Soundbites: Umphrey's McGee Loves Burlington | Music News + Views | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Soundbites: Umphrey's McGee Loves Burlington


Published April 17, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Courtesy Of Keith Griner
  • Umphrey's McGee

Rock and roll and adulthood are strange bedfellows. One minute, you're a kid in a stinky, sweaty room filled with beer bottles and roaches (both kinds), huddled with some friends and playing music. The next thing you know, you're a "professional musician" traveling 200 days a year, the stinky rooms have turned into studios, and you have a family waiting for you after the tour. You'd be surprised how quickly it happens.

Just ask Joel Cummins. The keyboard player and founding member of jam-prog band Umphrey's McGee of South Bend, Ind., has been at it for 26 years, since he and his bandmates met as students at the University of Notre Dame in December 1997.

"It's hard to look at things from now to then, honestly," Cummins admitted as we caught up by phone. "I think we maybe had a five-year plan at some point? We were just trying to put one foot in front of the other and make music. It's always been simple in that way, at least."

Thirteen studio albums and more than 2,000 live performances later, that method has clearly worked for Umphrey's, as the band has risen to great success in the jam and progressive-rock worlds. Their beyond-eclectic sound, covering funk, metal, new wave, country and everything in between, has inspired a dedicated fan base across the country. But they seem to have a special bond with Burlington: According to Cummins (with the help of fan site, Umphrey's have played in the Queen City area 24 times.

They'll make it 26 with two shows this week at the Higher Ground Ballroom in South Burlington: Wednesday and Thursday, April 24 and 25.

"It's a little wild to realize how long we've been doing this," Cummins said. "The biggest difference now is that we go on the road to catch up on sleep and focus on the music, because when we get home we all get assaulted by our children! It used to be the other way around: We'd party on the road and come home to recover."

  • Courtesy Of Keith Griner
  • Umphrey's McGee

Cummins thinks the life changes have actually helped the band focus more on chemistry and the instrumental interplay and improvisation that Umphrey's are known for. As he and his bandmates age, their musical tastes and styles have inevitably shifted.

"We've gotten better and better at listening to one another and interacting in the songs," Cummins said. That evolution has helped the band keep its sound diverse, an important part of its appeal. "We don't have a 'sound' like Phish or the [Grateful] Dead," he said. "We don't have boxes. We can get heavy; we can get electronic." Or they can lean into dream pop, as on their latest album, Asking for a Friend.

As Cummins explained, the band's recorded material might not resonate with some as "jam band" music. When they play live, however, Umphrey's delight in taking their songs and pulling them apart, improvising and extending. They call this process the "Jimmy Stewart method," a term coined after a 2001 late-night jam in the dark at the Jimmy Stewart room of the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel.

"We also call it 'Jazz Odyssey' sometimes," Cummins added with a laugh. "We're all big Spinal Tap fans, so you'll see 'JO' on the set list a lot, which is just code for improvisation."

Umphrey's know their fans like the jams, which is one reason they make sure to stuff their live show with them. As much as they love leaning into their prog-rock side, the jams get their fans dancing. Still, Cummins pointed out that the band upped its prog-rock credibility when Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy guested with Umphrey's in 2023 during drummer Kris Myers' recovery from rotator cuff surgery.

"We love existing in both spheres," Cummins said. "At the end of the day, we're trying to give people a show that covers a lot of area. When you've been at something for 26 years, having new sounds to experiment with is both fun and very necessary."

As he excused himself to pick up his 5-year-old daughter from a doctor's appointment, Cummins offered a parting thought.

"The best part of being in a band is getting that chemistry where you can try anything with each other," he said. "I honestly think that principle is the same with the band as it was when we first started out."

For tickets to the shows, visit



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