Umphrey’s McGee guitarist thinks the jam-band movement is the new rock ‘n’ roll



By Steve Newton

The annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival is the type of event where jam-happy bands from across the States converge to spread the gospel of anything-goes improv. Umphrey’s McGee makes its fourth appearance at the three-day Tennessee fest this June, joining the likes of the Allman Brothers Band, the Black Crowes, Gov’t Mule, and the Drive-By Truckers.

The last time there it played for 20,000 late nighters who grooved to the Chicago sextet’s adventurous sounds from midnight till 5 a.m. “That gig really got our name out there,” Umphrey’s guitarist Jake Cinninger says on the line from a tour stop in Carbondale, Illinois. “It’s funny how one big gig can really propel you in the right direction. And Bonnaroo is one of those festivals where to be on the lineup is just very, very cool.”

The success of Bonnaroo, which sold 90,000 tickets last year, parallels the rising popularity in the U.S. of the jam-band movement, which Cinninger doesn’t see dying out anytime soon. “A lot of people are realizing that it’s the new rock ‘n’ roll, in a sense,” he relates. “It’s kinda like what rock ‘n’ roll was before disco came in, you know; there’s no cookie-cutter pop elements involved. It feels like the communal thing where the musicians hung out and were interested in each other and what everyone was doing.”

Umphrey’s McGee-which plays Richard’s on Richards on Thursday (May 12)-is certainly making great strides in the genre. Two nights before our chat, the group appeared at the Jammy Awards at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, where it performed for a capacity crowd of 5,000.

The group was up for three nominations, including best album, best live performance, and best song, and though it only claimed a prize in the latter category-for “In the Kitchen”, a track off last year’s Anchor Drops CD-the exposure was a big win in itself. During its 25-minute set, Umphrey’s McGee played: the Band’s “The Weight”, accompanied by gospel legend Mavis Staples; the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There”, with a guest appearance by Sinéad O’Connor, who refrained from any pope-slamming; and, strangely enough, Huey Lewis & the News’ “Heart and Soul”, with Lewis himself on harmonica.

As far as the majority of performers were concerned, Cinninger admits that the Jammies were “kinda unjammy”. But although Lewis may never live down his painfully sucky ’80s pop hit “Stuck With You”, there’s no denying the clean-cut crooner can blow harp. He proved that back in ’79 with his guest solos on two tracks from Thin Lizzy’s Black Rose-A Rock Legend, and the spirit of those dual-lead pioneers is revived by the twin-guitar harmonies that Cinninger and coguitarist Brendan Bayliss display on “Mulche’s Odyssey”, one of Anchor Drops‘s most compelling tracks.

“That whole Wishbone Ash/Thin Lizzy kinda thing transcends the years and ends up in our little pocket,” the 29-year-old picker notes. “I mean, a lot of people consider us a progressive rock band, which is fine by me.”

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