Local Piano Guy Does OK: Umphrey's Joel Cummins Treats Tonic Room to a Sold Out Solo Delight

Local Piano Guy Does OK: Umphrey's Joel Cummins Treats Tonic Room to a Sold Out Solo Delight
Joel Cummins plays solo show to a sold out Tonic Room.

Last weekend, rockers Umphrey’s McGee took the Midwest by storm, ripping through raucous material with fiery abandon from Fort Wayne to Detroit. Trailblazing an eventual path to the west coast, the six-piece kicks off tonight at the gorgeous Fox Theatre in Oakland, CA, after leaving Michigan in embers and taking a small break to recoup.

Umphrey's McGee

If you follow Umphrey’s at all, maybe you’re picturing their bassist (Ryan Stasik) with his family when he’s off. He’s probably enjoying Pantera in a sunshiney meadow with birds chirping; his daughters and wife by his side wearing cool band shirts. Baby deer probably run by, dropping Ryan ice-cold Budweisers as they gallop along. Andy Farag, percussionist, is likely busy widdling some sort of new windchime device deep in the woods. He seems like the reflective type; taking time with his girlfriend to ponder life, perhaps. When he’s not with his amazing family, guitarist Brendan Bayliss is rumored to use his time off touring various organic black t-shirt shops across Chicago with Ronnie WooWoo (who he definitely calls Ron), and Kris Myers (drummer) is for sure getting swole. Those giant muscles don’t sprout themselves. Jake Cinninger is probably attached to his guitar at all times; glued by love and a sense of dedication unparalleled by many around, chilling with his dog and family, being mellow and humble and definitely wearing a cap. But what about Joel?

Joel Cummins, keys, never stops creating. Also a family man to his hardworking, lovely wife and newborn daughter at home in L.A., it would take something pretty big to keep him from jumping the first flight home as soon the second Detroit show was over. Lucky us that we were on the receiving end of that big thing.

In preparation for his recently-announced Conscious Alliance benefit show in Denver on June 19, Joel used this past Sunday off to treat Chicago’s favorite music bar to their own rousing solo evening of keyboard music. Lincoln Park’s Tonic Room was sold out and full of familiar faces, singalongs, and even a few guest appearances to round out this charming event.

The intimate performance started with an opening set of solo keys from Crosseyed and Phishless’ Jason Kearney. Highlights include his own compositions and inserting keyword “Thank you Mr Cummins” into the chorus of Phish’s “Harry Hood,” in lieu of  the original lyrics,”Thank you, Mr. Miner.” In perfect segue form, Kearney closed his set with the famous “Linus and Lucy” Peanuts theme song, by Vince Guaraldi, which Joel then came out and opened with moments later.

Introducing most songs by name, Joel bantered back and forth with his crowd, asking for attentive ears and a quiet room for his second number, “Flamenco Sketches,” by Miles Davis, which had been transcribed for piano. Astoundingly quiet in a typically loud space, Joel thanked everyone as he finished with a surprised smile. “For a bunch of Umphrey’s fans, you guys can really shut the F up,” he joked to a room full of giggles.

Any fan of Joel’s knows he is a die-hard Debussy-head. With ancestors heady enough to be on Claude Debussy tour in the 1800’s, legend has it that Joel’s great-great-great-grandmother actually fixed a button on Claude’s dinner jacket just moments before he famously delivered his first cantata,  L’enfant prodigue. Without her efforts, his dangling sleeve could have tarnished this future trajectory for us all to experience at the Tonic Room forever. Joel delivered back to back Debussy tunes after playing Dave Grusin’s “Memphis Stomp,” a track he said he was reminded of by Twitter’s @moosemuses, which he then thanked him for publicly.

Known for interacting with fans, Joel mentioning someone on social media on stage isn’t too unusual. In fact, Joel has no qualms about jumping into a thread of people completely trashing Umphrey’s, even, should he come across it on Twitter. “When people share negative comments, I don’t think they expect the keyboardist from the band to respond,” Joel said laughing. “That’s a great part of social media. It’s funny, for me, and maybe also makes people think about what they say online. In the end, they can still have their opinion, but, you know…maybe they’ll think about it more.”

Taking it from classical to modern, Joel started poking around on his electronic boards, setting loops, and perking the interest of the more progressive-rock fans in the room. After standing behind the stage during Phish’s rendition of this track during “lemon night” at the Baker’s Dozen, my ears perked up right away as I heard the deep chord setup for Radiohead’s “Everything in its Right Place.” A roar rushed over the crowd at Tonic as it became apparent and he dropped into the familiar opening with animation, playing out a song he so clearly enjoyed performing.

Next, Joel welcomed opener Jason Kearney back up to the stage to deliver Herbie Hancock’s “Canteloupe Island” together. Trading seats and melodies, the two pianists had a blast with this one. Check this video out to see it live in its entirety:

Just before his setbreak, Joel asked the crowd, “Who doesn’t know Charlie Parker? Cuz’ if so, there’s the door,” he pointed, taking the beboppin’ “KC Blues” right into Umphrey’s “Final Word” to close the set.

In true jam-band fashion, the bottom half of the show invited more of a deep dive into improv. With covers including Allman Brothers, Pink Floyd, Billy Joel, Van Halen, and the Counting Crows, this section felt like Joel was truly having a blast and in the groove. Kicking off the set with Umphrey’s most potentially soaring, sentimental tune, “Glory,” Joel welcomed out the insanely talented guitarist, Marcus Rezak to join him. After all, “Glory” peaks are only real when shared, as they say.

The duo kept the classic hits coming with follow-up deliveries of Allman’s “Jessica”> Umphrey’s “Orfeo” >”Jessica” and into Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky.” Even though this was a Joel Cummins solo show, the Rezak guitar solo stands out something wicked from the Floyd segment. After years of playing together in Digital Tape Machine, and more recently recording Marcus’ album, Gateway to the Galaxy together, these guys are just synced up in the pocket swimming around like fizzy bubbles in your soda waiting to pop in your mouth as soon as you indulge. It’s just so good when it hits your lips. Check this video of Marcus’ guitar solo here:

Most of the rest of the show was all-Joel, all-the-time. Perfectly, this segment kicked off with none other than BILLY Joel’s “Root Beer Rag,” and into Phish’s “The Lizards” ethereal, piano-centric ending. Pretty funny troll move given Phish’s longstanding “historical beef” with Billy Joel over the title of most consecutive shows played at Madison Square Garden. Known to be the king of all trolls with a smile, do you think you could troll like Joel?

What happened at the end of the second set may make you think twice about trying to keep up with the king. “I’m about to play a song by a band I don’t like, for maybe the first time. I have always thought this song would be cooler if someone cooler sang it, and I don’t even mean me….like, anyone else. I’ve always thought this singer was particularly whiny,” he drifted off, playing into the opening melody of Counting Crows’ “A Long December.”

Since he lives by the Pacific coast, acts as a beacon of positivity, and shares almost-strictly uplifting viewpoints, nothing was funnier than Joel singing the whiny lyrics, “and it’s been so long since I’ve seen the ocean….” to laughs from anyone truly paying attention. As the song wrapped up, he thanked everyone for their applause and got on the mic to let someone up front in the audience with dreads know, “he actually kinda looked like him” to tons of points, chuckles, and roars from that guy’s friends. You can try, but I don’t know if anyone is quite on the level to “troll like Joel.”

Welcoming back Rezak, Joel got everyone in the bar singing along to the chorus of Umphrey’s “Haji” to close the show. My face hurt from laughing and smiling by the end, and even though it was not a comedy hour, I’d call that a sign of a successful solo show. It was also nice to see Joel in this rare role as the frontman, telling jokes and getting to mess around the way he so rarely can as just one of six in Umphrey’s, hidden behind all of his equipment (and maybe perhaps, Brendan Bayliss).

If you’re lucky enough to see this follow-up solo show in Denver on June 19 before UM plays Red Rocks, you won’t regret it. To say it was fun is the understatement of February. To say it was funny, well; that’s the understatement of a long December. Thank you, Joel, Marcus, and Jason, for a truly special and unique night of music.

To read Joel’s preview Q & A we did for this show, click here. For the Denver solo show’s ticketing info, click here.


Tonic Room Setlist: Joel Cummins solo (Sunday February 24, 2019)

Guaraldi: Linus & Lucy
Miles Davis: Flamenco Sketches
Grusin: Memphis Stomp* dedicated to @moosemuses on social media
Debussy: Pour Le Piano Prelude
Debussy: Homage a Rameau
Radiohead: Everything in its Right Place
Herbie Hancock: Canteloupe Island^
Muse: Ruled by Secrecy
Parker: KC Blues
Improv> Final Word


Improv> Glory*
Jessica> Orfeo >Jessica*
Great Gig in the Sky*
Billy Joel: Root Beer Rag> Phish: Lizards coda
Elvis Costello: Alison
Van Halen: Right Now> Wizard Burial Ground >Den > Right Now > Wizard Burial Ground
Counting Crows: A Long December
Improv> Hajimemashite*

^ with Jason Kearney
* with Marcus Rezak

Leave a comment