Umphrey’s Return: Jam band’s annual spring shows at Belly Up are back this weekend
Umphrey's McGee three-night Belly Up run marks return of a spring tradition
Few markers of a return to normalcy, or something like it, in Aspen are as clear and toast-worthy as Umphrey’s McGee’s three-night stand at Belly Up this weekend.
The beloved progressive jam band’s multi-night runs at Belly Up, by 2020, had become a long-established rite of spring here that brought superfans to town and brought locals out in droves — an annual music event on par with Aspen’s summer music festivals.
Their three shows in March 2020 were Umphrey’s final performances before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., shut down live events and kept Umphrey’s off from touring for nearly a year and a half (by far the longest break the band has taken from the road since forming in 1997).
The band was in Aspen during the initial COVID-19 outbreak here, among the first in the U.S, when a group of Australians were quarantined in the Little Nell Hotel amid the intense fear of the pandemic’s early days in ski country.
“Things were starting to feel a little weird because there were some cases in Aspen,” Umphrey’s keys player and vocalist Joel Cummins recalled in a recent phone interview from home in California. “We had been going to the Australian coffee shop (Victoria’s) everyday, so we were like, ‘Oh my god, I was hanging out with the Australians! What’s going to happen?'”
Their shows came just a week before Belly Up, every gathering place in Aspen, and all of Colorado’s ski areas were closed under public health orders.
They didn’t play another unrestricted concert — they did virtual shows, one-off drive-in sets and the like — until June 2021 when they headlined three nights at Red Rocks Amphitheater. The band went back on tour in August and soon set their return dates for Aspen.
“It’s been amazing to be back out,” Cummins said. “Our sense of appreciation really grew over the pandemic, just how much we all missed making music together and being able to go on the road and see the joy and fans’ faces.”
Colorado has grown into the epicenter of the band’s fanbase. It was among the first places they gained a foothold outside of the Midwest when they first began making tour stops here in 2001. Along with these sold-out Aspen shows, they recently announced what they’re calling the “Peak Summer” tour in June bracketing two nights at Red Rocks with performances at Dillon Amphitheater and at the Gerald Ford Amphitheater in Vail.
“It’s going to be really, really cool,” Cummins said. “We haven’t done outdoor shows in the mountains for a long time. … It feels like the confluence of so many things we love whenever we come to Colorado, from the people to the nature to the history of the music that we’ve made there.”
Umphrey’s has traditionally combined the spring shows in Aspen with a lot of skiing here, a throwback to the days in the 1970s when rock bands would do winter residencies in local clubs and immerse themselves in the local ski bum community. Cummins has gotten his ski legs under him this winter with ski trips to Big Sky, days at Mammoth and a trip to Loveland and has gotten his 3-year-old on skis for the first time this winter (“She’s like, ‘Dad, can I go flip off the mountain now?’ She’s doing great.”)
The return to the stage and slopes in Aspen is a joyous moment for the band, coming on the tail end of a pandemic time-warp that at once feels like the blink of an eye and an eternity.
The rare time off the road gave Umphrey’s the opportunity to write and record a lot — enough to make a new album, their 14th, titled “Asking for a Friend,” announced last week and due out July 1.
“We worked on all this music over the pandemic time, and we were able to come up with 14 new songs,” Cummins said.
They recorded in a handful of sessions at guitarist Jake Cinninger’s studio in Niles, Michigan, and at the band’s Chicago warehouse — they’ve nicknamed it “Ecto” in tribute to “Ghostbusters” — as well as sessions in Nashville at Blackbird Studios with producer Ryan Hewitt.
Fans should expect to hear some of the new material at the Aspen shows, including the recently released singles “I Don’t Know What I Want” and “Small Strides.” Those tracks indicate the album, freighted with some of the introspective spirit and existential fear of the pandemic, is a less improvisation-oriented record and may put Brendan Bayliss’ lyrics more at the center of compositions than on recent projects.
Cummins said it does mark some new creative directions departing from their harder and metal-influenced material that they explored from 2009’s “Mantis” through 2018’s “it’s not us” and “it’s you.”
“This features a little more, I would say, cleaner guitars and a lot of dancier stuff, but they’re still interesting arrangements,” he said.
The time off the road, their livestreamed virtual concerts and the shows they dubbed the “Couch Tour,” of course, have influenced the band’s trajectory. Cummins is grateful they could do those performances.
“You get to the point where you do whatever you can to get by and survive,” he said of virtual performance. “It’s certainly better than not playing at all. That really brought us back to the roots of why we were doing this in the first place. It was cool to be able to just to feel like, ‘OK, we’re just playing for each other in this room.'”
Cummins estimated he played more music at home than he ever has before during the long live-music shutdown, tooling around on his Moog One and also teaching virtual lessons.
“I took that challenge upon myself to try to learn a bunch of new covers, learn some new classical stuff, some new jazz tunes,” he said. “I think we all found different little niches that we could try to keep improving ourselves.”
While it will likely take time to get perspective and understand how the pandemic has affected Umphrey’s creatively, Cummins is certain that the experience has added a permanent new layer of gratitude into its work as a band.
“I wasn’t 100% sure, when things started, if we were ever going to play a show again, and that was really scary and terrible,” he said. “So I think we’re acknowledging how much of a miracle it is whenever any show happens.”
Until the long break after those March 2020 shows, Umphrey’s had never taken a break from touring longer than a month or two.
“I think we have all realized how important it was to us and that this band that we have together is something that can continue to be special and innovative and challenging for us.”
IF YOU GO …
What: Umphrey’s McGee
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Friday, March 18 through Sunday, March 20, 8 p.m.
Tickets: Sold Out
More info: Waitlist open at bellyupaspen.com
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