Wu Is Me

How one reluctant hippie embraced the smell of patchouli and the sound of Minnesota's preeminent jam band, the Big Wu

When the Big Wu play a version of an old Norman Span calypso tune the Dead used to cover, "Man Smart (Woman Smarter)," they dedicate it to Lacy. I learn this only later--the balcony is roaring too loudly for me to hear the stage patter. And with each chorus of the tune, a packed row of tanned young women in front of me--all in bare-back tops--screams its lungs out to every word. Yeah, I could be a hippie, I think, channeling the lust of some young, leering Nixon voter.

There are a few glow-sticks up here to remind me what era it is. But what era is it, anyway? For five months no one has known what to call the new decade (the Naughties?), and suddenly that confusion seems fitting. The times are wide open for definition, or for a deliberate lack of definition. And these screaming girls--and the screaming boys who high-five one another when their favorite song gets played (now there's a gesture that has endured)--don't know and don't care that the Pentagon was never raised an inch by their foremothers and forefathers. They don't care about the waning commune nation--though Lacy later tells me about a thriving one I've never heard of in my hippie hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. The kids don't have the ravers' hyperstyle, or the rockers' self-consciousness. They just have this...big mellow thing--their town square, their Burning Man at low flame.


The Wu sell out: An army of peaceable hippies occupies the Fitzgerald Theater.Photo by Jason W. Weidman
The Wu sell out: An army of peaceable hippies occupies the Fitzgerald Theater.

Photo by Jason W. Weidman

When I meet the Big Wu on John and Lacy's quiet, sun-washed porch a week later, they still don't quite believe I'm writing about them. "Is this article about Harmony Park?" Castino asks. He's referring to the site of last year's Family Reunion, which, unlike almost every other festival or rave or three-day family camping trip last summer, went down without incident (excepting a foot cut by a piece of glass, fixed with a Band-Aid).

Though the group would disagree, the Family Reunion is the strongest evidence yet that Dead culture in Minnesota has definitively transferred its affections to the Big Wu. The Wuers are now hosts of a party that began before most of them were born. (Oikari, who is ten years older than his 30-ish mates, says he's "the only member who doesn't give a shit about the Grateful Dead.") Now the group sells out venues around the country, and they'll bring in some 16 bands from nine states (and, if all goes well, perhaps some 4,000 people) to this year's festival.

Arguably, all those furry folks singing themselves to sleep around the campfire at night and dancing and baking and singing themselves to life during the day--all those good people might still have shown up if the Big Wu had long ago packed in the hippie thing and started playing Kiss covers. (Video-shy band members think syncing Kiss footage to Big Wu songs might work better than--ugh--live shots. Their new label, Phoenix Rising, reissued their one album, Tracking Buffalo Through the Bathtub, last year, but hasn't pushed for a video.)

"I'm not surprised that the party has followed us," says VanDeWalker thoughtfully. "But to say that this is something that I thought would happen--I never in the world would have dreamt it. But it's always seemed like it's the same vibe, whether in the Terminal Bar or at the Fitzgerald."

"I always think the band is a small part of what the Big Wu is, that the audience makes up a huge part of it too," adds Fladager. "Girls can go to the shows and have a great time without worrying about anybody trying to come up and score with them." (I feel a flush of shame when he mentions this. What, no free love?) "We're here to create an atmosphere with the audience."

Admitting that they're only one part of the show seems an admirable thing: The town square is but a parking lot without the town. Except that this town, like any commune, needs leaders--or at least entertainers. It was mere coincidence that the band started its weekly gig at the tiny Terminal bar the same week Jerry Garcia died--they had already been playing "Casey Jones" out of tune for easy-to-please St. Olaf freshmen.

"I'm very fortunate to have been in a certain town at a certain time and have a certain bar offer us a certain gig," says VanDeWalker. "I can't help but think there's a halo over this band."

Which might be why the guys laugh, but not too hard, when they tell the almost mythic story of last year's Family Reunion meteorology. Before anyone else can start, Miller rattles off the tale. "This huge-ass storm came up from Iowa and it literally split and went ten miles around us," he says. "My folks had a cabin 30 miles north of where it was last year and they got three-and-a-half inches of rain in an hour and a half. We didn't get a drop of rain the whole time."

For one night, the family of man, or at least a tiny sliver of it, could look up at a clear sky, then look at the lightning flash on either horizon. And as darkness fell, a full moon rose over the lake, and the Big Nothing started to play, an oasis of mellow in the world's storm. CP


The Big Wu Family Reunion happens Friday through Sunday, May 26-28 at the Jamboree Campground, just north of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, on Highway 12. Bands include Bobby Llama, Dean Magraw & Friends, Foxtrot Zulu, and many more. $40 in advance. For more information, go to www.thebigwu.com.

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