Keeping on: Umphrey’s McGee are still playing the long game

Known for its strong live sets and prolific catalog, Umphrey’s McGee can jam through metal, funk, jazz, blues, reggae, electronic, bluegrass, and folk in a single evening. Publicity photo Known for its strong live sets and prolific catalog, Umphrey’s McGee can jam through metal, funk, jazz, blues, reggae, electronic, bluegrass, and folk in a single evening. Publicity photo

The first time Umphrey’s McGee played in Charlottesville—in 2002, upstairs at the old Starr Hill brewery on West Main Street—a few dozen people showed up. The band was in its barnstorming phase, with its six members, fresh out of college, charging around the country in a crowded van. The Starr Hill show was one of more than 160 that year.

Umphrey’s—now familiar to local fans of improvisational rock music from years of shows at the Jefferson Theater and Lockn’ Festival—steadily built a career in the years after that Starr Hill date, and will roll into its upcoming show at the Sprint Pavilion with two tour buses and a 53-foot semi truck for gear. The touring operation, counting band members, now includes as many as 20 people, depending on whether a given performance is being webcast.

In one sign of the band’s footing in the industry, its tour schedule these days is a bit slimmer, at 85 to 90 shows a year. In another, the current tour will conclude with an Umphrey’s-headlined music festival in the Woodlands of South Carolina. And keyboardist Joel Cummins is now in a position to share wisdom from the road in his new how-to book, The Realist’s Guide to a Successful Music Career, co-authored with Matt DeCoursey.

Still, Cummins says, longtime friends like Huey Lewis help keep things in perspective.

“Huey will always introduce us as ‘a great up-and-coming band,’” he says, “so in his eyes we’re still up-and-coming.”

The music business has changed, of course, since Lewis released Sports in 1983 and saw it go multi-platinum, with four top-10 singles. Without a foundation of record sales to depend on, artists now rely more on touring, and on cultivating new revenue channels.

“We’re kind of in the category of famous to 10,000 and unknown to millions,” Cummins says. “And that’s okay, you know?”

Part of the work of maintaining a performance-oriented act through the years is building and sustaining a fan base, and the band’s prominence within the jam-band scene is a double-edged sword: On one hand, the fans are fervent and loyal, coming out to see multiple shows a year because they know every setlist, and every performance, will be different.

On the other hand, Cummins says, “as people get older, they’re having families, other commitments, the things that get in the way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to go see 10 to 15 shows in 2019.’”

In that sense, a show in a college town like Charlottesville—while the University of Virginia is in session—is a precious audience-building opportunity. The band aims to dazzle newcomers with a high-powered light show and an energetic set.

Musically, Umphrey’s McGee has long differentiated itself in the jam-band scene by incorporating darker elements from metal, prog-rock, and funk, while still leaving room for collaborators from across the musical spectrum like the Yonder Mountain String Band and Dave Matthews Band saxophonist Jeff Coffin.

“It’s not just a world of rainbows and smiley faces at an Umphrey’s McGee show,” Cummins quips.

“You just try to keep embracing the youthful atmosphere that’s provided by being able to create music, particularly improvisational music.” Joel Cummins

Still, onstage, “I think we’re thinking about what is it that we need to give the crowd right now?” he adds. “If we get halfway through the set and we’re like, ‘Okay, we’ve done a lot of really heavy, intense stuff,’ maybe we do something a little more serene and ambient and beautiful for a minute. It is really fun. It’s fun to be able to control that kind of stuff in the moment.”

The band, which formed in Indiana and Chicago, maintains a Midwestern work ethic, preparing methodically for these quick onstage decisions: One of its secret weapons is a portable backstage practice rig for staying sharp and developing new ideas.

At first blush, attention to sonic detail and a healthy work-life balance may appear out of step with the jam-band scene’s bygone hippie roots, when the Grateful Dead were slipping acid into unsuspecting TV crews’ coffee pots. Yet Cummins says Umphrey’s approach came from years of trial and error, and took time to dial in. Eventually the band members, now in their early 40s, started families and moved to different cities around the country.

Not that Umphrey’s McGee is ready to slow down, musically speaking.

“You just try to keep embracing the youthful atmosphere that’s provided by being able to create music, particularly improvisational music,” Cummins says. “There’s something about that that keeps your energy in a more youthful way, and I feel lucky about that.”

Two decades after the band’s first shows in living rooms and college bars, “I think we all feel incredibly grateful that people do care,” Cummins says. “I think that’s probably one of the hardest things in music in 2019: How do you get people to care about what you’re doing and, let alone come to one show, but then after they leave that show, say, ‘I’d go do that again’?” —Jake Mooney

Umphrey’s McGee/ Sprint Pavilion/ September 20

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