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Published: 2002/04/23
by Ann Wickstrom

The Big Wu Family Reunion: Doing It Their Way

What do Sound Tribe Sector Nine, All Mighty Senators and Yonder Mountain String Band have in common? All were virtually unknown in the Upper Midwest until their appearance at The Big Wu Family Reunion near Black River Falls, Wisconsin. And all are now immensely popular in the region, particularly in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Black River Falls is centrally located between Madison, Milwaukee, and the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul (The Big Wu’s home).

As the 5th Annual Big Wu Family Reunion approaches (May 24 26), Big Wu Manager Paul Hagen reminds us that this three-day music and camping festival is all about discovery. “It’s fifty percent about kind music and fifty percent about kind people,” says Hagen. “As far as the music is concerned, we’re not about who’s big?’, but rather, who’s next?’” The Big Wu is the primary draw, and the members of the band hand pick the other seventeen bands. “We book bands that we think are really cool,” says Hagen. “We want to turn people on to bands that we think they’ll really like rather than renting a bunch of familiar names so that everyone knows exactly what they’re going to get.”

Unlike festivals that are run by promoters, The Big Wu “family” has always felt they could do it themselvesand they have. From the very start, the Family Reunion has been entirely handmade by the family, armed only with the knowledge of what’s important to festival goers and what’s important to bands. It’s also been based on an understanding of what is predictably lame about most festivals (short sets that seem to be over right when you’re really getting into it, grossly overpriced concessions, and a lack of porta-potties). At the Big Wu Family Reunion, all bands play at least a full two-hour set, there are two stages that never step on each other, you can get a 16-ounce microbrew from an award-winning local brewery for just two bucks, and there are always plenty of regularly-serviced porta-potties available.

So who is this “family” behind the scenes at the Reunion? It’s an army of over 200 volunteers: fans, friends, and supporters of the band who truly want to be there, which serves as a catalyst in setting the tone for the entire weekend. The other kind people are the four-to-five thousand festival attendees themselves. As Hagen explains, “We don’t do mass advertising. The people who we’re trying to reach are the people who really get it’. Because it’s mainly a word-of-mouth festival, almost everyone there is there because they heard about it from a friend who heard about it from a friend who heard about it from a friend. And when the crowd is almost exclusively friends of friends of friends, the vibe is absolutely amazing.”

Many of the people who hook up at the Reunion initially met online on the Big Wu email list. Last year’s ticket orders revealed attendees from 31 states. After it’s over, the buzz online is as much about the new friendships that were formed as it is about the great music. Long-time Big Wu fan Chris Currey has been to the last three Reunions. “I really look forward to it every year,” he says. “It’s great fun, but also relaxing and very casual. At the big festivals, you just get lost in a sea of people. It’s too overwhelming almost stressful. Here, each person’s presence really makes a difference.”

Children are well represented at the Reunion too. Families with children can set up camp in a specially designated area. Kids find plenty to do at the “Creation Station”, a spot for face painting and for making crafts, costumes, banners, etc. Many of these little masterpieces re-emerge Sunday evening during the parade, a tradition at the Reunion that is open to all who wish to participate. Hagen elaborates, “People have drums, didgeridoos, tambourines whatever, and they line up and weave around the music area and end up in front of the stage. It culminates in a big drum jam in front of the main stage. Then the Wu will come out and pick up the beat from the crowd; the torch will be passed from the crowd to the Wu and they’ll start their set. It’s a free-spirited, fun event that celebrates each person’s creative expression. It’s very informal and just plain fun.”

In addition to the bands and the festival goers, there is another group of folks that come into play at the Reunion: the local community. The beer concession is a fundraiser for the Black River Falls Chamber of Commerce and is staffed by residents of the community. In 2001 they cleared $9500, nearly 20 times the amount a typical fundraiser would net them. Attendees are also asked to bring non-perishable food items for the local food shelf. Last year more than two tons of food was collected: so much that some of it was given to the neighboring counties. Local merchants benefit too; a free shuttle bus runs to town and back all day Saturday and Sunday for people who want to have a restaurant meal, do some last-minute shopping, or pick up camping supplies at the hardware store. “Last year, we pumped $300,000 into the local economy, which is huge for a town like Black River Falls,” says Hagen. “We understand the dynamics of a small town and we know how weird it can be to have a community that outnumbers your own just five miles down the road. We do all we can to be thought of as once-a-year neighbors, where everyone looks forward to our return. The Big Wu Family has distinguished itself. The universal acclaim of the merchants in town is that everyone is so nice, polite, and respectful.”

In the end, though, it all comes back to the music and the way the festival is put together. “The traditional wisdom is to see how big you can make your festival,” says Hagen. “This festival is small, and it’s small by design. It’s what comfortably fits in the venue. We keep it family-sized so you don’t get lost in the hordes. It also runs smoothly, it runs on time, and the sound quality is tops. We spend more on sound and production aspects than a bottom line-driven promoter would. Mostly, the Big Wu Family Reunion is about discovering music that you don’t already know but will probably be blown away by. And that’s happened every year.”

Tickets for the Big Wu Family Reunion are available through the band’s web site at www.thebigwu.com or from Ticketmaster. You can also find detailed information and links to the web sites of this year’s bands at the Big Wu site.

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