BY DONALD MASON
On Thursday, Umphrey’s McGee will be settling into Busters with Orchard Lounge for their only scheduled Kentucky stop this year. They got their start at Notre Dame in the late 90s and have been going for the past two decades. If you haven’t heard of the band, the name is something of folklore. They started out as Hubert Humphrey’s Traveling Band featuring Flappy McGee, later interpreted by the crowd as Umphrey’s McGee due to the slurred words and sketchy microphone of the late great Rodney Dangerfield.
Joel Cummins, keyboard player and founding member kicked off our interview by reminiscing on the heat of this past Bonnaroo (my first dose of UM), his iconic Book-It shirt, and the legendary Stevie Wonder.
“Stevie is one of my heroes. Just played Sir Duke on our New Year’s Eve run in Chicago with a horn section and our drummer Kris Myers came out and sang it. Stevie produces such beautiful wonderful that’s equally enlightening and funky. It’s really special. The accuracy of both his keyboard playing and the amazing range of his voice, he still has it all. One of his heroes that’s one of my heroes is Donny Hathaway. I put on his records all the time when I am at home. It’s cool to hear that influence on Stevie and to hear him talk about big Donny was in his life.”
For modern times, it’s tough to keep a band together, let alone keep the founding members attached. Joel talks about how unity and the bond of friendship played a factor. “The main thing is that we have rooted ourselves in our personal relationships just as much as we have musically. Being close to each other makes making music easier. We don’t have a lot of the hang-ups and egos that a lot of bands are faced with; we’ve taken time to break down the walls from the get go. We realize we’re stronger coming together as a unit than we are individually. The ultimate goal was to avoid sitting behind a desk and so far we’ve achieved that and to get health insurance, those two things. We’re two for two.”
Comparisons have been made between Umphrey’s and Phish, both considered jam bands. A lot of that comes from a generalization to explain a music type or genre. Joel responds, “I think in general, we have a lot of things in common. A lot of the influences are the same for sure, from Frank Zappa, Beatles, Floyd, Talking Heads. We have a similar outlook on the improvisation with those guys. Although they don’t do the communicating with each other verbally or with any kind of signals, it’s kind of more osmotic. I am happy to be compared to those guys because they are fantastic band and group of musicians that I’m definitely a fan of.”
Lately, Joel has faced a tough dilemma with affection for the grand piano vs the utility of analog instruments. “I love playing Yamaha Grand pianos, but sonically it’s an incredible challenge with all the open mics we have on stage. As a tradeoff, the guys are ok with me having 6 keyboards up there, which I would rather have the flexibility of crucial analog instruments like the Hammond B-3 organ, Fender Rhodes, mini Moog Voyager, etc. It makes the show a better experience for the audience, sounds better, less feedback. There are always pros and cons.”
What does he think it takes to make it in music today? “I think the most important thing — I was reading a Malcolm Gladwell publication — and [he says] you need 10,000 hours working on your instrument, working on whatever you are doing, be it performing be it song writing, playing together as a band, that’s where the change happens where you start to understand music as a different language that you may have perceived it as before. There’s really no shortcut to putting in the time.”
We talked about how the music scene has changed in Lexington since they played here last and the future of the scene. “I’m really excited to be coming back to Lexington. We last played The Dame with Monte Montgomery in 2003 or 2004. I am glad we are able to make it happen at Buster’s this time around. It’s going to be a crazy, crazy fun night. Expect to be hung over the next day and to remember you had a great time even though you might not be able to remember specific events.”
Umphrey’s is at Buster’s February 3 and hits Nashville Feb. 18th with Keller Williams.
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