Umphrey’s McGee navigates pandemic with live broadcasts, two drive-through concerts
Andrew S. Hughes
Umphrey’s McGee guitarist Brendan Bayliss never thought that the sound of 500 car horns honking at the same time could sound “so beautiful”.
But they did it last weekend, when the heavily improvised progressive rock band that started out in South Bend performed their first two shows to a live audience in six months, in the parking lot of SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview. , Illinois.
“We were going on stage and people were going crazy,” Bayliss said by phone from his home in Chicago. “They were screaming and honking. I guess we forgot what it looked like.
Entitled “At the Drive Inn: Working Together”, the concerts drew 2,000 people last Saturday and Sunday in the SeatGeek parking lot, as well as fans from around the world who bought tickets to broadcast live performances of nearly three hours of a group. which normally plays between 85 and 100 shows per year and has made its reputation on the road.
“Once we started playing, I got to see the smiles (on the faces of his band mates) and forgot about the world status for a few hours,” Bayliss says. “For the first time in six months, I felt normal and that’s what I do.”
A group and a company
For the Labor Day weekend concerts, the band sold tickets for 500 cars with up to four people per car. Each vehicle was given a parking spot and an empty spot next to it, and event agents have imposed requirements that people wear masks and stay in the two parking spots assigned to their vehicle. The band members were also all tested before going on stage.
“It was good,” Bayliss says, “to feel that we were bringing positivity and joy to the world for a change.”
Musicians and their fans haven’t had much reason to feel positive or happy since March, when live music was shut down as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread in earnest across the country.
The band – guitarists Bayliss and Jake Cinninger, keyboardist Joel Cummins, percussionist Andy Farag, drummer Kris Myers and bassist Ryan Stasik – were in California when the shutdown began, with spring and summer tours planned, including a concert on April 5 at the Morris Performing Center for the Arts.
At first, Bayliss says, the group saw it as an unexpected chance to spend a week with their families. But at the end of that week, they realized the hiatus would last a lot longer.
“For me, it wasn’t psychologically or emotionally that I was missing out on playing,” he says of that second week at home. “It was, how am I going to pay my mortgage?” It was a fear. “
But improvisation and creativity have been the band’s calling cards since their first concerts in 1998 in South Bend.
Right away, almost all of them started offering online classes as they scrambled to make up for some of the income they were about to lose with no idea how long it would last.
They also kept as creative and busy as possible.
Cummins and Bayliss launched weekly live home acoustic concerts on YouTube, “Joel: Live From the Living Room” and Friday night “Wine Not?” Each is between 60 and 90 minutes long and includes songs and covers by Umphrey McGee, including the keyboardist’s interpretations of classical and jazz piano works.
The band makes money from these streams, through donations from viewers, and they’ve also auctioned off a songwriting commission, with lyrics personalized for the winner.
On April 10, Umphrey’s McGee released a new single, “Easter in Quarantine,” written and recorded in 15 Socially Distant Days. Cinninger wrote the music and plays all instruments, including the melancholy saxophone solo, while Bayliss wrote the lyrics, which tackle ‘looking for a way out alive’ and include the promise of “See you when I see you, on the other side.”
The members of Umphrey’s McGee, who live from coast to coast, have even met twice.
In June, they reunited at Cinninger’s studio in Niles (he’s the only one still living locally) to work on new music and produce two livestreams.
Ahead of the Labor Day weekend concerts, the band gathered at their equipment warehouse in Chicago and live-streamed two performances titled “Wrapped in the Round” with stage lighting and table sound. harmony on September 2 and 3, after a day of writing and rehearsing.
But, like virtually every other tour group, Umphrey’s McGee is both a group and a company, with employees – two managers, an accountant, and a team that sets up and takes down their equipment, manages lighting and tables. sound during performances, and transport the group and their equipment from town to town.
Their work for this year has disappeared as suddenly as that of the musicians.
The group were lucky, however, as they had the foresight to set up an emergency savings account about 10 years ago, after one of them injured his shoulder, Bayliss said, so they were able to use it to pay their crew for three salaries. cycles.
“In our mind, it was about if a guy broke his arm playing basketball,” he says. “We didn’t expect that. “
Since then, band employees have been collecting unemployment insurance, although the band continues to pay their health insurance premiums.
Bayliss and Cummins also dedicated a week of their live YouTube broadcasts to their team and raised $ 15,000 for them through donations that week. A paycheck protection program loan also helped, as with many businesses.
The drive-thru shows have been very successful, says Bayliss, and the group has had an offer to do another, but he knows the time for outdoor shows is running out quickly.
“I’m more worried about January, February and March and what’s going to happen,” he says of the approaching cold. “At the same time, thinking about the future is almost a waste of time because everything changes from week to week.”
The musicians’ situation, Bayliss says, remains “bizarre”, with no model available to survive the shutdown, with “each group looking at the next group and seeing how they do it.”
But even a return to touring in the safest and best conditions, Bayliss says, is fraught with potential financial problems for touring musicians.
“It takes money to put on a show with all these people flying from different places, moving equipment and taking tourist buses,” he says. “We need to have enough in the bank to be able to return to work. “
Bayliss is happy with the band’s future and their ability to weather the pandemic to return, but worries about the other musicians.
“I’m worried about a lot of the small groups we’re friends with,” he says. “I’m afraid they might survive. Not only that, there will be a lot of sites and promoters that will be wiped out completely. It’s a huge mess.
A new point of view
Like others, Bayliss says that this enforced break from the tour, in his case, has given him a new perspective that he sees as beneficial moving forward.
“Taking everything away,” he says, “made us appreciate what we have and want to get it back. “
Because of this, says the guitarist, it will be much more difficult to complain about the off-stage routine of the tours once the musicians can get back on the road.
“When you do a hundred shows a year, it’s easy to say I just want to come home for a week and be with my wife,” he says. “Right now, my least favorite place in the country, I would happily go there and play seven nights.”
It will be some time before he gets this opportunity. When live concerts resume, Bayliss says, the industry will be different, starting first, he believes, with reduced capacity in theaters, although he sees positive potential there.
“Maybe now we can play in the stadiums – at 10% of their capacity,” he said. “In a year it would be cool to play in a stadium. It would count anyway. … Wrigley Field sold out with 9,000 people.
For several months, the consensus in the entertainment industry has been that live music and theater will be among the last industries to return to “normal” operations.
Bayliss says he suspects Umphrey’s McGee won’t be filming until summer 2021 – meaning the band’s postponed November 15 date at Morris is likely to be postponed, which South Bend Venues Parks & Jeff Jarnecke said. Arts confirmed in an email, although the date remains on the site.
Even then, he said, it would depend on there being a vaccine by then.
“When people ask me, my first question is, ‘Would you like to be in a room with a thousand people right now? ”, Says Bayliss. “I don’t. And that’s not the responsible thing. The last thing I want on my conscience is the spread of this disease or being linked to someone’s death. got into the music business.