Heart troubles can’t slow down Wu

Lydia Cox

After spending a little time reworking the structure of the band, they settled down as just a four-piece: Terry VanDeWalker on drums, Andy Miller on bass, Al Oikari on keyboards and Chris Castino on lead guitar. It seemed to work and they plowed ahead.

Summer 2003 was nearing, and The Big Wu was looking forward to its schedule of festivals and shows. Then, wham, their world was turned upside down yet again.

Castino was at a garage sale in Minneapolis when he suddenly fainted, his fall sending him to the emergency room for stitches.

“I was sitting there, thinking that I would just be getting stitches, to suddenly having every doctor in the hospital listen to my heart,” Castino said.

The medical staff soon discovered that a valve in

Castino’s heart was not functioning properly, and surgery was in order … soon. In just two weeks from the time he first fainted, Castino was not only preparing for the sixth annual Big Wu Family Reunion, but also his operation.

The Reunion — a three-day festival tucked away in

Black River Falls — is a time for family, friends and fans to come together to camp and celebrate live music, particularly the Wu’s. This year, Particle, The Derek Trucks Band and a handful of lesser-known acts played for 2,000 individuals.

“I think (this year) was the best one,” Castino said.

“It’s small, but that’s the way we like it. It was a weird feeling to be there. I knew that I was going in for open-heart surgery that next Friday, but I was there with a smile on my face.”

Not only was the Reunion a success, but so was the surgery. Just six weeks after he went under the knife, Castino played his first show back with the band.

Despite the speedy recovery, Castino still had a chance to mull over his musical career.

“It made me take some things more seriously and some things less seriously. In the past I’ve always been pretty driven and very focused on the music,” Castino said. “Now, I am taking the music less seriously. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it makes for a more enjoyable experience.”

To help with medical costs, musicians in Fargo, N.D.,

St. Louis, and Minneapolis held benefits to raise money for Castino, who lacked insurance.

“It was people that had been fans of the music that stepped up,” Castino said, “That’s what struck me.”

Last week, a doctor’s check-up produced positive results, and now Castino and the Wu are ready to move forward, putting behind them all they have endured over the past two summers.

“We were kind of living in a bubble for awhile,”

Castino said. “The little world of The Big Wu. It was five guys with their wives and girlfriends and manager. It’s definitely changed. We’ve seen a kind of growing-up process.

“We definitely lost momentum. We’re a touring band and when you have to take time off from touring, it’s difficult. We want to be out there, spreading our music.”

First on the agenda is a fall tour. With just a handful of dates in September, the Wu really hits the road in October, when it resumes its 20-25 shows a month routine. Wu also plans to release another live album before recording new material.

“We’ve been playing songs that have endured for a long time, which is great, be we need to add to our repertoire of music,” Castino said. “I’m really excited about recording music. I want to have a hand in it personally.”

Castino also spent some time over the spring with

Jeff Austin from Yonder Mountain String Band. Together, the two recorded an acoustic album that features several guest appearances, including banjoist Noam Pikelny from Leftover Salmon and Nick Forster, a legendary bluegrass bass player.

Castino expects to release the album sometime after the first of the year.

When it comes down to it, The Big Wu members have been through a lot, but it’s only made them stronger.

“I can’t really predict the future,” Castino said,

“But I think we’ll keep playing music together for a long time.”

The Big Wu will perform at The Rave, 4102 W. Wisconsin Ave., on Friday at 8 p.m.