Big Wu, The House of Rock, Eau Claire, WI- 2/9
When you live in the upper-Midwest, you deal with the cold, the wind, and the snow. This winter theres been a draught. You may complain, but be patient, for this too shall pass. The same goes with a live Wu draught – they may not come to your town all too often, but when they do (just like precipitation) you take what you can get with open arms.
In Wisconsin were spoiled even though I complain as if I never get to see the Wu; we get the band almost as much as Minnesota, their home state. Eau Claire is a short road trip East from Minneapolis (just ask Nate Dogg; I think he can make it in under 70 minutes, and its at least a 90 minute drive for most folks). The House of Rock was the venue of choice for 2/9/2006 as it has been the last few times the band has played in this fine city. The name sounds as if bassist Andy Miller chose it.
I never should have mentioned the weather! Thursday night brought a windy snowstorm across the two states, and driving west from Amherst was treacherous at best. Thank the powers for fast moving semi-trucks with very bright red tail-lights – I was able to follow one going nearly 70 passing other cars doing 50 – We werent going to miss the show.
We arrived on the scene as Down Lo took the stage and proceeded to rip through a warm-up set of tight and funky originals and covers. An announcement was made during the bands set that they would be performing at the upcoming Big Wu Family Reunion (#9 for those counting) Memorial Day weekend. Ive seen this band 2 times now. This performance was much more impressive than the first that first time was right around a year ago, same place, and opening for the Wu. Thursday they were much more together and sounded like an amorphous combination of communicating musicians, rather than 4 dudes playing instruments at the same time. They have animated visual qualities and would make an excellent Saturday morning cartoon the guitar player has long dreadlocks and the hippy beard; the bass player is tall and gentle-looking but could crush the bass he plays; the keyboardist has the young college kid look down pat, and the drummer (as Andy pointed out later in the evening) is the tiny pocket-drummer who you can fold and put in your pocket (I think Prince may be taller than him). Dont let his size fool you because his beats are phat.
They sound like ass right now.
Someone decided to space us out and play Dark Side of the Moon during the Big Wus set up. I didnt mind, as the full moon was on the way. Drummer/vocalist/songwriter Terry VanDeWalker made the audible note to the soundman that the toms being checked sounded off. I could not agree. When the first G-chord of guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Chris Castinos Rhode Island Red blasted out, the change in velocity from Pink Floyd was a great shit-kicking energy boost. This is a versatile, wildcard-type song, often enlisted as a show-opener to get the blood flowing and limbs limber. It worked! Chameleon-like Bloodhound was next, which has be played ska-style, bluegrassy, & full-on rawk style. This version was an amalgam of types, starting quiet and building up into the first verse. I often argue with myself Is it Bloodhound? Is it Pinnacle? I love em both, so I win each time. This song is the second oldest original Big Wu tune still in rotation, which also explains why it has many different faces.
Batting third was a newer original Dogs Dead. I believe this could be one of those singles that gets played on the radio and makes great waves for the band. Its got a slow & funky beat, infectious vocal hooks, some rhythm antics during the middle 8 (thats what you get when the drummer writes the music), and is altogether a tight package with no extra fat. It was performed as such, making the crowd bob and weave and get their funk on.
The first surprise of the night for me personally was the Grateful Deads Hes Gone. The Wu began as a GD cover band and grew to become an original band, however they have left a massive amount of cover tunes behind for the most part. One thing I love is when these covers sneak out, and the fact that Im at the same show these tunes do turn up is why I find this a special occurrence. Terry sings lead on the tune and I felt that feeling, the feeling that we strive to find each and every show. Not every show brings us to that place, but this was one of them. A quick turn around at the end brought I Cant Dance into the spotlight. Its a song written by Tom T. Hall (those of you at the Family Reunion a few years ago will remember the tune I Like Beer, written by the same person), and the Wu performs a version recorded by Gram Parsons. I put this tune in my file marked no comment since Ive literally only heard it 2 times and witnessed it once. The obscure covers do have a tendency to grow on a person, though (examples include The Bands Jawbone, Steely Dans Any Major Dude Will Tell You, & Stevie Wonders Hes Misstra Know-it-all).
Andy (Padre) Miller has a love for the Minnesota Vikings. His song 50:1 (a reference to his pontoons motor) is about piling on a pontoon boat with friends and 12 packs under cover of darkness and thwarting a Green Bay Packer fans raised flag across the lake and replacing it with a flag of purple and white, so the Wu thought their first appearance in WI since 10/29/05 was an appropriate time to bust the song out again. The energy disbursed by Miller during this song is palpable. There is a Chili Peppers-esque, quasi-speed metal jam towards the middle that can come unraveled in the best of ways (listen to 9/8/2001 or 11/10/2001 for The Chicken Sandwich) and makes this song a true live experience.
Another tune in the elder-original and rare category is Gimme a Raise. The song features solos by all band members, a great sing-along chorus, and a message that all concur with: Makin’ all that money he can afford to give me more, If he don’t see it my way I’m walkin’ out that door, boss better gimme a raise! A handful of the sparse crowd were ecstatic to partake in this song. Wu fans tend to know what songs they need to see live, much like baseball card collectors know which cards they still need to obtain. You all know what Im saying.
There is such a great story behind the song Kick in the Head. The lyric, originally penned by Robert Hunter, was set to music back when written by New Riders of the Purple Sage. Word on the street is that Terry hopes to collaborate with Robert in a songwriting session – the lyrics were lifted from the NRPS music and hung nicely on Wu-penned music. The result is a wonderful tune, excellent hooks and memorable melodies that do kick one in the head. There is a flowing jam in the middle, and this night Castinos fluid chops ripped right on through – another of the many highlights of the evening. Maybe Hunter will catch wind of this interesting tactic and contact the Wu?
The one-two Castino Combo of Blue Vapor > Black Rain was an exercise in tempo dynamics. Vapor has an old rock n roll up-tempo shuffle sounding like Lovelight. Black Rain has a slower, contemplative marching beat, which upon witnessing the debut of the tune 3/13/2003 , instantly reflected the infrequent Pink Floyd influence. Castino has a gift of combining words and music tonight this combo of newer Wu tunes verifies his status as a full-service songwriter, with moods, melodies, lyrics, and tempos.
Love Handles, debuted 5/30/04 at Big Wu Family Reunion #7 (Heeeee-yah!) was shelved for many moons and resurfaced recently in the live repertoire. Its a speedy Terry tune with a catchy chorus and an odd-meter rhythm experiment towards the end to keep us on our toes trying to dance in 7/8. I presume this will make the cut for the new Wu studio CD.
Dylans Quinn the Eskimo, another old-school Wu cover rarity, was long, energetic and fun. This reading has more jamming than I anticipated, which was very welcome. Gotta Get Better in a Little While is one of the few times Al Oikari will ever step up and sing lead vocals. Most of the time he is juggling keyboard, steel guitar and backing vocal duties. Al croons this Clapton tune with force, and with it the Wu brought the house down to end a long, sweaty set.
A short pause and the band came up again and tore into the encore with fan favorite Texas Fireball. Its a rollicking song that begins raw then dips into a jazzy solo section and revs up back into the theme with piano, organ and guitar solos. The songs to send us packing into the winter wonderland that is Wisconsin were the Deads Casey Jones and Led Zepplins The Ocean. An excellent finish to a great performance that went under-attended. IMHO, the heat is in the band, the focus is present, the tune selection cuts across old and new, originals and covers were ready for the next phase of the Wu-veloution.