The Big Wu

The Big Wu

Andrew Olson

Reader Weekly

Back in the mid-1990s the children of hippies looked for hope in a world overrun by pop stars and mosh pits. They sought a safe place to dance in the breeze and enjoy music by bands that had no set list, no format, and believed in R&B jamming. That is about the time that the Big Wu’s Jason Fladager (Guitar/Vocals), Chris Castino (Guitar/Vocals), Andy Miller (Bass/Vocals), Al Oikari (Keys/Vocals), and Terry VanDeWalker (Drums/Vocals) started up a Grateful Dead cover band in the private-college town of Northfield, MN. Eventually they passed through the Cabooze in Minneapolis, becoming more original along the way, before taking over the country with a touring family.

Less one great guitarist (Jason Fladager, who now plays with God Johnson) and a record label in bankruptcy, twelve years later the Wu is still around. They still travel the country and grab a few hippies each time through, but the landscape has changed considerably.

When The Big Wu started out as a Grateful Dead tribute band it was cool to wear tie-dye and dream of being a hippie. Today, in a post-9/11 world it is not totally clear what a hippie is anymore. With a reported 60% of American companies doing drug tests on their employees the whole hippie virtue of pot being better than liquor for intoxication is dying out. Tighter borders have turned a once cheap communal drug into a hard-core street doping of the new NugHeads. Instead of opening the mind to music the trip today is more about opening the little door on the front of the PS2.

In 1994 Andy Miller (Bass) ran for mayor on the platform of legalizing drugs and lowering taxes.

He got 13% of the votes, but today he might not even be allowed to run? The days of sneaking a joint into a concert are also becoming a thing of the past. This is a shame because when I was in college I saw Bob Dylan and Paul Simon at a festival in 1999. The crowd was older and the parking lot was packed full of SUVs with bumper stickers advertising kids who were on the honor roll. This older, wealthier crowd also pulled out huge joints to pass around, making for a haze on the Canterbury Downs. Today with cops freely roaming concerts and undercover officers carting away anyone who looks like they took a puff what is a jam band to do?

The Big Wu is staying alive by doing what they know: playing music, touring, and giving the last few hippies out there a reason to go out. They recently released a new album, Tool For Evening with the remaining members and went back to a more loose-fit styling. This goes against their previous album (Spring Reverb) which was cultivated and created

under a budget that sank a label.

The Wu still make their way through Duluth a few times a year, and it is always a sure bet that great music will be played whenever they grace a stage. The Tap Room had that energy and tie-dye hanging around on Saturday Night (May 14th). It even had one gentleman take his shirt off in a moment of excitement and begin dancing with abandon to a Dead cover. The place was packed, but with an $8 cover the audience was not as large as it might have been.

After all, hippies aren’t exactly known for having lots of cash on hand.

The Wu looked a little older this time around, but still sound the same as when I first saw them years ago. Back then everyone was younger, but they were like rock stars in a party house in Uptown Minneapolis. They still are rock stars, and believe it or not. There are still a few hippies roaming around in the wild. They are an endangered species though.

(May 19, 2005)