Umphrey’s McGee Pours on the Rock

A chat with keyboard wizard Joel Cummins in advance of the band’s Vegas show


With their feet in ’70s prog-rock and their eyes toward the future, the ever-inventive and prolific Umphrey’s McGee has poured out seven studio albums and nine CompendiUM multi-disc albums that showcase their tight, soaring live jams. Umphrey’s McGee also plays an hour of jams on their monthly podcast, the last of which, “Remembering Mike Mirro,” is a tribute to their founding drummer, who died in January at age 36.

Joel Cummins, 39, a self-described “keyboard wizard,” co-founded the band with Mirro, Brendan Bayliss and Ryan Stasick in 1997 while studying music theory at the University of Notre Dame. For Cummins, it’s about honing the chops, staying fresh and keeping rock on the radar. Oh, and rocking his friend’s bachelor party at their Las Vegas show.

Umphrey’s McGee promised a new album this year.

We are just finishing up the mastering for it. We are going to be self-releasing it in late spring or early summer.

Who would you like to play with?

David Byrne would be amazing. It would be fun to do something with Kid Rock or Bob Seger or Josh Homme or maybe even Bret Michaels. You know, I’ve got “Every Rose Has its Thorn” down on acoustic guitar. I can nail that shit.

Why are two-set rock bands so rare?

That’s a great question that no one has ever asked me. In the ’60s and ’70s there was a lot more major-label intrusion into what was going to be played and how it was going to be delivered. Maybe part of why it works with us is because we have so many different sounds and [we] head in so many different directions. If you’re an artist and you have a [single signature] sound, three hours of that might be too much.

Where do you put your career?

We’re trying to just put our own voice out there, and while you hear the influences from Zappa to Crimson to the Beatles to Zeppelin, hopefully we’re also carrying the torch of rock ’n’ roll and improvisation into the 21st century.

What’s it like playing Vegas?

We love it. This one will be particularly fun because one of my good friends—unbeknownst to me and before we even announced the date—is having his bachelor party at our Hard Rock show. It’s going to be a little wild.

Are there stories behind “Leave Me Las Vegas” and “Bullhead City”?

The main theme of [“Bullhead City”] is fortune is made/but I’ve lost it twice. At one point [Mirro] was up $2,500 or $3,000, and he was not sober at all. I was like, “Dude, listen, leave the table right now.” But he tricked me. He just went and cashed out his chips and then proceeded to lose all of it.

This is still pretty raw, but would you like to say anything about Mirro?

I talked Mike into coming to the University of Notre Dame by telling him, “Dude, we’ve got this band, you’re gonna show up, we’re gonna have gigs, you’re gonna meet girls, you’re gonna be cool.” Mike was one of the most passionate people about music I’ve ever known and he taught me and the rest of the guys in the band how to make things that you think would sound jagged feel like a groovy, danceable rhythm. That’s Mike’s legacy, and you can really hear it in the music. We miss him terribly.

Umphrey’s McGee

with the California Honeydrops, Hard Rock Live, 7 p.m. March 21, $30 ($25 in advance), 733-7625,



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