The recent tragedies at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania have fired up Americans to new heights of generosity. From blood donations to volunteer rescue work and all the prayer vigils, love hugs, charitable donations and concomitant hype in between, people are doing what they can to ease the suffering of innocent victims and their families. It's a natural reaction. But for some folks, the relief effort is nothing new. To their credit, the Big Wu extended a helping hand to those in need long before the recent national catastrophe shocked the masses into action.
"It's my impression that most folks want to do good things anyway," says Big Wu bass player Andy Miller. "If you make it easy for them, they'll just do it, because it's too easy not to do." Making food donations easy was the theme of this year's annual Big Wu Family Reunion, held Memorial Day weekend in Black River Falls, Wis. In addition to camping gear, tanning lotion and plenty of water, the Wu asked fans to bring nonperishable food donations for local charity. The response was overwhelming. "We just called the county food shelf and told them that we were gathering food for them at the festival," Miller remarks. "It was great; they sent two old ladies and a minivan, and we ended up with over 4,000 pounds of food being donated! They had so much that they had to send off some of the leftovers to the next county."
In addition to food donations that wound up on the dinner tables of 300 families, the Wu raised more than $9,000 to benefit the local chamber of commerce. Both were record amounts, yet neither was a fluke. Community kindness is as important to the Wu's buzz as the music itself. "What I'm really after, and I think we're pretty successful at it, is for people to walk out of our shows feeling better than they did when they came in," Miller explains. "I think people tend to find when they come to a Big Wu show for the first time that a lot of folks who like the band are really are a notch happier than at your average rock show. People really go out of their way to have a good time and to help other people have a good time. I don't want to sound cheesy, but people really go in with the best intentions."
Miller's been in the band long enough to know, dating back to '95, when the Wu wasn't quite so big, playing cover tunes at local bars in Minneapolis. Together with founders Terry VanDeWalker on drums and guitarists Jason Fladager and Chris Castino, Miller helped shift the Wu's focus toward original material. "There was a different keyboard player, who wound up leaving, and we went as a four-piece for a while and we started writing songs," Miller recalls. "There really wasn't any original music in the Big Wu before that. Adding Al [Oikari] on keyboards in '96 was a huge bonus for the band. He's a talented guy."
Musically, the Big Wu's sound is a red-eyed, smiling brand of psychedelic Americana. Think Grateful Dead-meets-Willie Nelson, dosed up with a healthy shot of roadhouse boogie and rockin' bluegrass. Take into account the band's road-warrior tours, in which they crisscross the country to play more than 200 shows a year, as well as a fondness for onstage improvisation, and it's easy to see why the Big Wu is among the jam-band scene's elite -- even if they don't like the label. "I didn't know I was joining a jam band; I thought I was just joining a band that likes to jam!" Miller roars. "Nobody wants to be labeled a jam band. I mean, reporters like it because it conveys a simple, glib idea in a newspaper, and then people do have some idea of what to expect, but they also call the Disco Biscuits a jam band, and Lake Trout a jam band, and String Cheese Incident a jam band, and none of us sound alike at all."
Philosophically, the Wu's new-millennium, post-hippie vibe reflects a self- sufficiency that carries over into their business and always seems to work out for the best. In fact, the only time things turn ugly is when the Wu rely on someone else to handle their affairs. After independently releasing their well-crafted studio debut, Tracking Buffalo Through the Bathtub, in '97, the Wu signed a record deal with the Phoenix Media Group and released Live at the Fitzgerald Theatre, a loosey-goosey hometown performance that strikes a perfect balance between solid songwriting and improvisational jamming. Folktales, another critically acclaimed studio album, was next. Unfortunately, the label folded shortly after the CD was released. "Folktales was due to come out about a month-and-a-half from when I first heard Phoenix was going out of business," Miller says with a laugh. "As soon as I heard about it, the first thing I thought was, 'We're making an album that nobody is ever going to hear.' There's not a lot of hard feelings or anything, but they just sort of fell apart, and so it's just trying to get back what belongs to you."
Undaunted, they self-released a limited-edition three-disc set, 3/13/98, capturing a legendary Wu show in its entirety. "Everybody in the band really thought it was the best show we had played," Miller reflects. "It was a very good snapshot of that time. There was a lot of material that are fan favorites now that were just emerging, maybe like their first or second play, so it's kind of fun because people can hear what was done to the songs since '98." And now that the legal wrangling is over, the band will reissue Folktales at the end of September as the first release on its newly formed Bivco Records. So although the loss of their old record company may have been a short-term hassle, reinforcement of the Wu's do-it-yourself-with-a-smile attitude could pay off in the long run. After all, that's been the approach to their annual Big Wu Family Reunion from the start.
"The reason that the summer reunion is as much fun as it is is that we take care of all the details," Miller admits. "Ultimately we feel that we have some responsibility to make sure that people are safe without them getting busted for walking around with a joint. It's time-consuming. It's probably not the cheapest way, but the quality control is there. It's just too much fun to leave in the hands of people who've got dollar signs in their eyes. There's money there, but we look at the money like, 'Ooh, we can buy more fun!'"
More fun means more people. The Family Reunion sold out in advance, with more than 4,000 paying customers. Other high-profile performances this summer -- most notably Summerfest in Milwaukee, which drew a crowd of 3,000 -- shattered venue attendance records. And the numbers just keep getting bigger. This New Year's Eve celebration, a benefit for the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery, features the Wu headlining its largest concert to date at the 6,000-seat Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul. They'll also have a chance to break a record for something other than attendance.
"We're going to try to break the Guinness Book of Records for food donations," Miller says with a chuckle. "And even if we don't, we'll do some good and have fun at the same time. That's really what it's all about. People tell me all the time, that they just meet so many people at our shows that even if they go alone, they don't feel alone. And hey, if everything goes right, they won't leave alone!"