Combine a couple of saxophones, a pair of spoons and a heavy-metal drummer covering Greatful Dead songs and what do you get?
Electric Jug Band, a Kalamazoo jam band whose members range in age from 31 to 62 and whose day jobs range from mechanic to cook. The one thing they have in common, however: They are ordinary guys who love music so much they will organize their lives around being able to play it.
“Music is my thing,” says saxophonist and electric wind instrument player Jay Hunt, 45, a longtime Kalamazoo resident. “I don’t go fishing. I don’t play golf. I play music.”
Neil Young croons through the speakers at Brite Eyes Brewing Co. as members of Electric Jug Band sit around a table talking about the evolution of the band, which was formed in 2008. They crack jokes, shout directions and switch seats to get the right arrangement — the quiet voices need to be closer to the interviewer’s mic, the louder ones across the table.
Every member of the band except drummer Randy Ferguson sports some variation of facial hair, and the group seems to have no clear leader until guitarist and singer Bryan Withers talks about founding the band shortly before he met Vicksburg native and retired school maintenance worker Ted McNett.
“I was at the Vicksburg Old Car Show when I heard someone playing inside Aaron’s Music Service (a stringed instrument store in Vicksburg),” says Withers, 45. He wandered into the shop and saw McNett playing a washtub bass.
It was the first time Withers had seen a real washtub bass, an instrument with a single string and a metal washtub that is popular in American folk music. “Ted told me, ‘I make and sell these for a hundred bucks,’” Withers says. “I got his number to buy one and said, ‘Hey, you should come play with my band.’”
Withers had formed Electric Jug Band with some other musicians a few months earlier. The band had a gig at Bell’s Eccentric Café for a music festival, and Withers invited McNett to join them. “I told Ted to show up and he did,” Withers says.
At the mention of Bell’s, the band members explode into simultaneous conversations. Many of them played the stage that same day in different groups. As with many bands, members of Electric Jug Band have come and gone and come back again through the years. The band’s electric bassist and long-haired singer, Matt Fisher, 45, originally played with Withers in a different band in 2008 before Withers formed Electric Jug Band. Fisher had left for another project but not before writing some songs with Withers. He returned to the band in 2011.
McNett, 62, has been playing with Electric Jug Band since that 2008 gig at Bell’s and is an integral part of the band’s sound, playing spoons, washboard and other popular jug-band devices — basically anything lying around the house that can be turned into an instrument. McNett even made the electric washtub bass that he plugs in for shows.
Ferguson, who joined the band in 2014, says he played drums in heavy-metal bands for 20 years before stumbling into jam bands. Because he has a smile that makes his face beatific, it’s hard to imagine the 46-year old plumber wailing on a kit in a metal band, but when he mentions learning a new style, everyone is quick to agree: Ferguson’s playing has changed a lot since he took up with them in 2014.
“It was tough at first. Playing slower is actually a lot harder than playing fast. Playing quieter is hard, too,” he says and laughs. “I’m still learning that one.”
Electric Jug Band plays in venues such as South Haven’s Black River Tavern and Holland’s Itty Bitty Bar and at festivals such as Hoodilidoo in Bangor and the twice-yearly Bus Stop Festival that McNett hosts on his property in Vicksburg. Twice a year the band plays in Kalamazoo, sometimes at Louie’s Trophy House Grill, bringing a sound they call “Americana mixed with rockabilly funk” and splitting the paycheck five or six ways.
“When you look out there and see folks dancing and enjoying themselves, that’s a lot of pay in itself,” Hunt says.
“Plus, it charges the band,” Withers says. “It gives us energy. That’s when the magic happens.”
Saxophonist Mike Grammes, who has been with Electric Jug Band since 2009, says playing music is similar to speaking a language. “A jam band is in a conversation with the audience,” he says, “tossing things back and forth.”
In the case of Electric Jug Band, what it tosses to audiences are covers of songs by classic roots artists like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and jam-band legends The Grateful Dead and Phish. The band also plays original songs composed by Withers. When asked about musical influences, the band members name artists from Bonnie Raitt to Prince.
Grammes, however, admits his musical influences were a bit different: The 31-year old got into music watching The Muppets as a kid. He thought the sax player Zoot “was a god” and wanted to be like him.
Fisher notes that he got hooked on performing music the first time people danced when he played. “That became my greatest addiction,” he admits.
Hunt, who joined the band in 2015, agrees. He grew up listening to his dad, Bob Hunt (a Kalamazoo musician who now plays with the Battle Creek ensemble Martila Sanders & Gee-Q), play the saxophone and synthophone. Then Hunt took band in high school “when it wasn’t cool to take band.”
Hunt, who is the newest member of Electric Jug Band, may also be the most taciturn. Earlier, when Hunt said he plays music instead of going fishing, Withers jumped in to say, “That was the whole philosophy at the beginning of EJB. I’d say to the guys, ‘Some dudes go bowling or hunting. We play music.’”
The metaphor of music as hobby outgrows itself quickly, though. Grammes, a cook at The Park Club in downtown Kalamazoo, arranges his schedule so he can work as little as possible, in order to “ride the music thing as far as it can go,” he says. Other than the retired McNett, everyone in the band works at other jobs — Withers is also a cook at The Park Club and a dad raising two kids, ages 5 and 7. Ferguson is a plumber who has a high-schooler at home. Fisher does home construction and has a teenage daughter. Hunt is a mechanic with two kids. But all of them say that if they could, they would make music their full-time job in a heartbeat.
“When I was growing up in the ’70s, KISS was huge,” Ferguson says. “I thought they were the coolest thing ever. When I heard them, I just had to be a rocker. I dragged out pots and pans and started banging on them. I was 10. My parents were like, ‘OK, we better get this kid some lessons.’”
“KISS is still the coolest thing ever,” Hunt says.