Breaking it Down with Umphrey’s McGee

The notion of genre seems increasingly indefinable. Every time you think you understand it, some band exceeds the parameters enough to make you reconsider. Such is the case with Umphrey’s McGee. Though often defined as a “jam band,” attending a show and perusing their catalogue will reveal that they’re much more than jam. Although jam has merits of its own, what sets Umphrey’s apart is their ability to incorporate everything from progressive rock to soul to electronics all in the same music. Having the good fortune to speak with Joel Cummins, who provides keyboards and vocals for Umphrey’s, I asked him a bit about how their genre-bending music is made.
Reflecting on the comparisons often drawn to Umphrey’s, we find reasons for their label as jam. When asked how the band takes to comparisons with Phish, Cummins says, “We’ll agree they’re a great band, that’s a compliment, and we definitely share the same philosophy about how we improv.”
What makes Umphrey’s unique, though, is the point in the music where the jam has been completely replaced by distortion, electronics and progressive beats. It makes sense then that Cummins also found differences that make the Phish comparison difficult: “Our music is a little heavier with more intensity — artists like Miles Davis, The Grateful Dead and Phish have laid the groundwork for this improv.”
Even more interesting are the non-musical influences that affect the band members. “I am most recently inspired by architecture,” says Cummins. “In Barcelona, I got to check out Antoni Gaudí creations, some of the most original architecture using natural earth elements.”
When asked how this translates into the music, Cummins explains, “It’s all about creativity, creating something unique and your own; it strikes me when I look at these pieces of art.”
If the music alone doesn’t set Umphrey’s apart, their performances certainly seal the deal. A live Umphrey’s show is nothing short of an experience. It’s not just because the band comes alive on stage with spontaneous solos and virtuosic improvisation but also because they choose venues that complement their grooves.
“We’ve played many, many shows at the Canopy, and it’s a great venue to play. It feels like a bit of a second home,” Cummins says. This attitude is certainly shared by the fans who frequent their shows in CU and across the country.
Umphrey’s music comes alive during the summer season with gift of outdoor performances. “My favorite venues are the apex of outdoor venues. Being there — being in the mountains or in a natural setting — is perfect for music.”
Though the band performs shows and festivals as big as Bonnaroo or as small as Summer Camp, not one type of event is the best. “It’s nice to be outside in the summer. As long as there’s someone there to play and people to see us, that’s all we need,” Cummins says.
Despite their disinterest in ticket sales, Umphrey’s has seen the summer crowd grow rapidly in the past few years. “We hope to play better, that’s all that matters. Audience size isn’t our goal. We focus on each show. We’re not going to blow the Super Bowl,” Cummins explains.
With their genre-defying sound and high energy, Umphrey’s McGee gives good reason to take a break from studying to go out and listen to some great music. Check them out Wednesday, April 30 at the Canopy Club.

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