Wu Is Me

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

I hate hippies. I hate the swim dance strokes and the patchouli stank. I hate the dangerous notion that humor or puppets or blues jams or anything at all can turn Babylon into Utopia with no mess, no bad blood or bad vibes or bad things happening to good people. I hate this idea most of all because, deep down, I want to believe it, and I can't. And for this, I feel implicated in everything hippies oppose.

Which is to say, I am a hippie. And maybe you are too. Just a self-hating one.

Although America's largest generational subculture never actually levitated the Pentagon, the hippies did influence whatever group was fighting and frolicking through the long, 30-year decade of the post-Sixties. The media freak-out over the WTO/World Bank protesters merely revived anti-hippie sentiment. And it seized on the single grain of truth in the pepper-spray cloud of slander hanging over the demonstrators: Namely, that without some organizational grit, street theater has about as much practical impact on the rest of the planet as naming an ice-cream flavor after Wavy Gravy.

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

Don't these kids know the Sixties won the cultural battle and lost the economic war? (To be honest, the economic war was probably lost in the 1860s, when the local agrarian economy yielded to full-scale global industrialism.) After Nixon, a generation reduced hippiedom to a punch line (swim dance strokes and patchouli stank) while filtering its core values--which are pretty much yours and mine, only more so--into a culture of enlightened consumerism. Now we recycle. We have neighborhood associations. We're wary of war, and, hey, we don't mind electing dopers.

 

All this rhetoric might seem pointlessly confrontational as a way into the Big Wu, perhaps the biggest hippie-friendly band ever to emerge from gentle Minnesota. But it would be dishonest to say I didn't fight off cynicism at first as I approached the band both figuratively and literally at their Fitzgerald Theater performance on the eve of Earth Day.

As you might guess, I never really got the Grateful Dead, whom the Big Wu at one point pretty much existed to cover. (That was back in their formative years in the early Nineties, as St. Olaf's favorite college band.) Yet without quite understanding the fascination with Jerry's comforting croak and blissed-out meandering, I've always had a grudging respect for this sole preserve of the counterculture, passed through generations without the taint of cynicism. (Actual item in the July Vibe: New York's "it" restaurant is Commune, N.Y.C., where "communal tables will have you rubbing elbows with fellow beautiful people in high style.")

In fact, the inheritors of American Beauty's beauty--the musicians lumped under the misleading rubric "jam bands"--represent a revolution that was never truly televised and never will be. Like the music's corresponding ideology--humanism of the hookah--there's a harmlessness to it all, which shouldn't be entirely confused with innocuousness. The living Dead represent a sunnier version of the communal catharsis rock 'n' roll promised, right down to its funk without sexual menace, its country jams without the alky melancholy, its jazz without soul. Even the smartest-sounding stuff--say, the intricate grooves of Phish--seems custom-made for shiny, happy people with a genetic resistance to irony.

The night of the Wu show, plenty of happy folks gather outside the Prairie homeboy's headquarters, which, I later learn, has sold out. Many of them run around the block to pick up trash off the streets and sidewalks. The gesture might be in the spirit of the calendar date--though "Every day is Earth Day" according to the bumper stickers leading my non-carpooling, smoke-spitting Dodge Colt to a parking space. There are red-eyed frat brothers milling about in the park across the street--all of them, I learn, are from out of town, some from as far away as Duluth. These kids trade and collect Wu tapes, Grateful Dead-style, they say, and have heard shows from around the country as a result. There's also a tie-dyed throng joining in what looks like a hug-in at the front door of the theater--a lot of old friends from all over the region reuniting, it seems. And as much as I search for all-hemp jumpsuits or a noteworthy head of six-foot locks, the kids seem united by mood, not trappings.

Breezing through the security barriers inside, I run into "Spike" (a.k.a. Andy Frey), the Wu's anomalous punk soundman, who sports a black tank top, spiked black hair, and black jeans with cell phone and wallet chain attached. When I make my way to the greenroom backstage, the band is gathered with friends around a table, everyone in tees or ponchos or Hawaiian shirts. One by one, they introduce themselves, making only a fleeting impression: boyish Chris Castino, dreadlocked Jason Fladager, surfer-blond Andy Miller, bearded Al Oikari, and darkly intense (and also bearded) Terry VanDeWalker.

They're friendly but preoccupied and guarded. Perhaps band members have been briefed by their manager about my jam-band prejudices. Perhaps they're cool toward a paper that has diligently ignored them for eight years. Perhaps they're nervous--this is their first show in the Fitz, and it's being recorded for a live album. Perhaps none of the above.

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.

"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.

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.

 

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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