Photo by Jeremy Smith.

The pioneering sextet Umphrey’s McGee has long since been a stalwart amongst the community which we hold so dear, conquering tour after tour to seemingly no end. They are an immersive group, and continue revolutionize the way fans can get involved far beyond simply occupying the role of listener or attendee. As Umphrey’s wraps up another massively successful summer festival season, one more dot looms to be connected before the true temperature drops force all of us inside for a bit: The Woodlands Fall Music & Arts Festival, taking place this weekend (November 7-9).Umphrey’s has sunk their teeth into a special event in the heart of Charleston SC’s Woodland’s nature reserve, a pastel setting comprised of numerous lakes, a swamp, and ample natural beauty.  The Woodlands will see Umphrey’s lay down four sets, in addition to bringing along a whole host of their friends such as Big Something, Manic Focus, Spafford, Cherub, and many more favorites. As the first year festival prepares to open its’ gates, I enjoyed a bit of discourse with Joel Cummins, the sitting sorcerer behind the group’s ivory and ebony towers. 

Bones: Firstly Joel, thank you. I know you’re down at Hulaween and I appreciate your time. Let’s talk about why we’re here which is The Woodlands

In its’ first iteration, the festival looks sweet. How involved are you guys in this operation? Is the event only curated by Umphrey’s or were you guys hands on throughout the entire process of site selection and so on. What are some differences between this event and others in which the Umphrey’s name is an integral part, such as say Summercamp?

Joel: We have a lot of friends in the music world that we’ve made over our 22-year career and it’s always a pleasure whenever we can include some of them in our events. As Vince (Iwinski) and Ryan (Stasik) are locals to Charleston, they’ve been especially involved in the curation and creation of the event. We have a pretty wide range of artists on the bill from more electronic acts like Manic Focus, Cherub and the New Deal to more jam-oriented artists like Spafford & Big Something, to the great funk sound of Turkuaz. I’ve seen lots of video from the site of the Woodlands and I think people are going to be blown away by the sheer beauty of the land. I’ve heard some compare it to Electric Forest, which in my opinion has the most naturally beautiful and artistic grounds of any US festival. Summer Camp has become one of our biggest annual events in the sense that we perform more sets there than any place else all year. If you really love Umphrey’s McGee, Summer Camp is where it’s at for you. And Summer Camp has such a great familial vibe to it. You have to make some effort to get there which means you really want to be there as a fan. So it’s always a favorite of ours every year.

Bones: Let’s talk about the location and timing for a second also. As you mentioned, Charleston is a home base for Ryan, but what else drew you guys to this spot, and what can attendees get excited about regarding these grounds?

Joel: Well I did a little foreshadowing with my last answer. If you’re into nature and water, this event is for you. We’re always looking for places that have a special quality to them and the Woodlands site is an extremely special place. We’ve also been looking for a home in the Charleston area and I for one hope that this event turns into something that happens annually.

Bones: I think all of the UMphreaks in the south and beyond share that hope with you.  I want to talk about fall, and what it means to throw The Woodlands at this time of year. Clearly, the climate here in the south is more favorable in November then other parts of the country, but what else is it about fall that makes The Woodlands feel right? Fall is always such a special time on the circuit and for live music lover everywhere. Festival season has subsided, the scene retreats again to clubs, but to have the opportunity to kind of return briefly to the outdoor gathering under the cloak of autumn simply instills this kind of unspeakable unique feeling for me. Do you find this true in any regard as well, and if so, will The Woodlands be a kind of ode to the season in which it occurs?

Joel: We love playing outdoor concerts for as much of the year as possible. It will be interesting to see what kind of weather we end up with as the highs are typically in the mid 60’s and lows down into the mid 50’s. If you’re camping, that’s pretty ideal weather. I think another nice advantage of doing the event in early November is that Hulaween is the only big outdoor event on our scene that’s within a few hours of Charleston. It will certainly be a unique experience with the fall vibe outside. We hope all of these things combined will create a really beautiful & enjoyable festival experience.

Bones: Staying on the topic of the festival here, I want to touch on the charitable arm of the event, and even expand the thought some if I may. You guys have partnered The Woodlands with The American Red Cross in their continued support of disaster relief efforts around this part of the country. Being from North Carolina, I am all too familiar with the devastation and displacement from disasters like hurricanes. Even as we speak, the residents of our coastal region and Outer Banks are fighting for their lives in the wake of Dorian. How important is it to you to bring in The Red Cross for this event specifically, and in addition to raising funds and resources, can you give any specific insight perhaps a personal testimony to why linking the power of music and charity is critical to our scene and to the transcendence of our culture?

Joel: Music is the one thing in the world that I think can truly bring people together in a transcendental way. It unites and brings joy to everyone. I live in Southern California and we’re in the midst of another horrific fire season. We’ve seen so many people deal with losing homes, nature and even loved ones. I’ve been to Ocracoke in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and seen its’ beauty. So I understand why it’s been so challenging for various services and businesses to get back up and running. Partnering with charities has always been something that’s important to Umphrey’s McGee, especially when we can have a positive impact with someone locally.

Bones: Following up on that last notion charity, the reason I am always interested to ask musicians their thoughts on it is this- in this country schools and organizations everywhere are fighting to keep the arts alive in their classrooms and curriculums, yet they are again and again met with obstacles. This is interesting to me for a number of reasons, but mainly this one- despite attempting to stifle programs like music, when disaster strikes and relief efforts are needed, musicians are often the FIRST people to get called upon to facilitate fund raising. Why is this do you think, and what does this kind of backwards model say about the value that society places on music when dollars are needed, but not when young minds need sculpting? Seems like music can ALWAYS help save a life, whether it is by training a player, or by organizing a community in relief. Joel, do you have any personal experience with how music can save a life?

Joel: That’s a pretty heavy question. I think I’ve seen music changing lives more than saving, although I guess it’s really just semantics. Music can deliver mental clarity, perspective, healing, introspection, inspiration, and rejuvenation, and so forth. Unfortunately too few recognize it as a necessary form of education, which is a real tragedy. My parents were both educators in the public school system and were ardent supporters of our schools’ music and arts programs, something I’ve very proud of. As part of an ongoing charity that I started, a couple years ago I created some educational scholarships from my former high school LTHS in suburban Chicago in their names. I definitely place a huge value on giving back to the local community, in this case the community that gave so much to me. Back to music, I think it’s vital that we keep pushing kids toward music. You can create music for the entirety of your life. As someone who grew up playing piano from age 8 onward, music certainly saved me. I’m not sure from what but there’s no way I would have found my creative voice and niche in the world without music. And one of the greatest honors is whenever someone comes up and tells us that the music of Umphrey’s McGee positively impacted their lives. I think musicians are naturally empathetic people so it makes total sense that musicians often find ways to support communities either through charities or whenever funds need to be raised. And just like you said, hopefully that music will inspire other people to go out there and do good things with their lives. That’s really the best we can hope for, that music will help push others towards their calling and a meaningful life.

Bones: Agreed, both of my parents are educators as well, I have always felt lucky to share their perspective, the same perspective you have just alluded to. As I mentioned, The Woodlands features a great lineup, and many of the bands it seems you guys have had at least some history with. Are there any bands on there which maybe you have not had a chance to collaborate with that you are excited for?

Joel: I think on some level we’ve collaborated with almost everyone on the lineup, which is pretty cool. I’m not sure we’ve done anything onstage with Manic Focus but we’ve had JMac on our destination event Holidaze before. One of the special things about this event is that it really does feel like a family reunion type of vibe with everyone that’s playing this inaugural year. My family will be there with me and I know some of the Umphrey’s guys will be bringing their kids to the shows too. That always adds another layer of quality to our events when it becomes intimate on a few levels.

Bones: I want to switch gears and get your take on one more thing- and that is this age of accessibility in which we live. Social media has kind of removed the veil or curtain if you will that in slightly earlier days kept the fan and the artist mostly separated. Today, any Twitter user for example can tweet you directly if they’re curious about a show, or something as mundane as your favorite color, and it is likely that you very well may respond to them. How has this age of accessibility been beneficial to you or to Umphrey’s, or maybe it has also had negative effects?

Joel: I think we’ve enjoyed a lot of the benefits technology has provided us in connecting with our fans. We’ve created events that utilize these, like UMBowl and to some degree Headphones and Snowcones. But I really enjoy getting to meet people I interact with online in person. I think that’s the most rewarding part, when you can take it to that next step. Obviously people like to make requests or suggestions, so we try to have a little fun with those too. I think the only negative part of social media is when people don’t understand sarcasm or pick on each other for being too earnest. There are a lot of different characters in social media and it’s just best to keep things light and never take something too seriously. Being mad online is a bad look. Sharing opinions about things is ok, but I think in general we as a culture should be focusing less on being judge-y with others and more on what makes us happy individually.

Bones: Amen to that my friend. I could go on picking your brain for days but I’ll stop there and let you get back to making the magic happen. I appreciate the opportunity to collect your thoughts tremendously. Have a great time at The Woodlands, maybe we can catch up again post show. Thank you again. Onward!

Joel: Thanks for your time, appreciate the interest Bones!

Tickets and more information about The Woodlands can be found at www.thewoodlandsfestival.com, and you can of course follow Joel and Umphrey’s McGee via their social media platforms or directly at www.umphreys.com. To all of our Jamwich readers I hope your festival seasons have been fruitful, inspiring, and safe. The same goes for those traveling down to Charleston this weekend, once more my name is Charles “Bones” Frank, for more of my own thoughts or those of any of our other talented contributors, keep it locked right here at The Jamwich as we prepare for a grateful season of community and giving thanks!

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