Umphrey’s McGee Teams with Railroad Earth for Red Rocks Concert

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:: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: September 14 ::
:: Boulder Theater :: September 15 ::

By Timothy Dwenger

In some people’s eyes, one of the things that makes a good band great is their ability to improvise on the fly — go off-the-grid so to speak — and create amazing new musical passages as the members feed off the energy of the crowd and their own desire to break through invisible barriers and enter unexplored territory.

The Grateful Dead, obviously, pioneered the art of noodling and experimenting on stage in front of thousands of fans who hung on their every note.

Utilizing the Dead’s freeform esthetic as a template, a whole genre of jam bands has grown up over the past 20 years and rabid throngs of music enthusiasts follow these bands from city to city hoping for that elusive transcendent moment on stage where everything falls into place and the band and the crowd are as one, lost in an explosive moment of creativity that may never happen again. One of the band’s at the forefront of this movement today is Umphrey’s McGee.

Formed in 1997 at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, Umphrey’s McGee has been steadily building a fanbase and following for the last 15 years as they created a new brand of progressive rock. While they certainly owe a debt to acts like King Crimson, Tool, and even Iron Maiden, what Umphrey’s is doing today is something unique in a world of sound-alikes.

One of the keys to UM’s success is their undying commitment to improvisational greatness.  From show to show, tour to tour, and year to year, the members of the band are completely focused on thinking as a unit on stage and creating new music each and every night. In fact, they even have a name for these improvisational sections of their shows. They are called “Jimmy Stewart” and named after a Ballroom the group jammed in back in 2001.

“We use that term as a broad definition for ‘here is some improvisation,’” said keyboardist Joel Cummins in a recent interview with The Marquee from his home in Venice, Calif.  “So, when we talk about a place in the setlist for ‘Jimmy Stewart’ it could literally be a ton of different ideas.  Sometimes we’ll have a brief outline of an ‘A’ section and a ‘B’ section that we have drawn up right before the show, sometimes it will be completely off-the-cuff and something that’s happening right there in the moment, and sometimes we don’t know where or when it’s going to happen,” he said.

While many of these sections of shows are fleeting, “here and then it’s gone” kinds of moments, over the years several of these musical explorations have turned into full fledged songs.

“Back in late 2002, we came up with the A and the B sections to the song ‘In The Kitchen,’ from the album Anchor Drops, at the Aggie Theatre up in Fort Collins,” Cummins revealed. “So that was something that we had late in 2002 and then I think it was by the third or fourth show of 2003 that we had the complete song together and started playing it live.” While some research proved that this build-up actually happened over the course of eight or nine shows in late 2002, the point remains the same: these jams are an integral part of the UM songwriting process.

Of course, their process also includes the more traditional methods of playing each other riffs and chord progressions, and jotting down hooks, but since several of the band members have moved away from their home base in Chicago over the last year, those moments of sitting together while not on the road are fewer and farther between. “At this point we have sort of spread out a little bit, but one of the really important things that we talked about when we first broached the subject of living somewhere else is making sure that we are still working on new material, still always working on practicing for the shows, and not really letting distance when we aren’t on the road effect us too negatively,” said Cummins. “Of course, with technology now, it’s so easy for us to send songs and ideas back and forth over the internet. We are really lucky to be living in a time when we can do something like this. I don’t think that ten years ago it would have worked quite as well.”

When UM hit Colorado for what is becoming a tradition of playing Red Rocks each year, they will be joined by a band that, at first glance, seems like an unlikely co-headliner, Railroad Earth. But Cummins shared some of the back-story and cleared things up a bit as to the bands’ relationships. “We’ve known each other for quite a few years now, having played around the festival scene, and I actually got the chance to see them several times in the last few years at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival,” he said. “It immediately struck me that it was something that a lot of our fans would enjoy as well. While they definitely have some roots in bluegrass, there’s some rock and roll there, there’s some things, much like Umphrey’s McGee, where you can’t really pin it down to what it is. That’s a great hallmark of having an original sound and playing original music. It’s just good music, that’s all there is to it.”

 

:: Umphrey’s McGee ::

:: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: September 14 ::

:: Boulder Theater :: September 15 ::

 

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