the bands and the fans. One thing in particular that I love, is the non-corporate atmosphere of Summer Camp. And I think that’s something very few festivals have at this point, that they’re standing on their own, and they don’t need some big corporate sponsor to advertise to help fund whatever’s going on.

Q: Or Pete Shapiro (laughing)

A: (laughing) Well, exactly. Lockn is like that too. They also do a great job of that. Keeping it local and working with people who care about the music. They don’t really have corporate sponsors that are in your face like that at either festival. It just seems like a more authentic experience I think.

Q: At least to the fans, which is the goal probably.

A: For sure. And you know, I think people are noticing that some festivals have fallen off: All Good, Gathering of the Vibes, Wakarusa, or Bear Creek…they’re just not happening any more. It’s not just an automatic, given thing that these fests are going to exist. The Goldberg’s have done a really great job of keeping things real, and at the same time, continuing to bring great artists out, and do it the right way.  It’s really not that easy, and that’s something that often gets overlooked by the fans.

So, to go back to the initial question, that’s already like ten different weekends through July 4th that we have multi-night stands in places. I’m hoping that’s something our fan-base will rally around. We’ve tried to pick places that we think people will like going to, that have different sort of attractions to them depending on your interests.

Q: And what about new music?

A: Well, we’ve been in the studio working on a ton of new stuff. Stuff we’ve been working on for awhile. It was a really fun process this time, because we only really spent a week, or maybe less, like five days, actually in the studio.  We really  hammered down and tried to get as much done as possible in that time. We were able to get so much done because we did a better job preparing ahead of time than we’ve done in the past.

We started with 35-40 ideas, and by the end of it, we had it down to 20 things that we really wanted to go in and do in the studio. So to get that much done in a short period of time was incredible. The process is still happening, vocals and other stuff, but the drums are mostly recorded, the arrangements for the songs are kind of there, so it’s an exciting time.  It’s kind of like you said before:

Having new music, and having new ideas that you feel really strongly about is really the lifeblood of the band. They keep us all motivated to go forward and throw new ideas out there for the fans.

I always say my favorite thing to play is the newest stuff we haven’t played a lot.  It’s a good thing to have, and I’m definitely excited about that in 2017.

Q: Are you planning to introduce any new stuff in Chicago this weekend?

A: Well, I can’t say explicitly…but, your guess is as good as mine. I can say that we may pick one or two off the album to put into the live rotation, versus introduce every song on the album before it’s released.

I will say this though, every New Year’s run we always try to pick a few new things to throw into the mix. Hopefully that will be true, both original and cover-wise.

Photo by Abby Fox 12/31/14

Photo by Abby Fox

Q: That is super exciting!!  I guess in the same regard of loving to play new stuff, is there anything you just can’t stand to play? Or if you see someone else making a set list it just pains you to see a certain track listed?

A: .Hmmm. I will say for me it’s more, instead of not liking a certain track, it’s looking at the overall flow of a set. There aren’t really any songs in particular I don’t like, but I can sometimes feel like we’re playing a certain song too much, and it will throw off the vibe. And those always change for me.  For awhile, I felt like we were playing “The Linear,” or “Cut the Cable,” or “Similar Skin” too much, and that will happen when we’re in an album cycle, and we try to play some newer stuff in the mix. And keep in mind, thats 2-3 songs in a night. But with all the songs we have in the catalog, I prefer to have a wider variety of things to play.

Even a really popular song like “Higgins,” or “Puppet Strings,” that are really popular, but we felt we were playing too much, caused a debate. Because it’s hard to balance. You want to play songs that most of the audience knows and likes, but you want to throw a few cookies to the people who have seen 75-100 shows and haven’t seen a “#5” or a “13 Days” in a few years. “Crooked One” is another song that people have been requesting all the time now that we played all the time from 2004-2007 that just doesn’t pop up in the rotation to often now.

I basically always try to encourage the setlist writer to not provide distinction between the first and second sets. There’s no reason we can’t just go out there and lay it all on the line at the beginning of the night.  We of course have day time rehearsal, but almost every night, we’re warming up for at least 30 minutes before the show, too. So that when we get out there and play the first note of the first set, it already feels like we’re in the middle of the show.

We try to break from the unwritten rulebook of jamband lore; that the second set needs to be more exploratory than the first. We want to make the entire show as fun and adventurous as possible.

Photo by Abby Fox

Photo by Abby Fox

Q: I didn’t realize you guys play backstage during your opening acts that way.

A: Oh yea, sometimes we really want to see the band playing too, but it’s just the way we do things.

Q: That’s pretty interesting, is there ever an issue with the sound?

A: (Laughing) Sometimes at festivals. But normally, at the venues we play at now have soundproofing so it works. We definitely have small rigs for this reason. It feels like six people in a closet trying to play music at times (laughing).

Q: That reminds me of the Seinfeld where they’re playing pool in the small room and hitting the pool cue into the wall! Can you think of any funny instances from over the years?

A:  (Laughing) Oh man, so many. I think it leads into our goofy side too, where we practice for about 25 minutes of this time, but by the last 15-20 minutes of this warmup we’re all just goofing around trying to make each other laugh. It’s good to get the silliness out, so that you hit the stage and you’re in a good mood and kinda lighthearted about things.

I think that’s kind of our overall persona: Take the music seriously, but don’t take ourselves too seriously.

Q: That’s a great motto. You guys definitely always have a good time up there.

A: No doubt. And I’m gonna guess we’re gonna play about 85 shows next year. That’s about ten less than this year. I think that makes it even more special for us, and makes it even more fun. It starts to feel a lot less like a job when it’s that fun and exciting. There are very few times it feels like work to me, put it that way.

I think there’s something about how it helps the group ethos when you can make every show that you play something special. We’ve had a great 2016 in that respect, and to be able to close it out in Chicago is going to be just, really special.

The Aragon is a perfect room for a party, and for the vibe of New Year’s it’s perfect. It is like The Denver Fillmore in that way, a big open room and great for the vibe of everyone enjoying New Year’s Eve.

Q: Well, everyone in Chicago is super excited to have you back in town. You’re super sold out, so I bet you know this already.

A: You know, this is our biggest New Year’s ever. There were 4800 New Year’s Eve tickets sold, and it’s our biggest ever.  We’re so pumped it is in Chicago, after the year the city has had what with The Cubs, too. It’s just super exciting for all of us.

Q: And should we expect any special guests over the New Year’s Run?

A: Well, we’ll have our typical horn section on New Year’s, Mad Dog’s Filthy Little Secret. And The Motet on the 30th, of course.

I should also mention that I’m playing in a super cool late-night at The Concord on the 30th too. It will be mostly improv, with the rhythm section of The Motet, Robert Randolph on guitar, Nick Gerlach’s on the bill, and I think the horn section from The Heard. A really awesome up-and-coming Midwest act called Earphorik is supporting that one, too. That should be a great continuation of the party on the 30th.

Thanks to Joel, Umphrey’s, and Rock Music for making this possible. Welcome home to Chicago, UM! Let us rage.


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