Umphrey's McGee brings jammy craft to Harrah's Tahoe
Umphrey’s McGee has frequently played in Tahoe or Reno, and its sound is not unlike the weather here: If there’s something you don’t like about it, wait a few minutes.
Indeed, this Indiana band has earned a robust following by merging styles, from folk to rock to heavy metal. The band plays March 24 at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe.
Founding member and keyboardist Joel Cummins said the diversity in the band is definitely willful.
“All of us grew up studying and listening to different kinds of music,” said Cummins, speaking from Sand Point, Idaho, the first stop on the band’s latest tour. “It’s something we wanted from the get-go: to push each other a little bit in different directions. I think that with such an ADD world we live in now, it’s become a real asset.”
Fans in the “jam band” scene do have a reputation for liking different styles, and Cummins said the band has heard some good audience response to the more left-field parts of its set.
“It’s been interesting to see our sound expand and then the reactions to it,” he said. “Some people are more into the ‘prog’ sounding songs, and some are more into the dance-ier songs like ‘Bad Friday.’ Some people are more into the very delicate instrumental passages we do, like on ‘End of the Road’ from our album, ‘Safety in Numbers.’ And, we sometimes bring out acoustic guitars and just break things down into that.
“For me, it’s one of the most fun things about being in the band. Thirty (percent) to 40 percent of our show is improv, so we never know where we are going to go.”
That long, sometimes unpredictable road for Umphrey’s McGee began on the campus of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. It was late 1997 when the group formed from two other bands. The orignal lineup featured Cummins along with current McGee members Brendan Bayliss on guitar and Ryan Stasik on bass.
Percussionist Andy Farag joined the band within a year, while guitarist Jake Cinninger signed up in 2000. With this lineup, the band started playing nationally, including a set at the first Bonnaroo festival in June 2002.
The present lineup was completed with drummer Kris Myers, who replaced first drummer Mike Mirro in 2003. A year later, the band’s “Anchor Drops” album became the first to garner national attention. Steady touring and a mix of live and studio albums led to the point where McGee is now: selling out theaters, becoming a top festival draw and self-releasing their own albums.
That long history has served Umphrey’s McGee well. Cummins said keeping the sets fresh is something the band strives for, adding that “we have over 200 original songs at this point that we keep in rotation.” It also gets help from its own website that tracks the songs the band has played over many years. Cummins said the group looks at the site and checks the city they are about to play in before their next show at that stop.
“So, when we come back through, the songs are not repeating,” Cummins added. “We’re definitely doing that for Harrah’s (Tahoe) this year. I think that’s what we did last year when we played in Reno (at Cargo). That venue had recently opened, I think, and we had a lot of fun there.”
The reason for all the analytics has something to do with McGee’s audience makeup.
“At this point, our fanbase has really expanded to the point where a lot of people go every time we play in the area, or they even go (to multiple shows) on a part of the tour,” Cummins said. “So, they are expecting a different show every time. And we really, honestly appreciate that. Variety is something that for me is really important.”
Cummins said he and the band have fond memories of their many shows in Tahoe. He mentioned two in particular: a St. Patrick’s Day show in 2013 at Montbleu Resort Casino that he described as “a fun one, a really wild party,” and then a show with a funny twist at Tahoe City’s River Ranch Lodge 10 years before that. During that one, Mirro’s vocal microphone took an odd swing backwards – and vaulted over a short wall into the river that is close to the outdoor stage.
“Also, from that same show, we were loading out and we noticed, about 150 to 200 feet from us, a couple of bears in the river hunting for fish,” Cummins said. “So, we decided we didn’t want to retrieve that microphone.”
What McGee did find, after some time, was the independence they’ve always sought with its own label being founded in 2014. Cummins said that it has its pros and cons after working with indies their entire career, but the positives outweigh any hassles.
“We really get to the make the decision about what we want to put out,” he said. “We’re really using the label to have a little extra connection with our fanbase. We think our fans are people that appreciate a little deeper edge with the music. We’re not trying to go for the top 40 sound, so we can have this avenue to release all the different things we do, whether they are studio albums or live.”
Plus there are the many DVDs McGee has also released, often being produced at their own expense with professional equipment. Yet, that points out the cons with being your own boss, Cummins said. “The downside is, of course, that it’s all a lot more work and you lose a bit of that potential reach, or extensive reach, to a bigger audience. But, we are willing to make that trade for really being in charge of our art and having the last say.”
As for the future, more shows and a follow-up to the band’s latest studio album are in the works for this year. And, the experience of last year’s “The London Session” will be hard to beat, said Cummins. It was recorded at Abbey Road Studios, the famous place where the Beatles created most of their classic work, as did Pink Floyd for its early work, including its classic “Dark Side of the Moon.”
“For me, the feeling of being there went back and forth between elation and completely freaking out,” Cummins said of Abbey Road. “’OK, can I live up to what this studio is about?’ But you know, we really didn’t have a concrete plan. We just went in to see how much we could get down, so I think that helped us. I was a little nervous, but once you settle into the studio vibe, in some ways it was the same as anywhere.”