So I fall into warm conversation with two members of what the Wu call their Family, a man and a woman who are perhaps the band's biggest fans, best friends, and the closest thing possible to a spiritual mom and pop. John and Lacy, who go only by those names, own the unofficially designated "auxiliary house of Wu," an antique-filled Victorian four-bedroom in south Minneapolis where the band meets and where bassist Miller lives. Every national jam act from Jiggle the Handle to The String Cheese Incident has bunked or feasted there, eating Lacy's cooking, drinking the Wu's wine.
"The Big Wu don't believe in competition between bands," Lacy exclaims, as if every word comes as a surprise. She's a petite, vivacious woman who hits her hard Rs with relish and dresses proudly hippie, with beads, moccasins, and oval spectacles. At age 48, she has only a touch of gray in her tied-back hair, and her partner, seven years her junior, looks equally young for his years. Their secret? "It's called living a good life," John says of their contented existence, a remark I find strangely moving.
A grandmother four times over, Lacy first saw the Dead in 1970 while living on Wheeler's Ranch, a commune in Northern California. She had one of those revelatory aging-parent experiences when her daughter came up to her to tell her about "this great new band"--that being the Dead, of course. Today Lacy makes and distributes hemp clothes, while John, a late-blooming Deadhead, is a computer programmer at Syntegra (formerly Control Data)--whose latest product, he laments, is a sophisticated system of monitoring software to control office Web use. (Everyone's got to find a way to pay for his granola.) Where Lacy's shine lies in her voice, John's is located in a pair of bright blue eyes, peeking out of a bearded, handsomely husky face. Both will be supervising some 600 meals for the bands and crew at the upcoming Big Wu Family Reunion weekend, an outdoor festival held in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, May 26-28.
Photo by Jason W. Weidman
"It's like we're all friends in this big community," says Lacy, again sounding surprised. "And if this community is nationwide, better yet. Be kind! Feed each other! Give each other a place to crash!"
By now, the Wu have cleared the room to launch their set with the cheer-jerker "Minnesota Moon." I ask if I can munch on some of what turns out to be Lacy's almond raspberry coffeecake (it's so good, I place some more in my coat pocket on the way out). And John turns up the distorted stage monitor to listen to the set while we talk through the first few songs. John and Lacy, it turns out, lived in Northfield when the Wu first took their name (around the same time as the Wu-Tang Clan) from a Chinese word that translates to "nothing" in some contexts. (That and the name of the volcano in Joe Versus the Volcano: "the Big Woo.") The couple met the band through one of Lacy's kids, caught their first Terminal Bar concert (which launched a two-year stand of weekly gigs), their first at the Cabooze (which did the same), and their first at First Avenue. But John and Lacy's fandom has grown into something more than familial indulgence--or a job (they do the band's secretarial work).
The pair bounces ideas back and forth so fast they seem to be talking out of one mind. What sets the Big Wu apart from all the other jam bands, I ask?
"I love String Cheese," Lacy begins.
"And they're fantastic musicians," adds John.
"They're a musicians' band."
"And they play the most unbelievable variations on everything."
"But you don't wake up with the melody in your head, and you don't wake up with the lyric in your head. The Big Wu write things like--like listen to this!" And Lacy points at the speaker. "Like the Grateful Dead, where the melody helps your soul, where the lyrics mean something to you, though you don't know why."
We go backstage to watch the band, which has spread itself out in front of a hanging patchwork quilt, an image of a woman in flowing garb. (It was stitched by 20 women, I'm told.) Lit up, the backdrop looks like stained glass, but the audience isn't in a particularly churchy mood: The aisles are packed with young dancers, and each of the two balconies are a writhing mass of limbs and asses.
I climb up to the second floor to make a closer inspection of same--and to inhale some secondhand THC--but I'm struck by the utter boringness of the stage show, one that has a few thousand fans in rapt attention. Mostly, the guys just stand there, in deep concentration. Guitarists Castino and Fladager are joined by bassist Miller in some synchronized Allman Brothers-style picking. Oikari leans into the theater's grand piano, and VanDeWalker sits up straight and sturdy behind his drum kit, while singing gently, like Willie Nelson talking to you about his yard.
The Big Wu are, by default, a musical phenomenon only--but a lulling and ultimately seductive one at that. This puzzles me at first. Most post-Dead pop combines two of my least favorite flavors--disco and bluegrass--into one big unseemly hunk of Southern-fried rock. (Listen to this stuff next to KC and the Sunshine Band if you don't believe me.) And while the band's stoic stage presence isn't without an unpretentious charm, I actually find myself liking these songs--especially the ska numbers, which are uncommonly light.