Jay Udavcak and Bob Deforge were both musicians well before they became best friends. Udavcak was a second-generation Ukrainian kid growing up outside Pittsburgh, classically trained on the upright bass before he switched to bass guitar at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Deforge, a retired pilot and colonel in the Marine Corps, took up guitar around the age of 13 when he first heard Jimi Hendrix on “Are You Experienced?”
“I said, ‘I gotta be able to play like that,’” Deforge said. “So, I picked the guitar and a cheap stereo system and basically tried to copy Hendrix.”
The two met more than 30 years later, after both had moved to the D.C. area. Around 2002, Deforge said, he put out a classified ad for other people interested in starting a band. Udavcak responded, and the two agreed to meet at Mars Music, a now-defunct chain of music supply stores founded by another guitarist with a desk job — former Office Depot president Mark Begelman.
If Udavcak and Deforge had ever become big stars, their introduction could have gone down in history as the perfect musical meet-up. As Udavcak remembers it, he was noodling around in the bass department of the store when he heard strains of a guitar line coming from another section of the store. He wasn’t sure who it was, but he couldn’t help himself from joining in.
“Whoever it was, they’re playing some really interesting blues stuff,” Udavcak recalled. “So, I had a bass, and I just started riffing off what I heard. He kept playing, so we’re playing together before we’ve even seen each other. That goes on until one of us finally walked over, and that’s when I met Bob, who’s been my partner in Big Bad Juju since day one.”
The two men ended up going to a nearby restaurant for beers and a two-hour dinner turned into a conversation on family, life and musical influences. Big Bad Juju — performing tonight on the Alive @ 5 stage — is the culmination of that first meeting, a cover band whose songs span four decades of American music.
If the name of the band sounds like it’s based off voodoo (or an arcane style of Nigerian music), think again. “Bad Juju” actually traces its origins to the Udavcak family dog, a young Shih Tzu with a bad habit of urinating on the front porch. When the dog lifted its leg, Udavcak’s wife would shout out, “Bad Juju!,” a name that stuck with both him and Deforge.
Later, in 2011, the band temporarily joined forces with a four-piece horn section that seriously amplified its onstage sound. The original four members floated several terrible ideas for incorporating the new section into the band name, Udavcak said — “Bad Juju and the Horndogs” was one of them.
Finally, one of the horn players suggested “Big Bad Juju,” a moniker with better staying power. The crew kept the name even after the horn section dispersed and the band was stripped back down to four people. Every member of Big Bad Juju plays multiple instruments, Udavcak said, and the band still tries to keep its onstage act as theatrical as possible.
“There is not one of us that’s letting the others get away with any s—,” he said. “We’re not just a band of people that stares down at their fretboards. We’re approachable and we want to make sure people are having as much fun as we’re having. It’s not uncommon for Bob and I to jump off the stage and start dancing with the crowd.”
That’s the point of Big Bad Juju — it’s fun. The group plays about twice a month — at weddings and clubs, at breweries and the Marine Corps Marathon — and every event is about making people dance and smile without any ego on the part of its members. All four bandmates have full-time jobs and make time for some practice on the side, Deforge said. No one is trying to be the next big thing.
“It’s the best band I’ve ever been in, quite honestly,” he added. “We’re all very good friends and we all have the same vision. It’s a serious hobby, but not so serious that anyone wants to quit their day job.”
For Udavcak and Deforge, music has always been a serious hobby. Udavcak convinced his parents to let him transfer to Berklee with the promise that he’d study production and engineering, but also spent hours training his voice and honing his bass guitar skills with the school’s gospel choir. Deforge took his guitar nearly everywhere he was stationed with the Marines, from Iwakuni, Japan — where he wooed his wife by playing for an hour straight in his flight suit — to Darwin, Australia.
He never did learn to play quite like Hendrix, though.
“I think I got pretty close,” Deforge said. “But I do the best imitation I can.”