Three nights of Umphrey’s McGee at Belly Up Aspen
Springtime is Umphrey’s McGee season in Aspen.
The beloved six-piece progressive jam band’s multi-night springtime runs at Belly Up — where the band returns for three shows Thursday through Saturday night — have become a tent-pole event in Aspen’s music scene over the past decade. Last year Umphrey’s opened The Aprés, Aspen Skiing Co.’s one-off outdoor music festival, at Buttermilk. And Colorado has become an artistic second home for Umphrey’s, which formed at the University of Notre Dame 22 years ago.
“Colorado has become, probably, our biggest market at this point,” Umphrey’s keyboardist Joel Cummins said during one of the band’s annual spring visits to Aspen.
In 2017, 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, while members’ side projects regularly take the stage at small venues in Denver.
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They’re out this way frequently enough that Cummins and his wife buy season ski passes.
Known for its commitment to fans and its adventurous improvisations — part Frank Zappa, part Metallica, part Miles Davis — Umphrey’s McGee will never play the same set twice. Cummins noted that Umphrey’s has about 200 original songs in rotation for its live shows, along with their stable of crowd-pleasing covers (their Aprés set included a well-received spin on The Police’s “When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Around”). But after some 2,500 concerts, keeping it fresh takes some work. The band studies set lists of prior Aspen performances to avoid repeating themselves.
“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.”
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.”
Personal fan service has been the heart of the Umphrey’s project from the start. As they broke out nationally in the early 2000s, they became one of the first acts to make CD recordings of concerts immediately available to fans. That initiative spawned a Grateful Dead-styled tape-trading culture among the Umphrey’s faithful, where superfans debate the best versions of songs, best improvisations, best sets and study the minutia of live performances.
Many fans who make the pilgrimage to Aspen have seen upwards of 100 Umphrey’s shows.
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.
Umphrey’s band released its 11th studio album, “it’s not us,” in early 2018, followed by a surprise 12th “it’s you” four months later. These newest songs are a stylistic adventure for the band. From song to song, they jump from the heavy metal of “Remind Me” to the acoustic folk balladry of “You & You Alone” to the industrial rock of “Looks” and the dance pop of “Forks.”
To make the album, the band lived together in a rented five-bedroom downtown Chicago condo in late 2016. 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.
“We’d leave the studio, go back to the condo and keep talking music,” he said. “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.”
Cummins said he and his bandmates went into the studio for “it’s not us” 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.”
In their third decade together, Cummins credits the longevity of Umphrey’s to its members’ 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.”
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