Umphrey’s McGee

Umphrey’s McGee has been hailed as a highlight of Bonnaroo and the heirs to the Phish crown, but don’t think the six-piece is just another “hippy jam band.”

“Umphrey’s McGee are as much a progressive rock band as they are a jazz band as they are a jam band,” agent Jonathan Levine of Monterey Peninsula Artists / Paradigm told Pollstar. “They are musical contortionists.”

The Chicago-based group let its myriad influences coalesce in the recording studio over an 11-month period last year. The resulting album, Safety In Numbers, is its third and is set for an April release on SCI Fidelity.

The band began as a four-piece in South Bend, Indiana, in late 1997, and has evolved into the lineup of dual guitarists/vocalists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger, keyboardist/vocalist Joel Cummins, bassist Ryan Stasik, drummer/vocalist Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag.

Pollstar spoke with founding member Cummins just days before Umphrey’s McGee flew across the Atlantic for its second European tour. The group’s strategy across the pond mirrors its early rise in the U.S., when the guys would send free CDs to anyone willing to pass them out.

“It’s been a very grassroots effort to try to get people to know our music over there,” Cummins told Pollstar. “We definitely have sold some albums, but compared to what we’re doing over here in the U.S., it’s going to feel like our first trip to Colorado again.”

Cummins described the group’s ascendance as “pretty gradual,” but admitted there have been a few big benchmarks, starting with a sold-out New Year’s Eve 2001 gig at Chicago’s 1,400-capacity Vic Theatre.

He also cited a marathon performance at Bonnaroo 2004 – when the band rocked thousands of attendees from midnight to 4:30 a.m. – and modestly acknowledged this past New Year’s Eve, when fans snapped up 9,000 tickets for two sold-out nights at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.

Although there’s no place like home, especially when it comes to attendance, Umphrey’s McGee has earned a nationwide audience of loyal fans.

“Anywhere that you look, we’ve probably got anywhere between 500 to 700 people that will come out to the show,” Cummins said. “We’ve been touring the whole country since 2001, so we’ve just kind of made it to every corner and we’ve kept going back.

“Eventually, we’ve convinced people that they’ll come out and have a good time, I guess.”

For a band that covers the country so frequently, it might come as a surprise that Umphrey’s McGee is rarely on the road for more than a couple weeks at a time.

“We tour a little bit differently than the traditional touring model,” Cummins explained. “After doing our first monster six-week tour in 2001, there was this kind of feeling that, can we do this a better way? Can we do this and make it feel a little more normal?

Umphrey’s McGee

“So as opposed to doing that, we’ll go out for a week and a half or, at the most, two and a half weeks at a time, and then come back home for a few days.

“To me, it’s kind of this symbiotic relationship with music and living when you’re off the road, and you need each one of those to feed the other parts of your life. It’s really hard on that fifth week of a six-week tour to go out there and do some creative improvisation.

“We’ve sort of forged our own way with that model, and it’s definitely worked for us. It keeps us fresh,” Cummins said.

“These guys have a very solid work ethic,” Levine emphasized. “Just because they do not stay out for lengthy tours of six or eight weeks at a time doesn’t mean they don’t work hard.”

Indeed, the band doesn’t let a month go by without at least 5 or 6 shows, and plans to play around 120 gigs this year.

“We’ve kind of done this grassroots, so it’s not like we have to have an album out to go tour and support it,” Cummins added. “We’ll just kind of go out there and play when we feel like it, which is nice.”

In addition to keyboard duties, Cummins originally served as the group’s manager and booking agent.

“Right in the beginning, I knew it was taking away a lot from my practicing and writing so I wanted to get out of that. One of our friends was interested in becoming our manager, and he’s still our manager – Vince Iwinski.”

Umphrey’s McGee later hooked up with booking agent Armand Sadlier of Vision International, cementing a team that understood the band’s commitment to its long-term goals. Likewise, when Levine took over booking duties in 2004, he eagerly embraced the group’s focus and sense of mission.

“One of the many things that is so incredible about this band is the unique approach they bring to their music and to the overall experience for them as artists and for their fans,” Levine said. “Their song selection and setlists, combined with their artwork and studio recordings, and community outreach, is phenomenal.”

“I don’t sign a lot of bands,” he added. “I started speaking with this band literally many years before I actually started working with them.”

Upon its return from Europe, Umphrey’s McGee will headline clubs and theatres through early May. Summer plans include Bonnaroo and a July run with fellow MPA client Dave Matthews Band.

“They are a spectacular live band and a great group of guys to work with,” Levine said. “They are intensely focused and have a magical chemistry together both on and off the stage.”