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Published: 2010/06/24
by Randy Ray

A Very Umphrey’s Summer

Photo by Kelsey Winterkorn sits down with Umphrey’s McGee keyboardist Joel Cummins just a week away from the commencement of another summer tour for a band which is working on its second decade together. And this particular summer carries with it much to celebrate. After releasing one of their best albums, Mantis in January 2009, Umphrey’s helmed the successful S2 improvisation series last fall—essentially, an evening of pure improvisation—and brought that to a higher level with their first UMBowl this past April—four sets, or quarters, of improvisation based mainly on fan submissions. Chicago’s finest will close the evening at Red Rocks on July 3 after Galactic and the Wailers play, which is all part of their first headlining summer tour in the band’s history.

Indeed, there is much to talk about as we sit down with Cummins for a lengthy discussion on the state of Umphrey’s in 2010 and beyond. On a personal front, the keyboardist has another fine reason to be quite happy these days; although, one would be hard-pressed to find a more amiable and entertaining gentleman as Cummins discusses the band in candid fashion while noting how his personal life is carefully balanced with an active music life. “It has been very eventful since the last time we talked,” said Cummins. “Dasha and I got married four weeks ago in Jamaica. We had two of our favorite bands play there for us. We had the Uglysuit, the music we fell in love to, and they even played during the ceremony. Brendan and Jake played a little bit at the reception, and the New Mastersounds played, too. It was a rager. Since then, we just went down to Bonnaroo.”

RR: How was the Bonnaroo experience for you this year?

JC: Without Widespread, Phish, or something like that, it was definitely more of an indie rock crowd than it’s been in the past. I got in on Thursday night, and saw a couple of bands. But on Friday, from 11 in the morning to the point when we left at 7 o’clock at night, we were literally slammed from the beginning to the end with media stuff, and doing some studio recording. I honestly really didn’t get to hear too much music. But, it was great to be there and, of course, be up there playing. We had a 90-minute set on the Which Stage, and I had the pleasure of being in the sun for that. I tried to balance out my tan the rest of the weekend. (laughter) But, no—it was really great. I think probably more than any other Bonnaroo in the past—we definitely had our few thousand diehards that were down there up in front—but, definitely a lot of new ears, which is a great thing to be able to do and play for new people at a festival.

RR: And Brock Butler sat in with Umphrey’s again on the Sonic Stage later on.

JC: Yeah, he came up for “Graceland” [Paul Simon]. We’ve done that with him a couple of times, and he always just kills it. He’s great. Love having Brock up. He was hanging out, and around, so we said, “Let’s do it.”

RR: You had a very cool gig right before you went to Tennessee where you and Umphrey’s drummer Kris Myers played at the Chicago Bluesfest Kick-Off Jam.

JC:That was absolutely amazing. It went even better than I hoped. I got the itinerary a couple of days before the event, and I noticed that Otis Taylor was going on right before us. Otis is way up there with me. He’s definitely one of the cooler blues guys. When I first heard his music, and they introduced it as “trance blues,” I was thinking, “Oh, this is such a cool idea!”—staying on one chord, and occasionally having the four-on-the-floor kick drum, but it’s a really groovy, vibe-y performance. Yeah, when I heard he was going to playing there, I asked Vince [Iwinski, Umphrey’s McGee manager], “Can you reach out to his management, and let him know that I would love to sit in with him and play.” He did, and Otis apparently knew who we were a little bit. Last September, when we did Telluride Blues and Brews, he was there, as well, and sat in with Buddy Guy while Jake and Brendan were sitting in with him.

It was really cool to have that connection. He wrote back to Vince and said, “Yeah, we’d love to have Joel play with us.” I showed up a little bit before the show, and he played me a couple of things that he was going to do, and then he said, “Yeah, you know what, I’m probably going to get up there and change it anyway. Just go up there, and I’ll tell you what key we’re in.” He ended up asking Kris to play drums with him, too, so the two of us ended up being part of his backing band for that set. It was just really cool.

For our set, we played with Cathy Richardson, who is now singing with Jefferson Starship. She’s been a Chicago-based, cool rock woman for a while. We did a little tribute to Koko Taylor. I know you remember that a couple years ago, Koko sat in with us on our New Year’s Run, and that was one of her last performances before she passed away, so we thought it would be cool to do a tribute to her. We did her version of the Etta James’ tune “Come to Mama.” Then, we did Jefferson Airplane’s “Uncle Sam’s Blues.” Cathy sang that, and she just killed it, too.

The one really funny and notable part—and I was kind of waiting for this to happen—was that Wednesday night, the night of the benefit, was the same night the ’hawks [Chicago Blackhawks] won the [Stanley Cup] championship. Literally ten seconds (laughs) after we walked off after the last note from Otis Taylor, the bar erupted into a crazy frenzy. I was waiting for it to happen during the first verse of something, so I could think, “Oh, man—we really hit our stride there.” (laughter) It was really a cool event, and the turnout was great, and I think they raised a lot of money for a good cause, which is exactly what we were trying to do. [Author’s Note: event proceeds benefited the Chicago Chapter of the Recording Academy programming, local artists, and music industry professionals.]

RR: What were the initial preparations like for the UMBowl, four quarters of improvisation based on specific themes, mainly based on ideas from the audience? And what were your impressions during the event, and afterwards?

JC: We spent so much time coming up with the concept for this even to the point that when we announced it, and we put it on sale, we were still wondering: how is this going to go? Are the fans really going to be into this? We thought they were, but you just never really know. Of course, we put it on sale, and it sold out in ten minutes or something. We said, “O.K. We did it. People are coming now, and now, the pressure’s on.”

A lot of the ideas that we came up with, on the front end, was really fun to be quite honest. The fans chose a lot of the ones that we thought they would like—different variations on songs, whether it’s a new version of something, or a couple of old songs that we hadn’t played in a long time that we knew we’d have to revisit and rework. That whole process of doing that, and having the fan’s vote—we went into it, and, of course, we were a little nervous about how it was going to go, but, at the same time, I knew that at least for two of those quarters, we had picked things that were the most popular things that people wanted to hear. So, we had a pretty good idea that they were going to like it. (laughs)

The second quarter, which was the S2 one, was probably the most harrowing. [Author’s Note: begun in the fall of 2009, S2 stands for the Stew Art Series, and it features Umphrey’s McGee completely improvising an entire set via fan-based suggestions, generally coming through on text messages to sound caresser Kevin Browning, who then reviews, selects, and sends to the band on stage, viewing the idea via mobile projector.] Our Mozes platform that we were going to use that day didn’t end up working out, and we had to revert back to the ones we used for the S2s. We were going to use a platform where Kevin could just directly entire phrases, and they would go up because we anticipated that, with that many people there, it would be hard to do a point-and-click thing—they would just be coming in too fast. We had to abandon that platform on the last day because there were some technical issues with it that we couldn’t get resolved.

So, after going back to the regular S2 platform, a point-and-click thing, as a result, we lost some of the control of the moderator being able to select things. He was trying to pick things, but when he was clicking on it, what was showing up was completely different. (laughter) There were a few that got up there that he would have never picked, and he thought, “I can’t believe these got up there.” Some were more successful than others. A couple of the ones that I remember actually working out O.K. that we were like “oh, man, we couldn’t believe that happened right away”—I think it was one of the last ones, “Titties and Beer” [Frank Zappa]. (laughter) He said, “I would never choose that.” Here we are at the end of this, and that’s up there, but Brendan and Jake were able to come up with some lyrical stuff that was absolutely hilarious.

Another one [Browning] said he would have never chosen was “Bathtub Gin & Juice.” That’s one that that our fans have really…I feel like they’ve gotten a lot better at knowing the S2 things that will work, and even though that was something Kevin wouldn’t have picked, everyone absolutely loved that one, everyone knew it, and so that was pretty cool.

The fourth quarter, of course, was where it was the live voting, and we gave people a “choose your own adventure” with only a couple of stops through the set. I thought that one was really fun. It was fun to see things develop right before our eyes as it was happening. By the end of it, at the end of the fourth quarter, we walked off the stage, and Kris is just leaning against the wall, and said, “Oh my God—I’m done. I’m so glad it’s over.” We said, “Yeah—we still have an encore.” (laughter) “NOOOO!” But he was a real trooper, and got back out there and killed it one more time.

I think that’s one of the things that maybe people don’t think about quite as much with our band versus something that is not quite as intense drumwise. Kris is out there just destroying the drums for at least a good portion of the set, right? And, it’s just so exhausting for him on a night to night basis. When we’re on the road, he can’t keep his metabolism up. He loses weight every tour. I think sometimes people will get on us for, you know, our shows not being long enough, or something that could have been different, and a lot of times, it’s like “Listen—we’ve got to make sure we have a drummer tomorrow, and his wings don’t fall off.” (laughs)

I think the inaugural UMBowl was a complete success. The Lincoln Hall venue is just an amazing venue in Chicago. We were thrilled to be able to do it there, and we’ll see where it goes next year. I’m not sure that it’s an event that we keep in Chicago, or it’s going to be an event that we move around.

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