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How Jam Band Umphrey’s McGee Turned Concert Walk-On Riffs Into A Fully Realized Album

Hard-touring Umphrey’s McGee added a distinctive wrinkle to its performances about a decade ago, when the jam band wrote and recorded song fragments to serve as walk-on music at the beginning of shows.

Keyboard player Joel Cummins estimates Umphrey’s McGee amassed 25 to 30 instrumental sketches designed to set the tone for an evening.

“For the most part, you want to have a little bit of the ‘Bolero’ effect,” says Cummins, mentioning the Maurice Ravel composition that first wowed audiences in 1928, “where it’s building to something.”

Onstage, the members of Umphrey’s McGee take over from the recorded intros – replicating what’s heard over the PA and then exploring new sounds.

“Hopefully, that’s kind of a cool, interesting and impactful moment right at the beginning of the show,” Cummins says.

The members of Umphrey’s McGee – Cummins, vocalist-guitarist Brendan Bayliss, guitarist Jake Cinninger, bass player Ryan Stasik, drummer Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag – revisited their walk-on riffs during pandemic lockdown and developed full-fledged songs for a studio album. The project, titled “You Walked Up Shaking In Your Boots But You Stood Tall and Left a Raging Bull,” was released in July.

Back on the road after canceling eight shows this month because of a COVID-19 diagnosis in Umphrey’s touring party, the Chicago-based band is offering a free YouTube  livestream of Saturday’s performance in Indianapolis. Umphrey’s McGee is expected onstage at 7:45 p.m. ET.

In terms of memorable walk-on music heard at concerts, Metallica is unrivaled for its use of Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold” at shows since 1983. Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” was played in stadiums right before the Rolling Stones kicked off performances on the band’s 1981 tour, and Rush employed “The Three Stooges” theme for more than a decade of its career.

Cummins attended the historic “The Wall: Live in Berlin” concert staged by Roger Waters and an all-star supporting cast in 1990, when the future University of Notre Dame student studied overseas as a 15-year-old. He says the Scorpions made a big impression by rolling onstage in a white limousine accompanied by a motorcycle escort. Vocalist Klaus Meine, guitarist Rudolf Schenker and their fellow Scorpions emerged from the car to play opening number “In the Flesh?”

“That’s kind of tough to beat as far as spectacle goes,” Cummins says.

Although the songs of “Shaking in Your Boots” aim for dramatic impact, the compositions began as modest exercises. Cummins and Cinninger collaborated on some and Bayliss wrote others.

“The album was a different project than just recreating the intros,” says Cummins, who co-founded the band in 1997. “Not everyone’s playing on the original versions. We wanted to flesh them out, just to create a definitive version of each one.”

Umphrey’s McGee will wrap up its year of touring by playing the Fillmore at Miami Beach Dec. 30-Jan. 1. Cummins says fans can expect a new studio album of non-instrumentals during the first half of 2022.

Regarding the title of “You Walked Up Shaking In Your Boots But You Stood Tall and Left a Raging Bull,” it’s a quote of something Los Lobos vocalist-guitarist Cesar Rosas told Cinninger after the Umphrey’s guitarist made a guest appearance with the iconic Los Angeles band.

When asked about a noteworthy sit-in appearance he’s made, Cummins picks a Huey Lewis & the News show at L’Auberge Casino Resort in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

“Huey introduced me as ‘Joel Cummins from the great up-and-coming band Umphrey’s McGee,’” Cummins says with a laugh. “It’s nice that 20 years in, we’re still up-and-coming.”

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