It just wouldn't be a December night in Boulder, Colorado without a cold snap and the accompanying snowfall. However, that didn't seem to deter over two hundred fans from packing the legendary Fox Theater last Friday night to see Minnesota-based jamband, The Big Wu.
Colorado has quickly become the band's home away from home as they have established quite a fan base there. This was the second time this year The Big Wu have played a mini-tour through the Rocky Mountain state, marching through cities such as Denver, Breckenridge, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, and of course Boulder.
Fresh off their first tour through Japan, the band was ready to give the Colorado faithful a steamy helping of their signature Americana folk and rock 'n' roll. Thankfully, they did not disappoint. I say this because any true Big Wu fan will tell you that ever since guitarist and founding member Jason Fladager left the group in 2001, the band has been plagued with inconsistent performances and a declining popularity. Many acts would not be able to survive this, but as of late The Big Wu have gathered new strength and are once again playing with energy and vigor.
The evening began with local boys Mumbouli warming up the crowd. A ripping bluegrass cover of Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" certainly moved the audience into full-on dance mode. The final two songs of their set were joined by Wu members Chris Castino (guitar) and Al Oikari (keys), which helped provide a bolder sound to this quartet (Mumbouli also had a local keyboardist and Outformation percussionsist Jeff Lane perform with them during this set).
Only minutes later The Big Wu took the stage to begin their musical conquest of the evening. The opening song, "Make Believers", came out a little flat and was very bass-heavy. But to their credit, the band seemed like they were just trying to shake off the yawns from the previous night's late Denver show.
They followed with the rock 'n' reggae gem, "Ray Charles Can See", a popular tune from their 2004 studio project Tool For Evening. This was a slower, dirtier version of the song which carried an amazing jam, proving that the first song of the night was indeed just a warm up. The only shortcoming here was that Castino (once again) botched the lyrics at one point. As much talent as he possesses, lyrical retention is not his strong point. You would think after 12 years on the road he would finally use sheet notes or a digital companion to aid this problem.
The band continued on to play the popular Grateful Dead version of "Good Lovin", which featured drummer Terry VanDeWalker on vocals. A tight beat and a huge smile from Terry inspired much of the audience to shake the walls of the Fox with their feet. This eventually gave way to a newer VanDeWalker original entitled "A Wall", which is a slower, ballad-like rock song that failed to capture much attention from fans and even the band.
The band quickly shifted gears and went right into the fan favorite, "Shoot the Moon". Easily the best played song of the set it featured amazing solos by Oikari and Castino. The band jammed on this tune for over ten minutes and really captured what is the heart of this outfit: improvisational rock.
After a short rant by bassist Andy Miller about being tired and "having a bad hair day", the band played an old concert staple, "Red Sneakers". Miller must not have been as tired as he led on, because his bass playing was superb. His fingers were all over the strings, and the liquidity of his sound really resonated throughout this number.
The seventh song of this set was the "Ballad of Dan Toe", a south-of-the-border inspired tune that VanDeWalker has kept in their repertoire for many years now. This song was also played with great energy, and at this point you began to feel the flow of the band was heading in the right direction this evening.
Following that was one of the few Andy Miller-written tunes, "Dancing with Lula". Always a concert favorite, the crowd really got into and began to show their strength. The Fox Theater had pretty much filled up at this point and you could feel it. The end of "Lula" segued right into "No Place Like a Road", a folk song from the collaborative side project Songs From the Tin Shed by Castino and Yonder Mountain String Band's mandolin phenom, Jeff Austin. This was a good rendition of the song, however, had Austin (a Boulder resident) been available to join the band on this tune it would have made it magical.
The set ender this evening was quite a surprise, as The Wu gave forth their best effort at covering Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop", and did so quite well. VanDeWalker seemed to summon Robert Plant on vocals, and the rest of the group stepped it up to give the crowd a very high energy, well-received version and left them wanting more.
After a short set break the band took the stage and welcomed Mumbouli guitarist Doug Baker. Baker has joined the band on numerous occasions while in Colorado, and has proved to be a good compliment to their sound. He is also likely Castino's brother from another mother as the two red-bearded guitarists play off each other well.
The set began with a cover of the Grateful Dead's rock anthem "Terrapin Station". It was bold and very well done, yet only reiterated the fact The Big Wu needs to replace Jason Fladager's missing rhythm guitar.
Following two cover songs, The Wu dove back into their original catalog and performed the Caribbean-influenced "Shantytown". At this point the band was also flanked by percussionist Jeff Lane (Outformation), who would end up providing worldly beats the remainder of the show. This song was immensely popular and was played for well over ten minutes, showing once again the band's musical exploration and knack for the jam.
From there the band welcomed another addition to the show by inviting the keyboardist from Mumbouli's performance to lend a hand on the song "On the Road Again". At this point there were seven musicians on stage, yielding an amazingly large sound never furnished by The Big Wu alone. This was a fun country-rock song that lent its way to another of its kind, the Johnny Cash popularized version of "Big River". For anyone who enjoys good cover songs, this night was packed with them!
The band then marched on through originals "Flat Iron Suite" and "Save Our Ship", two songs performed with very spacey interludes where I think everybody temporarily left the building without moving a limb. The impressive musicianship continued through these melodies, and I was again fascinated by the sound Jeff Lane was adding to the collective.
Nearing the end of the show, the band performed the VanDeWalker original "Dog's Dead" and decided it was time to showcase possibly the most talented member of the band, Al Oikari. Over the years Oikari has become quite a force on the pedal steel guitar and proved it so on this melody. He also displayed his amazing key work on the renditions of "Texas Fireball", a full-on rockabilly Wu original, and the set ender "Rock 'n' Roll Band".
For the encore this evening The Big Wu decided not to leave any of Boulder's hometown musicians out, and welcomed former Leftover Salmon keyboard player Bill McKay to the stage, along with Baker and Lane. They appropriately ripped into the Salmon favorite "Up on the Hill" and had the Fox Theater gleaming with excitement.
As if that were not enough music for the night, the band completed the show with the signature tune "Break of Day", which is usually reserved as a set opener but saved here for last. It was a beautiful way to say goodnight to the Boulder fan base.
It was very refreshing to see The Big Wu play with so much energy (and sobriety for that matter) again, and it gave hope that there may be many more years to come for these troubadours of the Midwest. They are still some of the best songwriters and performers in the scene, and Colorado fans will always welcome them back with open arms and a warm smile.