Umphrey’s McGee returns for three-night run at Belly Up Aspen
IF YOU GO …
What: Umphrey’s McGee
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Wednesday, March 7 through Friday, March 9
How much: $99-$135
Tickets: Belly Up box office; http://www.bellyupaspen.com; Friday’s show is sold out.
It’s Umphrey’s McGee season in Aspen.
The beloved six-piece progressive jam band’s multi-night springtime runs at Belly Up have become a staple of Aspen’s winter music scene over the past decade. And Colorado has become something of an artistic second home for the band, which formed at the University of Notre Dame 20 years ago.
“Colorado has become, probably, our biggest market at this point,” Umphrey’s keyboardist Joel Cummins said in late February from Miami during a tour break.
Last year, Umphrey’s added a three-night stand at Red Rocks Ampitheatre to its summer tour and the band played New Year’s Eve at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium.
Supernatural Beings, Cummins and Umphrey’s drummer Kris Myers’ side project with members of Thievery Corporation and Digital Tape Machine, last month in Denver played a handful of gigs at the jam-band haven Be On Key Psychedelic Ripple.
They’re out this way frequently enough that Cummins and his wife got Mountain Collective ski passes for the season. Before this week’s Aspen shows, they did a ski road trip hopping from Jackson Hole to Colorado’s resorts.
“We’ve got some exciting ski plans,” Cummins said.
The much-anticipated three-night stand, which begins today, sold out months ago. Last week Belly Up released a handful of additional tickets. Friday’s show sold out again immediately, but tickets were still available for today and Thursday at press time.
Known for its commitment to fans and its adventurous improvisations — part Frank Zappa, part Miles Davis — Umphrey’s McGee will never play the same set twice. Cummins noted that the band has about 200 original songs in rotation for its live shows, along with their stable of crowd-pleasing covers. But after some 2,400 concerts, keeping it fresh takes some work. Coming to Aspen for this trio of shows, for instance, the band looked over its set lists from prior performances here to avoid repeating what they’ve done previously.
“We do think about those individual fan bases and we try to give everybody a nice range of things,” Cummins said. “Even year-to-year you’re likely to get completely different songs over a three-night stand in Aspen.”
Fan service has been baked into the Umphrey’s project from the start. As they broke out nationally, for instance, nearly two decades ago, they became one of the first acts to make CD recordings of concerts immediately available to fans. That initiative spawned a Dead-styled tape-trading culture among the Umphrey’s faithful, where the initiated debate the best versions of songs, best improvisations, best sets and study the minutia of live performances.
Different band members write the set list from night to night.
“It’s a fun, creative thing to pass that around between band members,” Cummins said. “So sometimes we’ll consider the fans more and sometimes we’ll play what we want to play. It’s got to be a healthy balance.”
And though Umphrey’s McGee’s ambitious live performances, with coordinated light shows and wild jams, are the band’s signature, they also take immense pride in making records. When they’re recording, Cummins said surprisingly, the band doesn’t think much about how a song might translate live.
“It’s a great thing to be able to go into the studio and treat that as its own piece of art and not worry about how you’re going to pull it off live,” he said.
The band released its 11th studio album, “it’s not us,” in January. The record is a stylistic adventure. From song to song, it jumps from heavy metal (“Remind Me”) to acoustic folk balladry (“You & You Alone”) and industrial rock (“Looks”) to dance pop (“Forks”). Cummins said he and his bandmates went into the studio with about 20 song ideas in disparate styles and challenged themselves to mold them into a coherent 11-track record.
“We were picking what we thought were the best songs,” he said. “Obviously for most bands these wouldn’t go together. But people have come to expect that. It’s what we call ‘ADD Rock’ sometimes.”
To make the album, the band lived together in a rented five-bedroom downtown Chicago condo in late 2016 (just after these devout Cubs fans enjoyed their first World Series championship). As guys in their 40s, half of them with young kids at home, that kind of uninhibited creative time is increasingly rare. So, Cummins said, it was a treat to live and breathe the new music.
“To be able to wake up, get breakfast, start the day and be together, it helped us be on the same page and give us that closeness that we needed,” he explained. “We’d leave the studio, go back to the condo and keep talking music. It was a cool and uniquely immersive experience for us to dive into our music like that. It added to the focus. It added to the fun.”
The 20-year milestone still shocks Cummins and his bandmates. He credits their longevity to their tight-knit bonds.
“We put our friendships first and that’s been huge for this band,” he said. “We’ve all been through ups and downs musically onstage and personally off stage. To go out there and know that you’ve got each other’s backs — it’s an important lesson, I think, for putting together a successful team.”
After two decades, many musicians get sucked into nostalgia and stop looking forward. That’s not the case for Umphrey’s, which has fans as excited to hear the new songs as the old ones, for rarities alongside standards like “All in Time” and “2×2.”
“It feels like we are a band that’s about the cumulative experience of what Umphrey’s McGee has been,” Cummins said. “In the improvisational rock-band scene you sometimes hear fans complaining, ‘Oh, the old stuff was so much better.’ To not have that experience is cool.”
The band’s informal annual residency at Belly Up has become a touchstone event in Aspen and a destination show for fans around the Mountain West. But last summer, the band built on that buzz to launch a three-night, six-set run at Red Rocks. They’ll be back there for three nights after July 4.
“It’s still a completely surreal thing to me that we’ve even headlined Red Rocks once,” Cummins said. “The fact that this is the second year we’ve gotten to go back and play three nights is humbling. It’s mind-blowing to me. It’s such a special place.”
The setting and the history of the legendary open-air arena, Cummins believes, elevates the show and the experience.
“Even before we play a note, people are at about an 8½ or a 9 out of 10 on their overall excitement and happiness level,” he said. “So to be able to bring our fans and friends together for a weekend, it’s beyond special and beyond my wildest dreams of what we thought we could achieve.”
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