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Published: 2001/12/19
by Pat Buzby

3/13/98 Cedar Cultural Centre – The Big Wu

BivCo Records

In these troubled times, it's good to have reminders of the positive aspects of being alive in 2001, so I hereby submit one: the increasing amount of complete concert releases. Back in the vinyl days, these would have been unwieldy box-set jokes (anyone remember Chicago At Carnegie Hall?), but now no one thinks twice about them. Being a completist sort, I've bought most of Phish and the Dead's vault releases and have also used this format to sample moe., even Pearl Jam; heck, if Billy Joel started a vault series I'd be curious.

The Big Wu's entry is different than those cited above because it's an audience recording — a very good one, although the mix near the start of the electric portion isn't ideal. It suffers from lack of attention in the liner notes department — a list of the band lineup would have been nice for us non-initiates, and the writing credits are sloppy. (Steve Goodman's City Of New Orleans gets credited to Sonny Boy Williamson and On The Road Again to the Brent-era Dead lineup.) Still, this show is a fan favorite, so let’s have at it.

Unlike many readers, I've not heard or seen the Wu before, but I'm sure this show was fun to attend. My most significant gripe with it is that though the acoustic set is cool, it would have been cooler if four of the first five songs weren't Dead/Garcia-associated tunes. They're great songs, but there are lots of other great songs that no one's done lately. Or perhaps the Wu could stick with originals — the last two unplugged numbers, Take The World By Storm and Last Train, are great, on par with above-average Garcia/Hunter and among the highlights of the show.

Plugged in, the band sounds like the Dead circa '90, but they do that sound about as well as the Dead usually did. There's more Dead covers (including a reasonable Dark Star) and covers of Dead covers (Good Lovin’), but again, it’s the originals that impress. These guys aren’t going to knock the GD or the Band (another possible comparison) out of the canon, but they stand alongside them. The tunes are hooky and come with a few amusing twists, such as the New Orleans break in the ballad Precious Hands or the jazzy dual-guitar theme in S.O.S. The jams don’t blow this listener away (as with the ’90s Dead, the lead guitar is too low in the mix), but they’re diverting enough, especially the rather un-GD-esque weirdness in Red Sky.

A fun show, but intentionally or not, the Wu present a good argument here that they'd be wise to put faith in themselves rather than sticking with the Dead model.

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