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Sitting with the members of Electric Side Dish on this Sunday evening in early December, I'm reluctant to utter the dreaded J-word. But as my eyes wander around percussionist John Bunting's living room, from the burning incense to the framed photograph of Jerry Garcia to guitarist John Tipton's Widespread Panic T-shirt, I know I'll have to broach the subject eventually. There's just no way around it.
"So, would you call yourselves a jam band?"
The question sounds so base it almost seems impolite.
"We are definitely a jam band," says vocalist/guitarist Phil Dudden, nodding slightly, after a short pause.
"I guess," Bunting allows.
"I would call ourselves," adds drummer Mike Goletz with notable hesitation, "a multi-genre roller-coaster ride."
Goletz's response inspires the rest of the group (minus bassist Fleeb, who isn't present) to offer up a torrent of adjectives to describe their sound, everything from heavy rock to bluesy folk. Tipton shakes his head and laughs. "You know, once you pull it out," he says, "whatever bells and whistles you attach to it, it's still a jam band."
Regardless of what category they fit in, the quintet's members are completely comfortable with their music and grateful for their oft-misunderstood, peace-loving, dreadlocked-hippie fan base.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with stereotypes," Dudden declares, "because a lot of people are also searching for that stereotype to be able to be included in it. A stereotype is there so you can find yourself encompassing something, being involved in something -- and, you know, we definitely fall into stereotypes as anybody else would."
"There's negative propaganda generated by every genre out there," Tipton adds. "I can sit here and bash thrash metal all day, but I'm not going to do it, because I'm not that kind of person, you know what I mean? If that gives you an idea of why I'm attracted to the whole jam-band scene.... You might have to dig through that to find the logic in it, but I think you can do it."
"It's like they say: 'Fifty billion Elvis fans can't be wrong,'" he goes on. "It's like, well, the Grateful Dead had an estimated 80,000 people traveling with them. Eighty-thousand people -- that's a subculture. Eighty-thousand people who are willing to travel from one end of the country to the other. There's got to be something going on there."
Tipton is clearly the most matter-of-fact of the bunch, whereas Dudden speaks in broad, inclusive terms. For their part, Bunting and Goletz, both newer additions to the group, are considerably less outspoken, but they seem to share many of Tipton and Dudden's sentiments.
Although this particular lineup is only a year old, various incarnations of Electric Side Dish have been jamming through the local scene since 2001. Dudden and Tipton originally formed the group out of another part-time project called Acoustic Side Dish. And after five years and a Spinal Tap-length list of ex-members, the Dish is at last ready to serve up its first full-length album.
Forward is not just the title of the recording; it's also a one-word summation of the band's future. The release, which is being issued on the band's own Delta 32 imprint, is a beginning of sorts for these seasoned musicians -- particularly Dudden and Tipton, who've been carrying guitars on their backs for the past fifteen years.
"I just kind of woke up and realized, yeah, we're finally actually just getting somewhere," says Tipton. "Phil and I definitely had to learn to separate friendships from business. You have to do that at some point in time. You have to start looking for solid musicians who you can play with as well, not just your friends who could maybe be musicians. After years and years of us struggling with that, I learned what to look for, and we've found it at this point."
The ups and downs of more than a decade's worth of work is telling on the faces of Dudden and Tipton. Likewise, it's just as evident in the acute organization of the band, which itself is a financially self-sufficient entity. Being a part of Electric Side Dish has afforded the five members -- some of whom also supplement their incomes by moonlighting as session musicians or playing live in other projects -- the ability to survive solely via playing music. Every dollar made goes into the label fund, and from there, the money is doled out for everything from recording expenses to monthly rent.
"It's difficult to make sense of it all unless you're writing it down and looking at it from an all-together point of view," Dudden explains. "The bottom line is, [we're] booking ourselves [and] making sure we're out there playing, and that's where it's at. A lot of bands are just playing once a month, playing once every two months -- or even if they are playing a lot, they're playing for free."
From the sound of it, Dudden and company put in too many hours and work too hard not to be compensated for their efforts. Consequently, the members of Electric Side Dish feel justified in asking for guarantees whether they're playing locally or in neighboring mountain towns. But while gigging several times a week has its benefits, being a full-time musician isn't always as romantic as it might seem; it's not all fun and getting high.