Just as the mental picture starts to seem a little bleak (although the jab at matching outfits showed some promise), he hits jam-band pay dirt: “What we enjoy doing, and are very good at doing, is listening to each other and playing off each other. The key to the Big Wu is improvised performance. That, and taking care to write good songs. We’ve always been big on letting the music do the talking.”
“Always,” in this case, means since 1992, when the St. Olaf College student musicians started jamming in a student-run nightclub and the Reub-N-Stein bar in Northfield, Minnesota. The band’s notoriety grew as bookings expanded into Minneapolis. By 1996, the “Wu Family” had formed—a regular Wednesday night fan base at the legendary Minneapolis Cabooze Bar.
Tours throughout the Midwest and then nationwide (over 1,500 gigs in all, including a 2002 Bonnaroo show that attracted over 50,000 fans) generated more interest in the rock/jazz fusion/jam band—enough to support an annual Minnesota festival known as The Big Wu Family Reunion.
Invited bands were friends made at festivals throughout the year. “We didn’t care what anybody’s manager was hyping—just if we liked playing with them,” Miller says. “And it didn’t matter if they were big bands or small bands—we paid everyone same, and more than the market. We knew what it was like, driving from California through the mountains of Pennsylvania and having somebody hand you the $200 you just spent on gas to get there.”
Participants at early Family Reunions included Yonder Mountain String Band “when nobody knew who they were,” Miller notes. “And we made it fun for these guys—we would cook for them, whatever they wanted. We treated them how we wanted to be treated.”
He’s just as passionate about Big Wu fans, starting with the fact that the band doesn’t actually have fans—“we have family.” Adding to the excitement over the upcoming Des Moines show is the fact that The Big Wu is coming out of a year-long hiatus, thanks in part to the transition of Mark Grundhoefer from manager to guitarist. “In a lot of ways, he put the joy back into playing,” Miller says. “And we all just got the itch to play shows again. We had more music to write, and there’s more fun to be had.”
If you’re heard The Big Wu perform before, you can expect more precision and a bigger, tighter sound in this show—the result of teaching session/rehearsals with Grundhoefer.
In true jam band tradition, The Big Wu never does the same show twice. “A major part of our musicality is improvisation,” Miller says. “At the heart and center of what The Big Wu does, we try to create an atmosphere where everybody’s comfortable. I like to think of the stage as my living room—that’s where I’m comfortable. Everybody has to go to work all week; this is where you go to unwind.”
Hear The Big Wu:
Nov. 18 at Little BIG Fest
Hotel Fort Des Moines
Doors: 5:30; Show: 6 pm
Headliner: 11 pm
The Big Wu is:
Chris Castino: guitar
Andy Miller: bass
Al Oikari: keyboards
Terry VanDeWalker: drums
Mark Grundhoefer: guitar
The name comes from:
The Wapani Woo, a fictional tropical island in the 1990 movie Joe vs. the Volcano, in which Tom Hanks plays a hypochondriac who, upon learning that he is dying, agrees to jump into a live volcano to appease the volcano god.