Positive Vibes at The BIG What? Positively!
Thursday began beautifully at The BIG What? in Mebane NC. That is the party that Big Something throws for a bunch of their friends over the course of three days (June 25-27). As the afternoon wore on, the cloud cover increased, although it never did more than sprinkle.
I was sure I misheard the lady at the gate say, “Well, this IS The BIG Wet!” I shrugged it off. When my photographer partner David Lee arrived, he also said The BIG Wet. A harbinger of things to come, Mother Nature style.
We could hear the sound system perfectly from our camp location, as we were treated to a mid-afternoon soundcheck as Big Something killed “Blast Off’ by Lettuce and then the first half of “Burnin’ Down the House.” Great things were in store.
Mac & Juice Quartet were the first band on stage. They did not, however, start at 6 PM as scheduled, due to no fault of their own. The bottom absolutely dropped out at 5:55, and for more than an hour everyone was pinned down, except for a few who tromped around soaked to the bone, challenging the numerous lightning strikes.
Finally, it let up and then stopped, as cheers were heard throughout The BIG What? They were hustling to get Mac & Juice ready to go. They played one song and… the bottom dropped out again. The rain wasn’t quite as bad, but the lightning was worse. Much worse, we discovered.
Once the rain stopped, everyone began to wander down to the stage area. Something was missing. What was it? A BIG something, as it turned out, as the crew was trying to deal with the fact that lightning had knocked out the power to the stages and soundboards.
The crew and the BS boys managed to cobble together enough juice to power a few speakers and several microphones. At 9:36, to a great uproar, Nick MacDaniels and Jesse Hensley stepped on stage… and promptly sat down for a great acoustic travel through some BS songs. Halfway through the first tune, Nick called for Casey Cranford to report to the stage, tenor saxophone in hand.
They knocked out four great songs; then Nick yielded to Keith Allen from The Mantras, whose 10:45 set was erased by the rain. He led off with “I Know You Rider” to much applause, followed by a second tune.
Then it got more difficult to know who was on stage. Nick was back, Juice came out, and perhaps they were joined by Big Daddy Love members for a rollicking “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do?” Casey kept calling for idle horn players to join him.
Hunter Parker of Psylo Joe took his suggestion, and the next song was vying for best tune of the night. It was an uptempo bouncing tune that reminded me of John Mayall’s Turning Point (high praise indeed). After that, it was singalong time, as Nick led us in “Bathtub Gin” to the great delight of the crowd.
Then it was musical chairs, as Big Daddy Love got on stage, bluegrass-style. As they were about to go, Nick quipped: “That’s what bluegrass is for — these situations!” Grinning ear to ear, they played several great songs, but at 11:16 the decision was made to stop for the night.
I cannot emphasize this point enough: I NEVER heard a single word of disappointment about any of the evening’s events, from anybody. In fact, a very, very positive vibe permeated throughout the festival grounds. It was delightful to see a community working together in such a positive way. Nick was effusive during the acoustic set about the band’s appreciation for their festival crew (“The greatest festival crew in the history of festival crews”) and to the patient and positive fans.
There were a number of fire performers demonstrating their various devices, to much applause and appreciation. Finally, I made the decision to pack up and head to the tent for an early night, a true rarity for me. My chair was halfway in the bag when a great roar erupted. I looked up at the fire circle, then spun around to discover — hallelujah — that power had been restored. 11:55. It was game ON!
Finally, at 12:48, to great shouts of delight, Big Something blasted off with… “Swingtown” by the Steve Miller Band! They interspersed originals with more Steve Miller hits; Nick did a superb job with the lyrics. “Pnuts Song” morphed into a sultry “Fly Like an Eagle.” The boys were CRUSHING IT, with Ben Vinograd powering them through on the drums. (So this was why the schedule said “The Steve Something Band!”)
And then things got ridiculous with a magnificent “Josh’s Disco” into “Jet Airliner” in the middle of a huge SM/BS sandwich. After “Take the Money and Run,” Josh Kagel (keyboards) and Doug Marshall (bass) led the band into “My Volcano (first half) > The Joker > Space > My Volcano. Now that’s a set-closer!
Due to excellent pre-planning, it took Big Daddy Love exactly seven minutes to get on stage and playing! “Money for Nothing” was sandwiched in the middle of a superb original, “Nashville Flood.” They proceeded to blow that out of the water with their second original, “Sycamore.” The tune itself was excellent, but the jam in the middle was spectacular.
Leader Scott Moss introduced the band and himself and then said, “And we are the Zac Brown Band.” Huge guffaws of laughter! Now that was funny! They closed with a loving cover of “Touch of Gray.” Brian Swenk on banjo was front and center in the sound, and guitarist Joseph Recchio was outstanding as well. And a huge shout-out, as well, to Ashley Sutton on bass and Scott Lewis on drums, since it IS all about that bass… and drums! Their short half-hour set was extremely well-received.
And we STILL weren’t done! Broccoli Samurai, the band slated to close Thursday night, was getting that opportunity. AND. THEY. DESTROYED. IT. Blew it up. I knew when I wrote the festival preview that this band was at the top of my list to check out. And that turned out to be an understatement. I heard elements of the New Deal, Dopapod, the Disco Biscuits and Particle, but this set was all their own. I admired the perseverance of the crew, the crowd and the musicians in making this happen in the best way possible.
Obviously, several bands never made it to the electric stage. We got the one song from Mac & Juice, and The Mantras and Psylo Joe were rained out altogether. I will look forward to seeing all of them in the future.
There is something different about the vibe at a North Carolina festival. That air of positivity and friendliness seems to be everywhere. I love my Florida festivals, to be sure, but we could learn a thing or three from our neighbors to the north. There is a conscious effort to clean up after yourself and your neighbors at the fest. The encouragement is to leave no trace, similar to the Appalachian trail. That message resonates, and it works. The grounds were immaculate — every day.
We were camping in the band area, and we were fortunate to be next to the fine people from Urban Soil, who rolled in Thursday to support their fellow bands before playing Saturday. Eric Chesson and his mates were awesome neighbors all weekend.
And I have to give a shout-out to the dude with the shofar; that’s the ram’s horn that is blown on Rosh Hashanah. He blew that thing all weekend, and he had Tekiah and Shevarim down cold!
I was fortunate to catch almost every note of Friday’s festivities. Dr. Bacon cranked up five minutes before the scheduled noon start — early is always good! Their bluegrass on steroids was the perfect way to kick off on this beautiful afternoon. The set bounced all over the map, finally ending with an awesome long tune that morphed in and out of the music to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Oh, wait. Their encore was a scream, a song about fancying your best friend’s mother: “I hope your mama likes pancakes.”
Next up was doby. Fronted by singer Robin Easter, they offered up a great set of soul-tinged songs with superb guitar from Marcus Horth. This was one of the rare times that there was a problem with sound. Easter’s vocals were way too far under the mix; you could hear her, but she needed to be front and center in the mix.
It IS all about that bass… and drums. Band after band, from the start of the schedule to last, had killer rhythm sections that provided the power for each set. doby jumped right in with “All I Do is Cry” and “With This Groove.” Each song was a combination of power and soul, such as a middle pairing of “Crazy Train” (their original) and “Hodgepodge.” At the end of their set, Jason Darby, our MC for the whole fest, said, “Sunday morning music for a Friday afternoon!” Well played, sir!
Dubtown Cosmonauts hit the stage next. The first tune was good, and the second was better. Suddenly, they shoved it into overdrive and hit full stride with “Reason for the Future,” a long, funky jam driven by space-bass. It was deluxe. Then Joe Starr told us, “Those were originals. Now we’ll do a couple covers.” Out came a slinky “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” and then a piano-driven “Divided Sky.”
From the What? stage back to the Why? stage, Richmond’s Trongone Band was up next. After a nice opening song, a very funky intro led into an even funkier take on “The Music Never Stopped.” Rhythm section was killing it, and Frank Trongone on guitar was great, as were the keyboards. Several originals, including “Ann Marie” and “Canyon Road,” preceded “Into the Mystic.” The set closed with by far the funkiest “New Speedway Boogie” I’ve ever heard. Tyler Simmons’s clavinet intro was killer, and he just owned the entire song.
Electric Soul Pandemic (I’ll let you do the acronym) came out with a reggae-ish opener that kicked into a ska-ish double-time beat mid-song. They rocked through several more before hitting their peak with strong funk rock, driven by, guess who, the rhythm section.
MC Darby introed the upcoming band, Fat Cheek Kat, pointing out that they had been sharing the bill with Big Something on a number of dates. The sextet (two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, percussion) played some very funky songs, then blew it out with a real rocker. When it was time for the blues, they whipped out a great variation on “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” Told they still had five minutes, they jumped into “Fat Cheek Kat” which morphed delightfully into “Jungle Boogie!” Keyboard player Michael Kinchen was massive on this one.
Oh, and it was just as FCK began the set that it began to rain, then pour, then finally back off. Some people sought shelter, but many stalwarts didn’t miss a muddy dance step. You might surmise where I went. Fortunately, there was no electrical aerial activity to halt the proceedings.
One of the highly-anticipated sets of the weekend (for me, they ALL were) was Cabinet, a traditional bluegrass sextet from Wilkes-Barre PA. They were as advertised: a superb band with no weak links. After several more traditional tunes, they covered the Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman” and did a fine job of it, vocals as well. Later in the set, they dropped in a “Loose Lucy,” with much singalong accompaniment.
During their set, the skies began to clear, and off to the north, up the hill opposite the stage, a glorious double rainbow appeared and brightened. Timing is everything.
Imperial Blend! Imperial Blend! Imperial Blend! My love for jamtronic music is well documented, and this quartet from Greensboro is right up my alley. They rocked, they funked, they jammed, all with that electronic pulse. It was a team effort from the start of “Spyro” to the end of “Yuna,” and already I cannot wait to hear them again. This set and Broccoli Samurai’s Thursday late night were certainly two highlights for me. The playing from both bands was incredibly tight, danceable and magnificent.
It was time for our second dose of Big Something. This set had a decided metal edge to it, as they rocked us hard. Casey Cranford was having a huge festival, both with his tenor sax and the EWI. Nick introduced a new song which was met with instant approval. We got “UFOs are Real” and lots more.
Then, Nick asked us to welcome to the stage “all four members of Vulfpeck.” A ridiculously nasty jam on “The Flood” ensued, to everyone’s delight.
HEY, BANDS! WANT A REALLY GOOD IDEA? Fans (and writers) love setlists, but there are only so many to hand out at night’s end. Big Something is diligent about posting their setlists the next day. Everybody should be doing this. Thanks, BS!
The Pigeons Playing Ping Pong performance was a thing apart from sets I’ve heard from them in the past. They continue to show more and more dimensions to their sound, rooted in funk and rock, but this set went jamtronic here, head-bobbing jam there. It was captivating, stunning. It seemed like they were about to close with a languid, lanky tune, when suddenly up jumped “F.U. N.K.” (“And all I wanna do is…”). Oh, yes.
Another truly anticipated set was by the aforementioned Michigan quartet, Vulfpeck. This was an interesting set. I need to see them again. At this point, it was raining enough that I sought shelter in the huge art tent, where LOTS of people were TALKING REAL LOUDLY.
A mellow-ish opener eventually worked its way into Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real.” Seemed like an odd choice. I needed to be up closer, but ‘dry’ won out. A nice cover of The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” was followed by excellently delivered polished pop bounce. Next time.
Spiritual Rez had the closing slot, and they made the most of it. I have always enjoyed their sets, but this was SR on steroids. They killed it. Reggae, ska, rock, funk, soul. They had it covered! Their set was full of power and positivity. The sextet is a well-oiled machine with that deep-pocket bottom. Much of the music is horn-driven, and true and tomb were blowing it out.
There was a guy with a rage sign that said LET’S GET WEIRD. Guitarist Toft Willingham read that, as if a cue to the band, and one of the best — and weirdest — medleys ever ensued, starting off with a metal/rock take on “Baby Got Back,” veering into metal and funk and ska and ?? They came back for two encores and raged 45 minutes past the 2 AM time on the program. Also note that Willingham has a remarkable voice with great range and depth. His vocals stood out in a fest full of talent.
I have to point out that while my partner-in-crime, David Lee, is looking at myriad photos and I’m typing this Saturday morning, Urban Soil, due on stage in two hours, is holding an impromptu warm-up session next door here in the campground. This is a treat indeed. We are really looking forward to the afternoon’s set.
Barefoot Wade had the noon slot. He’s a looper who plays a steel pan in addition to his guitars and other items. It was an adequate way to start the afternoon. He had an amusing song about holding hurricane parties rather than evacuating, and he closed with “Look On the Bright Side of Life.” Here is some advice for all musicians: if your drum machine is broken/not working/malfunctioning, you can mention it. Once. Maybe twice. Ten times is a bit much. Also, it is not wise to be the one laughing loudest at your own jokes. Just sayin’…
People have different purposes for attending festivals. Some just like to hang with friends and maybe hear a little music. Others are focussed on one or two bands and only go to hear those. Some drift in and out. Others are there for the headliners.
As you have surmised (or if you’ve waded through my previous scribblings), I want it all. All of it, or as much as I can get. My greatest festival delight has always been discovering music new to me. That was certainly the case with the 20 bands I knew nothing about before I wrote this festival preview. I was excited about the opportunity, but there were three I knew were going to speak to me personally. That was absolutely the case about Broccoli Samurai on Thursday night and Imperial Blend Friday. And then…
Opposite Box was astounding. Like Camel Filters, they’re not for everybody, perhaps, but, OH DAMN. For this show, they were a quartet plus a singer (sometimes, a Sousaphone player and sax man are there). They opened with a screaming rock starter, “Russian,” with Richard Long shredding while wearing a half-mask the entire show and Dave Graham looking like a thrash-metal star on bass. And they were bad, in the very best sense of the word. Badass. The prog-rock tune morphed into “Hall of the Mountain King,” driven by Ryan Long’s keyboards. Then it went crazy.
The setlist says “Pirate — Sex.” It started off full-frontal punk metal, turned into driving reggae, became “16 men on a dead man’s chest,” featured a segment with a woman introduced as Isaac Hayes’ daughter, and then became a demonstration song (not that kind) about the P and the V (penis and…). They did apologize briefly if any tender ears were offended… and kept right on going!
Ryan Guza was keeping everybody sort of in line on the drums, and then Ryan Long, quite a vision himself, grabbed a trombone and showed more mad skills. They played an excellent swing tune, which somehow became metallic. For every second of the set, the band displayed insane energy and awesome talent and a true eye and ear for the weird. It was so cool. I understood why they called their music “belligerent jungle funk.”
At some point, I walked over to David Lee. “I know what you’re going to say!” he stopped me in my tracks with that grin. “Bath Salt Zombies!” He nailed it. Bath Salt Zombies on punk metal. (That’s our Florida point of reference and a very positive one.)
In the middle of another song (“Devil’s Lettuce,” perhaps?), Long donned a full lion-head mask and played his trombone. THEN he jumped off the stage and started parading around. Somehow, right when he was parading near David and me, he stepped into a hula hoop on the ground, picked it up, and hooped and played for a bit! PANDEMONIUM!
Some spacey keyboards, harmony vocals, and scat singing were featured on a very soulful song I thought was “My soul is shattered by fire,” except that’s not on the setlist. This band can do anything. Anything. Told they had time for one more song, Long said, “This one’s called ‘Back in Black!’” So of course they played “Frankenstein.”
Note: Ryan’s vocals were fine, but the lady’s vocals were drastically undermiked (same problem as on Friday).
It was only 2 PM, and already I was drained. Just WOW. Now it was time to hear our campground neighbors who sounded so beautiful and acoustic up in the woods.
Urban Soil threw down. That might sound odd for the Raleigh quintet who bill themselves as “homegrown sweet Americana jam,” but this was a wonderful, strong set, and Opposite Box was NOT an easy act to follow. Urban Soil did so with gusto and grace. The quintet is centered around the beautiful voice of Sarah Reinke. Hearing artists such as Reinke reminds me again of how incredible our scene is and how dreadful FM radio is. She also played rhythm guitar. Leader Eric Chasson added backing vocals and was an excellent guitar player as well.
After hearing the band’s warm-up/tune-up, I was not expecting them to kick ass, but they absolutely did. It was awesome. The third tune, “Urban Swing,” was superb, and the set was a delight. Greg Meckley was great on violin (but a bit too far under the mix), and the Brothers Fawcett held down the bottom, Curtis on bass and Gabe on drums.
Whatever I thought was going to occur during the Chit Nasty Band set, I was drastically underprepared. This was a superb outing, start to finish. First shout-out goes to Christian Foushee-Green, hands down the best showman of the entire weekend (well, except for the lion-headed hula-hooping trombone player). He was a joy to watch… and hear, his vocals soaring and his keyboards rocking. The two guitarists stage left were blowing it up on every song, John Faltass and Jackson Manuel taking turns.
The Chit Nasty Band mixed soul, funk and R&B just right. Most of their material was original, but they played a blistering medley of “My Prerogative > Controversy > rock and roll tune.” And their closing tune? “I wanna get nasty! Who wants to get funked up?”
The Family was up next on the What? stage. This set just didn’t speak to me, but I was in the minority, because plenty of people were down front grooving. The set did pick up as it progressed, and Casey Cranford was coerced onto the stage for a tune.
On to Groove Fetish, from Wilmington NC. This sextet (think WSP: two guitars, bass, drums, keys, percussion) had a real solid set of original tunes, although they did dip back before any of them was born to grab “Green-Eyed Lady,” led by Jason Woolwine’s organ, and again featuring… Casey Cranford. Seriously, my MVP for the weekend was Casey, who gladly jumped on stage with anybody smart enough to call him up. Not to mention he TORE. IT. UP. every time. Groove Fetish closed with a great long jam titled “The Wizard.”
If I understand the history correctly, Barefoot Manner was a successful touring band for eight years or so, stopped touring, then returned to the stage for some shows last year. This was clearly a treat, and for some fans this was a real highlight of the festival. I was not familiar with their songs, but their playing was excellent — two guitars, banjo, violin, bass and drums. On “Leaving on the Next Train,” the rhythm section was just amazing. A bouncy sort of cover of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” suddenly spun into a double-time blue grass hoedown.
The Fritz is Asheville’s entry in the Funk Olympics. Actually, they describe themselves as ‘funk rock.’ Equal measures of each, all of it dripping in R&B. They rock so hard, anchored by Jake O’Connor on bass, Michael Tillis on drums, and Mike Evans on percussion. On that solid foundation, Jamie Hendrickson’s guitar and Jamar Woods’s keyboards dip and soar and take you higher… and higher.
The rain had picked up again, so Woods said, “Your energy is amazing! Rain or shine, the jam must go on!” And did it ever! Their set rocked from beginning to end.
O’Connor was one of many performers praising the festival, its hosts and organizers, and the crew. “The fest crew was on point; the bands are on point; this has been a great experience.” Evans also acknowledged the positive vibe of the entire festival. It is clear that this is a family affair.
It was time for the martial arts portion of the program, and by that of course I mean: Kung Fu! This was an incredible set. Tim Palmieri wears this grin throughout the set as if he is having a better time than we are! Recent band addition Beau Sasser fit seamlessly into the madness on keyboards.
After several tunes from their albums, they unexpectedly blasted “Contusion,” the brilliant jazz fusion song from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. This was a spot-on rendition, a match for Karl Denson’s cover. In the midst of a song from Tsar Bomba, bassist Chris DeAngelis was scatting and playing, and Sasser’s organ was front and center.
Rob Somerville led the band into a long take on “Hollywood Kisses” with his vocals and his tenor sax, and I was fortunate to be able to get backstage to watch the mastery of Adrian Tramantano on drums. He and DeAngelis had a killer set together.
My first exposure to Dangermuffin was at Gov-Fest in February, where they blew everybody away with a tremendous set. You’re staring at the stage, and you’re positive there are lots more than three men up there. This set started out out red hot and finished white hot, with a brief amusing interlude.
After a short delay, Dan Lotti turned back to the mike stand and announced, “We found the culprit. Something got wet!” To which a voice in the crowd immediately yelled: EVERYTHING GOT WET! Laughter all around. I cannot speak about song titles; clearly, I need to educate myself, but this was superb… and the perfect set before the slam-bang finale.
Actually, ‘slam-bang’ barely begins to describe it. The first set was one long killer set with no breaks at all from the hosts. From “Sirens > Julia Brown > Illuminated,” it was, to use my favorite superlative-type adjective, awesome. Josh’s keyboard’s were stellar, especially on “Illuminated,” a favorite of mine. And then it got awesomer (hey, Robyn) when they played a superb trance-dance piece titled “Bbm Funk > Love Generator.” Later, “Club Step” led into a first-time cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” lovingly rendered.
After the set break with costume awards (there were some great ones), set two began with a long spacey intro that worked its way into “Shine On You Crazy Diamond > Wish You Were Here > Another Brick in the Wall,” to everyone’s delight. The first two were also cover debuts. “Brick” was a great long jam.
I noted previously that Casey Cranford was my festival MVP for his great work on tenor sax and EWI, both with BS and the numerous bands who called him to the stage. My MVP for Saturday’s show was bass player Doug Marshall. The sound people had done a great job, and Doug’s bass truly stood out. He and Ben on drums powered everybody through the nearly four-hour-long show.
Two new songs surfaced: “Song for Us” and “Passenger.” Be on the lookout for those and “Tumbleweed,” debuted Friday. Before “Passenger,” Nick picked up his mandolin and said, “We’re not playing ‘Amanda Lynn.’ This is a new song.” He also took time again to offer copious thanks to the crew and the artists working in the tent. Casey then thanked all of the bands who made the weekend possible.
And with that, the band most assuredly hit their peak for me personally with a pair of Lettuce covers that were spectacularly performed. “Salute” was also a first-time cover, and “Blast Off” did just that as Jamar Woods grabbed the keyboards so that Josh could play trumpet. Doug and Ben were huge on this pair of songs. Then Nick asked, “Is everybody happy?” BIG ROAR! “That’s what we want!”
As if things weren’t bonkers enough, everybody went wild when Jesse Hensley played the opening notes of “Maggot Brain.” Kate, standing in front of me, flopped on her back and yelled, “Are you kidding me? ‘Maggot Brain?’” To this point, I haven’t said enough about Hensley; he is a guitar-slinging star. If Cranford was MVP, Hensley was second in the balloting. Every set, he played with such inspiration. “Maggot Brain” segued into “Saturday Night Zombie,” and the show was over.
Returning to the stage with huge smiles, the boys immediately dove into Sublime’s “What I Got.” I think I was the only person there who didn’t know the words. What followed was a glorious, bouncing, romping take on the best dance song I’ve heard in many years. We’re talking about “Uptown Funk,” of course, and this was so much fun. When the song was done, they tried to run away again, but the crowd was having none of it. The second encore was “Amanda Lynn,” and finally everyone was sated. It was a spectacular end to a spectacular weekend, rain notwithstanding.
I thought Thursday night’s set by Big Something was the best I’d heard of the dozen or so I’ve been fortunate to catch. Saturday was even better.
Throughout the entire festival, all six members of the band were circulating among the crowd, saying hello, saying thank you, listening to their friends on stage, making sure everything was just so. That’s how you run a festival.
After the dust settled (actually, after the mud dried), the band posted this:
“This weekend was transformational for us as people and as a band. Setting up an impromptu acoustic set while the power was out on Thursday. Jamming with musical idols Vulfpeck on Friday. And then capping it off with a nearly 4-hour-long set on Saturday night. It was amazing to see this community of people embrace our event that we have worked so hard on. Endless thanks to everyone who helped make The BIG What? a beautiful and positive experience. We hope to see you all again soon!”
Marty Loving is archivist for Big Something. He recorded almost every note at The BIG What? Here is the first of the recordings that will be available thanks to his diligence, hard work and love of Big Something and live music. We all say: THANK YOU, MARTY!
Big Something, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, The Fritz and The Family will all be at the Great Outdoors Jam in Lakeland FL this weekend.
Big Something, Big Daddy Love, Dangermuffin and two dozen more bands, including Lotus and Keller Williams, will descend on the same location for Leeway’s 20th Anniversary HomeGrown Music Network Celebration October 1-3. Make plans now!
Photos courtesy of David Lee / Gypsyshooter.