The BIG What?: BIG Sounds, BIG Smiles, BIG Vibes
Words by: Charles “Bones” Frank
Photos by: Mandi Nulph
Hello, my friends. Firstly, let me say it is a great honor to man the pen and paper for the fine folks here at MusicFestNews. This is a wonderful site full of creativity and information, and while I’m blessed to say this is far from my first time covering an event for a respectable music news outlet, it is my first time reporting for MFN, and for that I am thankful. Now onto what brought me here, The BIG What?
I am writing to you from my perch in the beautiful city of Greensboro, North Carolina, a mere 40 miles from a festival so enriched with life, community, and music that it staggers me how lucky I am to be in such close proximity to it. The Big What? celebrated its eighth occurrence this year, and while the festival has made truly massive strides all over the board, it is still rooted in the cornerstone that birthed it years ago: togetherness. While I traveled just a skip down highway 421 to the gates of the Shakori Hills Community Arts Center, the pastel site which has played host to The Big What? for now three iterations of the event, travelers came from far and wide to absorb the love that was generated at this majestic festival.
I submerged myself in the music, art, and culture of The Big What? for what was, as anticipated, a divine, refreshing weekend of sound and friendship. In fact, I have been attending this gathering since before it adopted its current name of The Big What?, and I can remember years ago sitting by a campfire feeling the same feeling I do now, when this concept was a microcosm of what the festival has become. It feels like a dream to scroll back through my memory bank of those times long ago, and while those first congregations were a much more simple vision, there is no doubt that The Big What? as it stands now is a beautiful testament to hard work, determination, and convergence. Let’s revisit in no real particular order eight of the most standout features I took in at The Big What? 2019, in honor of its eighth year of success!
Yes, I am aware I just said this list was in no specific arrangement, but, to be frank, it is only appropriate that I begin to some lengthy degree with the gracious hosts themselves, BIG Something. Not only did the boys from Burlington deliver four massive, career-spanning performances on the stage, but they also mingled throughout the site for the entirety of the weekend along with their team (Possum Holler Productions) ensuring that every patron on the land felt their own special connection to the band and to the event. This inclusion and accessibility, which I will return to shortly, is critical to the way The Big What? functions and sustains itself.
Of course, though, after all, it is the music of BIG Something on which the festival is founded, and, perhaps more than ever before, the sounds from the stage rang directly to the core of attendees. The band has been amidst recording and mastering a new album forthcoming in the fall of this year, and as they delved deep back into their catalogue for personal favorites such as “Graham County Courthouse,” “My Volcano,” and the always welcome saga of “Pinky,” they also delivered a whopping six (!!!) new, never-before-heard songs to the salivating and receptive horde that filled the grassy pasture in front of the main stage to capacity time and time again.
Additionally, BIG Something are masters of peppering in explosive covers which are crafted exactly right down to the tee for the sextet to devour and present. They set the tone early Thursday night with a sneak attack of Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean,” which sent patrons exploding into the ether. It was the first time the group had explored the hallowed Zeppelin anthem, and it was p-e-r-f-e-c-t. To my delight, they did not waste time getting to the new material either. I imagined perhaps the new stuff would be saved for the more meat-and-potatoes sets on the second and third day of the jaunt, but I was delightfully incorrect, as “The Breakers” and “Static” made their debuts.
As usual, Nick MacDaniels was a general on stage, taking the band from kind of a jammy post-punk sound with “The Breakers” into a hazy but thumping “Static.” It will be interesting to see where these two tracks find their natural place in live shows. For those familiar with this band, it should go without saying that of course every single song Big Something played throughout the course of the weekend was special, but as this band moves forward and in a somewhat of a different direction than their last two releases, I really want to emphasize how polished the new stuff was.
Friday saw the debut of “Escape” and, to massive crowd pleasure, the debut of David Bowie’s “Starman,” another cover that suited the boys perfectly. The next new one that made its way into the cosmos was a long-awaited new edition to the story of “Pinky,” a character BIG Something’s fans have been familiar with for years. The song, entitled “Getaway,” finds the band reconnecting with their old friend as he evades capture. “Heavy” and “Machines” were to follow later on Saturday evening, completing the six-pack of new material which fans had been promised preceding the festival. WOW!
For a group this original, polished, and fresh to be able to continue to reinvent their sound is remarkable, my friends. For anyone who has ever dabbled in the field of creative output, be it song, dance, visual art, writing, etc., it is HARD to consistently push oneself to a place where new content can be refined and output to a standard set by oneself after years of creating. I can’t say enough about how good those of us in the EWI Nation (a term BIG Something fans have dubbed to describe themselves) have it.
Well done, chaps, well done.
The Grove Stage
The Grove Stage serves as the second stage at The BIG What? and is nestled at the bottom of a small hill near the entrance to the property. However, The Grove Stage is hardly what most savvy festival-goers have come to expect from a second stage. It is a massive permanent structure where the production was just incredible.
Adorned with a complete lighting rig and a series of several long screens, the job that The BIG What? does with this stage is enough to make any act feel welcomed and special. A few highlights from the Grove Stage this year included (but are not limited to):
People’s Blues of Richmond
This trio aptly named for the city from which they hail laid an assault of sound upon the Thursday night crowd that can only be described as whole, evil, and a tremendous demonstration of precise organized confusion. Though only a trio, one’s ears at this PBR show ingested sounds from beyond the rock & roll spectrum that dove right into the soul. My eyes darted to and fro as I was taken aback over and over again at how much noise they could make and how much energy they were feeding to us in the crowd. Four words: Go. See. This. Show.
Oh, Dr. Bacon! How I love thee. No strangers to this stage, having been staples not only at The BIG What? for several years but also at other Shakori Hills festivals, Dr. Bacon burned nighttime air with a career-spanning set that hit every nail on every head. This band is high-energy, high-reward, and I was so happy to see several Bacon first-timers amongst the ranks of the hefty crowd. Dr. Bacon showed up and showed out, and for listeners new and old the Appalachian gypsy jam pioneers demonstrated why they will not be ignored as they continue to rise in people’s hearts and in their attendance.
The Wright Avenue
The six-piece from Greensboro delivered what I humbly believe to be one of their best efforts in recent memory. Moving through all originals that saw each member shine at different points, the band culminated their set with the debut of a thunderous cover that saw Casey Cranford of BIG Something and Myles Dunder from Dr. Bacon emerge to accent the absurd funk take on Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).”
The funkskateers from Maryland charmed the afternoon crowd with their unique brand of what I will call heart-pump funk. Their sound is pulsating but emotion-invoking as well. The closing stanza of “Orwell at the Doorbell,” “Turn on Delight,” and “Lean Quatifa” is not soon to be forgotten. Again, although not their first time at The BIG What?, there were lots of new listeners in the crowd, which after all is really the best thing a band can ask for. They did of course have a group of devoted fans as well, as the sound explosion of LITZ is no secret. I watched one devotee tirelessly tout a LITZ flag from side to side with every beat of LITZ’s drums.
The BIG What? has always been a playground not just for music but also a massive display of talented visual artists who grace this great scene. This year, the unmistakable Leslie Caneda, whose work with color and nature has always brightened my eyes when they are sore, curated the art gallery. Caneda along with her team did such a good job of installing pieces throughout the grounds that made the site come truly alive as The BIG What?, not just another random gathering. Small signs upon which different snippets of lyric from BIG Something’s catalog littered the entirety of the site’s footprint. Everywhere patrons turned, they were reminded where they were.
These type of pieces go such a long way in transforming a site from a piece of property to a special landmark for the weekend. Additionally, the fire dancers especially shone this year. At times, their group performances reminded me somewhat of synchronized swimmers, though this time their motif was water’s foil: fire. Some stood on boxes by the stages, some graced the front of the art tent, others roamed the grounds fortuitously. All attracted eyes and enhanced experience.
I’ve spoken at some length about this fixture of The BIG What? and of BIG Something as a whole, but never for this outlet, so I’m going to comment on it once more. There is NO band on the scene that is as accessible as BIG Something, and this feature permeates throughout the festival. The band themselves are so much more than world-class talented musicians. At The BIG What?, they are your friends, your neighbors, your dining partners, and your guides. As quickly as Casey Cranford would drill out a magical lick on his EWI, he would also help you set up your tent. As consistently as Doug Marshall would lay down the low end to carry you into the next realm, he would help direct you to a bathroom or watering station. Nick MacDaniels does so much organizing and administrating at this event, but as much as he has on his plate at all times, it is never too much to stop to chat with any attendee who may wish to. I watched his golf cart pull over time and time again to greet people, check on them, and ensure that they were safe and enjoying themselves. This item separates this group and this event from any other.
Little Festival, BIG Vibes
Although The BIG What? is a moderate size, it is still by most standards part of the “small festival” realm. Its size pales in comparison to huge events such as Bonnaroo and LOCKN’. While I have no doubt that any feat The BIG What? aims to achieve they certainly can, this medium-sized collection of fans and friends is absolutely perfect for what it is. Don’t be fooled, though; while the population remains somewhat contained, the production is on par with the best of the best. From the front to the back, from the main stage to the small wooded tertiary one, the production stands alone. Cam Grogan is a magician with his lighting rig. Life Is Art studios create a mystical environment of lucid imagination with their screen displays and exploration. While attendees are at The BIG What?, their senses tell them they are part of a much, much larger movement due to the grade-A production. Bravo, friends, bravo.
“Don’t fuck with Jabberwocky.” This line and so many more rang out triumphantly from the penultimate set of the weekend and the last one on The Grove Stage. This set was long overdue, after a debacle with weather a few years ago; it had been years since the powerhouse hypnotic attack of The Mantras had brought their undeniable rhythm and timing to The BIG What?. The largest crowd The Grove Stage saw all weekend assembled to ensure The Mantras knew they had and will always have a home at The BIG What? The jewels of Greensboro got right down to business, presenting a very whole, very pure set. This was from front to back the best offering.
I took it all in; it was emotional, for many returning attendees of The BIG What? had been pining for the return of The Mantras for too long. The pinnacle moment occurred with “Billy Folds,” featuring a saxophone sit-in from the illustrious Casey Cranford, who appears on the studio version of the single. This is the keystone of what some would refer to as the new Mantras sound, one that is all over their most recent release entitled Be The Light. Other pristine movements came to fruition in “Hobo Ken,” “Five Roads,” and of course the tidal wave closer of “Jabberwocky.”
The Woods Stage (“Mystery Stage”)
A small, low-production tent stage slightly hidden from plain view nestled amongst a group of trees, was the setting for the late-night sessions at The BIG What? These sets are always so much fun, as only the true night warriors are left standing by the time two and three in the morning roll around. Nick & The Nomads, MacDaniels’ side project which debuted at The Heap festival last fall, really got into some otherworldly stuff. This set saw the Nomads travel down some avenues in the mind of MacDaniels. BIG Something has always had some hip hop conceptions and break beats in their compositions, and the origin of those comes to fruition with Nick & The Nomads. Takes on several Mac Miller originals mixed in with The Beatles and Anderson .Paak left this dance party drooling. Even longtime MFN commentator Pat “Papa Pat” Williams gave his stamp of approval: “That was sick AF”. (Ed. note: There’s no way he abbreviated AF.)
Also gracing The Woods Stage was Ranford Almond, a breath of new life into the scene that we hold so dear. Almond is a mere twenty years of age, but it was evident with his performance that this would be far, far from the last time What fam would hear his name. Almond blasted through four original tunes, the songwriting of which is more demonstrative of a veteran expert than a sophomore in college, before he switched from acoustic to electric guitar and welcomed up his band for the evening: Justin Able, Julian Sizemore (The Mantras), and Jordan Zomparelli (The Wright Avenue). As much as I enjoyed watching Almond’s set, I enjoyed watching the “mind blown” expressions on the face of the crowd just as much. Did I mention his voice? No? Well, my friends, Almond has the soul and grit of the voice of Bob Dylan, combined with the smooth tone of John Mayer. He punctuated his first appearance at The BIG What? with a sit-in from Nick MacDaniels on the Tyler Childers instant classic “Feathered Indians.” Ranford Almond has arrived.
Casey & The Comrades
After occupying the mystery slot in 2018, this year Cranford brought his psychedelic exploration unit to the main stage for a feature evening appearance. Simply put, my friends, holy shit! There is not another band that is breaching the realms of sound like this one. The Comrades are a combination of jazz, progressive hallucinogenic form, with a little hint of afro-beat structure. Interested yet? You should be. For BIG What? and BIG Something experts, it is no secret Cranford is a volcano of space sounds anytime he is on the stage. He draws applause whenever he is introduced alongside his band mates. For this reason, it is such a special spectacle to see Cranford on center stage, a few feet from his normal position of stage right, leading a band. Cranford has all the showmanship one could ask for in a bandleader and sprinkles some welcome organic, natural, and comical interaction with the crowd in his remarks as well.
Oh, by the way, this band has no bass player. A second keyboard/organ rig sits behind Cranford where Bill Stevens plays the bass tones. In addition to a hard-hitting cover of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” Casey & The Comrades have some serious original material as well. Cranford has revived “H1-N1” from one of his bands of many years past, which was met with delight by those old enough in the crowd to recall it. This band is a saucer that orbits the earth; it was a blessing that they docked at The BIG What?.
Honorable Mention: Distance Travelers
A BIG What? BIG tip of the cap goes out to these people. As readers of my work on other outlets know, and as I hope to continue to share with you all, I make a point to collect stories not just from the performers, artists, staff, and site operators but also from the heart of festivals like The BIG What?: THE PEOPLE! You!
How folk discovered the festival, how they were exposed to BIG Something. This year, I came across people who traveled from Canada; that’s international! I met New Yorkers; I met a group familiar with the band from the High Sierra festival in northern California. I met a man all the way from Telluride, Colorado, who drove (!) by himself, just to join the community at The BIG What? I am happy to report these people felt right at home and left with a whole troop of new friends.
That’s what it’s all about, friends. That’s what ensures longevity in this industry. When the bands are on a first-name basis with a majority of the crowd, even as it grows and expands over state and country borders, that is the real magic that hides inside the core of The BIG What? It is not just coincidental, by the way; it is also calculated. Cheers to you, troubadours of distance travel.
As fall looms, another year is nearly upon us, and another BIG What? gone by. For me, reflection in this form is cathartic and rejuvenating. Watching this festival come together from both in front of and behind the stage is truly a pleasure.