Twenty-One Years Later, Umphrey's McGee Is Still Going Strong

Umphrey's McGee
Umphrey's McGee Photo by Shervin Lainez
It's a point of pride for the jam band Umphrey's McGee that in this, its 21st year of existence, it released not one, but two new records: It's Not Us and It's You. "It's great we can show people that 20 years into the band, we're not rehashing old music," keyboardist and singer Joel Cummins says. "We came out of the studio with 24 songs and didn't feel like any of them were unworthy. We put one out in January with a lot of promotion, and we put It's You out a few months later in the middle of the night." The two records are linked with a prog-rock sound and a Seinfeld reference in their titles. Says Cummins: "We like to be self-depreciating with our humor."

The band's name was inspired by a cousin of guitarist Brendan Bayliss — Humphrey Magee — whose name they laughed over during college days at the University of Notre Dame. "The music scene at South Bend, Indiana, wasn't happening," Cummins recalls. "Finding like-minded people at bars and parties got us motivated to get together." The original lineup bonded over improvisation by musicians such as Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, the Grateful Dead, and Phish. "There weren't many people interested in pursuing music as a career. In my senior year, we started the band, and we stayed around since the cost of living wasn't much. It afforded us the time to work on our chops and our sound and songwriting."

Over their two-decade career, they've built a strong following based on the stellar reputation of their live shows. "We have 250 tunes that we can plug in and out of our live rotation. During our sound check, we spend an hour each day working on the sets. It helps us stay focused on the road." Their musicianship is strong enough that they might be the only Notre Dame alums who are applauded in Miami. "The nice thing about music is it's not a competition. We don't keep score in music — though I do have to admit I take joy that one of my tenants in a property I own is a University of Miami grad. It gives me satisfaction he has to give me money every month."

Though Cummins fell into being a landlord, he's been training to be a musician his entire life. "I started playing piano at 8," he says. "I took lessons from an organist at church. She taught us amazingly complicated pieces. I studied classical music, but also ragtime and blues." That passion extended to a vast collection that the band's website says includes 119 keyboards. Cummins laughs at that figure. "It's more like 20. I have six different keyboards onstage. I'm a big fan of analog instruments, and the variety allows for lots of textures and sounds for all the directions the band might go."

Umphrey's McGee. 6 p.m. Friday, August 17, at Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach;; 305-673-7300. Tickets cost $20 to $35 via
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David Rolland is a freelance music writer for Miami New Times. His novels, The End of the Century and Yo-Yo, are available at many fine booksellers.
Contact: David Rolland