Kick out the jam
Critics be damned. Umphrey's McGee has this whole biz figured out.
Jam bands are not cool.
The accoutrements of the genre—Birkenstocks, tie-dye, jester hats, soul patches, marshmallowy Ben & Jerry’s flavors, etc.—are the accessories of the frat boy and the hippie. So, in hopes of sexing up jam rock for those who think Keller Williams is just a Realtor, we asked Umphrey’s McGee, one of the leaders of the jazzy (gulp) fusion (eek) improvisational (ugh) soft-rock (yikes) scene, to regale us with its most debauched tale of rock & roll excess.
“We were in Northampton, Massachusetts,” keyboardist Joel Cummins says. “A guy walked onto the bus. He began bossing us around. We told him to quit, so he yelled, ‘This is my home! I live here!’?” The band dragged the bozo out into the parking lot. Drummer Andy Farag raised his fist; blows were readied. “Wait, wait, wait,” the drunk muttered. “This bus is blue. Mine is black.” The trespasser was Sean Lennon’s guitar tech, blitzed out of his mind. Of course, this anecdote only makes Sean Lennon look more punk rock than Umphrey’s.
Ah, but a dark secret pops up when the conversation turns to the group’s days at the University of Notre Dame (when it was called Toshi Station, after a deep, uncool Star Wars reference): Umphrey’s McGee is banned from playing its alma mater. In 2003, the band was playing campus-bar Legends. “We had a bottle of vodka backstage,” Cummins says with a laugh. “They didn’t like that. Despite the fact we were in a bar.”
Earlier, in 1997, Toshi Station suffered its first disgrace at the watering hole, then Senior Bar, when it failed to place on the podium at the annual battle of the bands. “The Skacoholics won,” Cummins shrugs. “We got voted best new band.”
In the summer of 2000, the then foursome (named for a band member’s distant relative, Humphrey McGee) moved to Chicago, boarding together in a house at Roscoe Street and Greenview Avenue. After Cummins scored them an opening slot with Bela Fleck at the Star Plaza Theatre later that year, offers started to roll in. None of Umphrey’s members have ever held a day job.
Now the sextet (which includes three ND grads) rolls around the States tailed by devoted “Umphreaks.” This weekend, the group headlines the free-spirited, jam-heavy Las Tortugas Festival in Yosemite, California, a growing gathering of this uniquely American musical subculture (see “Music mania,” page 12). Meanwhile, a few hundred miles down the road in Indio, the reunited Phish leads a Halloween bacchanal of 50,000 plus. So what has the return of the jam kings meant for business?
“Phish and the Dead were touring this past summer; there were more festivals than ever,” Cummins notes. “The jam dollar is spread thin.” Yet jam rock will undoubtedly live on. In many regards, the Grateful Dead established a prescient model of how to survive the collapse of the record industry: social networking, a loyal fan base, tour-based revenue. As Umphrey’s McGee—an act at which most mainstream rock scribes turn up their noses—travels on a tour bus comfortably carrying 12 men, it seems these guys have it figured out. “You think jam band, you think hippie,” says Adam Haft, Las Tortugas promoter. “But these people have their shit together. The fans are consultants and computer programmers. They work their ass off so they can then go let steam off.”
Critical respect, however, is another thing. Still, in the past year Rush appeared in a hit romantic comedy and Michael McDonald collaborated with the übertrendy Grizzly Bear. Nobody ever foresaw Kenny Loggins becoming cool. When we compare Umphrey’s McGee to the slick, breezy tunes of Christopher Cross, Cummins perks up. “We have a side band called Yacht Rock,” the 34-year-old gushes. “Our only rules are that we either play on a beach or a body of water.” Put your money on it: the great jam-rock reassessment of 2030.