Variety is the spice of life– and Umphrey’s McGee

By Elizabeth Thomas

August 18, 2015

Umphrey’s McGee has so much to offer, it’s hard to put them inside a single genre mold. While they’re definitely improvisational, a night at an Umphrey’s McGee show could entail progressive rock-and-roll, heavy jam, upbeat dance or even a little Beatles.

Gracing the Queen City with their unique sound on Thursday at the Fillmore, Umphrey’s McGee is promoting their latest album, The London Session, which was recorded at the storied Abbey Road Studios. An incredible opportunity in itself, but what makes the session and subsequent album all the more stunning is the fact the band recorded the entire thing in a 12-hour session, perfectly capturing the incredible talent, professionalism and experience UM brings to the table– both in and out of the studio.

Known for regularly performing more than 100 dates a year, there’s a solid reason fans keep coming back: these dudes know how to put on a show– from the one-of-a-kind experiences like their Headphones and Snowcones upgrade, which plugs concertgoers into a direct stereo matrix, allowing them to deeply experience every detail that may be otherwise missed amongst a crowd, to an accompanying light show that UM’s keyboardist Joel Cummins described as “visceral”.


Cummins was nice enough to chat with us about life on the road, recording in the historic Abbey Road Studios, what newbie can expect from their first Umphrey’s McGee show, and even offers up a funny inside band joke.

CLTure: You recently recorded The London Session—in one day– at the legendary Abbey Road Studios. What was the experience like for you guys?

JC: Recording at Abbey Road was a dream come true for Umphrey’s McGee. Maybe even beyond that as I never in my life imagined I would have that opportunity. The fact that we were able to record an entire album’s worth of material in just one day is still somewhat stupifying to me.  We were thrilled to be in there; you could feel the magic in the air; you could smell the history of the walls. It was the most exciting recording experience we’ve ever embarked on — at least for just one 12-hour day!

CLTure: The London Session is almost an evolution of UM from the early days to present. Was that the goal? Did the time constraints for recording play a part in the song selection?

JC: We chose four newer tunes that we wanted to record & get good versions of. Those were Bad Friday, Comma Later & acoustic versions of No Diablo & Cut the Cable from Similar Skin.  After that, we simply picked a couple songs from the live repertoire that we hadn’t done studio versions of (with the exception of Plunger), but that we knew we could tackle in just one or two takes in the studio that day. We didn’t really have a plan to come out with an album, we were just trying to get as much done as possible.


CLTure: In a pretty stellar tribute, UM covered The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s so Heavy)”. Why that song?

JC: We were told we had 10 minutes left to track one more tune at the end of the day. Jake mentioned that “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” was the final track the Beatles ever recorded at Abbey Road. We’ve played the song 25 to 30 times live so we knew it pretty well and thought, ‘wow, that would be a fitting way to finish things off.’  Fortunately, we pulled together a pretty inspired performance of the tune and it ended up being the coda for The London Session.

CLTure: Is there any particular track on The London Session that you’re especially proud of or that moves you?

JC: I have a soft spot for the version of Rocker 2 that we did that day. The latter half of it is a riff that we might have played once or twice live before that, but Jake’s guitar solo just really gets you there. It’s gotta be one of his top five studio guitar solos that he’s put down for Umphrey’s McGee. He absolutely killed it, and the band really built some good steam behind him. Honorable mention goes to the acoustic No Diablo, which I may like more than the electric version we did for Similar Skin.

CLTure: As a band that regularly cranks out 100+ shows in a year, how do you balance work and family life while on tour?

JC: It’s not always easy to balance the road life & home life, but we’ve evolved as a band as our personal situations have changed and that’s helped significantly. We now tour by playing four shows a week and having three days off between shows so the band guys can go home and see wives, kids, etc. It feels a little more like a regular work week, keeps home life good and also keeps our music fresh with each other. With the variety of songs we play live plus the constant creativeness needed for good improvisation, I think the quality of the shows has gone up significantly over the past few years.

Photo by Carter Short

CLTure: UM has an incredible presence on social media and interacts with followers on the regular. Does so-called “audience participation” influence you guys when putting together a set list for a show? Of your impressive song collection, how do you choose what to play each night?

JC: We enjoy taking occasional requests and with events like UMBowl that are fan-directed; there’s no shortage of communication between the band and fans. Most of the time, one of Brendan, Ryan & I will put together a setlist for a given show. But we use a fantastic website called allthings.umphreys.com to pick songs. Basically, we’ll take a look at what we’ve played the last couple times through a given market and try to play different songs than the previous couple times to keep the song rotation going. We’ve been using it for a few years now, and it helps us keep playing most of our catalogue. It seems like the purpose is really two fold — you keep the people who are seeing 25 to 30 shows per year interested, while you introduce older songs in the catalogue to the newer fans, and hopefully send them further down the rabbit hole that is Umphrey’s McGee. After 18 years, we have over 175 original songs that we still play live. It’s incredibly gratifying to be at the point where we can play seven to eight shows in a row and not repeat a song if that’s what we want to do. Variety is the spice of life, and the spice of Umphrey’s McGee.

CLTure: Touring as much as you all do, I’m willing to bet you’ve seen or experienced some crazy things. What one event or incident will you guys always remember and still joke about to this day?

JC: Oh there are many ongoing jokes that get daily airtime. I think that’s one of the more fun things about being able to tour with your friends and the same people over the years. The experiences we all have in common really allow us to keep working on our friendships and talk smack to each other every day. We get to meet and interact with so many people over the course of the year, often meetings heroes and people we look up to. So that part is really gratifying. A couple years back, we played overseas in Australia at the Byron Bay Blues Fest. Needless to say, we were all a little out of whack with our internal clocks and a little off our collective game. We had an autograph signing after our set with the guys from Galactic and we all sat down at the same table to do it. Kris is one of the most outgoing and nice dudes in rock ‘n roll (not to mention the best drummer), and walked up to who he thought was Bernie Worrell sitting at the table. We had played with Bernie at Bear Creek earlier that year, and had a nice connection. Kris walked up and said ‘Yo Bernie! How are ya? You’re looking great!’ except that it was Cyril Neville not Bernie.  Cyril was really nice about it, but Kris will never live that one down. When he walk on the bus now, he will often be greeted with “Yo Bernie!”


CLTure: You’ve performed in Charlotte a handful of times over the years; have you found any restaurants or unique spots that are a “must-go” when you’re in town or in the Carolinas?

JC: Sadly most of our tour days are pretty full, we rehearse more than most bands on the road and typically have food brought to the venue or catered so I don’t know Charlotte as well as I probably should. That said, we all loved Carolina barbecue and that’s something that we usually seek out when in town. We’ve also played in many other towns in the Carolinas and love Asheville, Raleigh, Wilmington & of course Charleston, where a few of the guys in the band live.  In Charleston, we always try to stop at either Husk or Fig, which are two of our favorite local eateries.

CLTure: For someone who may have never been to an UM show, what can they expect?

JC: First off, if you haven’t been to Umphrey’s McGee show, just do it. Our fans are some of the most down-to-earth, nice people you will ever meet. So even if you come to a show by yourself, you will make friends and maybe some friends for life. The show itself is always different — sometimes it’s more of a dance party, sometimes more of a progressive rock night, sometimes there’s lots of improvisation and sometimes there are surprise special guests. We play so many styles and so many different covers (though usually only one to two covers/night) that you never know what you’re gonna get. Our production always blows people away as the light show really makes the music shine on a more visceral level. All in all, an Umphrey’s McGee show is a party with your friends where you can leave everything else behind for a few hours. We like to have a good time while also playing some occasionally challenging music.

Umphrey’s McGee 2014 photo by Carter Short.

CLTure: What can we look forward to from UM in the next year or so? Anything on the roadmap?

JC: Always new things on the road map. We take pride in doing out-of-the-box ideas that other bands haven’t thought of. One thing you can check out in Charlotte is our Headphones & Snowcones upgrade where you rent a set of headphones for the show. Our fans have flipped out on this over the past couple years, you get a stereo matrix mix of the show, giving you all of the details that might otherwise escape your ears, while simultaneously removing the extra noise from chatty folks or bad singers behind you. Or maybe you want to walk to the bar, or even the bathroom during the show… now you don’t have to miss a single note.  

As far as touring, we’ll likely be doing another 90 to 95 show year in 2016 and hitting every major city around the country. Our live show is where we thrive, and thankfully our fans agree.

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