Written by, Photos by Charles Frank
Photos by Robert Roane
Cinco de Mayo is often mistaken to be the Independence Day of Mexico, when it is actually a celebration commemorating the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over the French, at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. On this Cinco de Mayo, there was a gathering at the Greenfield Lake Amphitheatre, in the heart of Wilmington, NC, to celebrate not only the good spirits brought about by the Mexican holiday, but also to the now annual home away from homecoming for the ever ascending jam titans BIG Something, who returned to hold court at Greenfield for the third year in a row. The fiesta, however, for this writer was not scheduled to conclude after the BIG Something show, but would boil over into a double dip, as the East Coast’s finest deep rhythm cosmonauts, The Mantras, would assume the helm later in the evening at The Whiskey, located only a gentle toss away from the amphitheater. As I inhaled the aroma of the beachy air, I thought to myself, “life is good.”
Though weather forecasts for the day began with an ominous prediction, by the time I arrived in the sandy parking lots of Greenfield Lake, the sky was clearing, the lowering sun was breaking through, and good spirits were aplenty. This trip being my maiden voyage to the venue, I was eager to get in a walkabout through the lots to see friends, share libations, and gauge the anticipation that has become contagious at BIG Something shows. There was frolicking, the smell of lit grills, and the clank of bottles meeting each other for cheers. It was indeed all the indicators of a band who is making a specific and lasting impact on their fans. I visited a with a few groups of friends I’ve made over the years following the group, and edged closer to the entrance of the lakeside shed.
Upon entering into the venue grounds at the top of the natural amphitheater on which it sits, my gaze went first to the lake, lying tranquilly adjacent to the left of the seating area. The lake is surrounded by pine trees, under which children played while their parents watched and twirled. My eyes moved from the lake to the stage, where Rebekah Todd and The Odyssey were already amidst an energetic groove. The soul singer and her band were melting with flavor, and while I only caught the last handful of their show, Rebekah would reappear later on. It was getting time for the main event, so I strapped in and got ready for BIG Something’s brand of party funk.
The sextet from Burlington opened with “UFOs Are Real” and “Waves,” both being tracks off of the newly released Tumbleweed, BIG Something’s latest album. The guys have been on a massive national tour in support of the record, and it was obvious from the jump off that it was good to be back in North Carolina. Continuing into the romp that is “The Curse of Julia Brown,” Nick MacDaniels’ vocals washed over the crowd and out into the ether as he wove the tale of Julia Brown over Casey Cranford’s bouncing saxophone, and the wave-like crashes of Ben Vinograd’s cymbals. Everyone mouthed the words, before the belting pulse of Josh Kagel’s keyboards laid the groundwork for “Megaladon,” an instantly addictive piece of space funk from 2014’s Truth Serum. The low end of “Megladon” is simply saliva inductive, as Doug Marshall’s bass inches jaws lower to the ground. The positive vibrations of “Song for Us” followed, which is a reggae heavy reminder that the sun is always shining, and has become a staple of recent BIG Something set lists. Cranford’s electronic wind instrument, or EWI as it is abbreviated, absolutely infects listeners during this song. Crowd-goers were seen tapping the shoulders of their neighbors to revel in the uniqueness of the EWI’s sound. “Love Generator” keeps the dance party afloat before the first surprise of the night manifests during the stanza closing “Truth Serum,” another heavy hitter from the album of the same name. From stage right emerges Mike Mills, the bass player from R.E.M. You read that correctly, the bass player from R.E.M., a wildly popular rock band of the ‘80s and ‘90s, decided that the fun was just too good to not partake. Mills delivered a sweet bass breakdown that was as good as it was surprising, before the band stamped their the first set into the record books.
By the time the second set took form, the night was in its mid-adolescence, and the darkness began to create the perfect blanket for Cameron Grogan’s lights to break into the consciousness of the now nearly body-to-body crowd. “Jose’s Pistola” and “Pinky’s Ride” started Act 2, with Hensley and Kagel going through some call-and-repeat that formed the pocket that new listeners love about this band, and old listeners can’t get enough of. Another treat lay in store as a cover of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” saw Rebekah Todd retake the stage to ring out the seductive lyrics. “Passenger,” the bluegrass shuffle off of Tumbleweed was on deck after the choice ode, followed by the catchy cactus tripping psychedelic sounds of the record also bearing the album’s name. Nick MacDaniels is a topnotch storyteller. His skill is on consistent display, but especially on songs like “Tumbleweed.” “Bright Lights” and “My Volcano” would begin the closing entries of the show, but one more crowd pleaser lay in wait. Beck’s “Loser” was taken out for a spin, to the delight of all in attendance. This is one of those covers that is just made for BIG Something. The crowd was in a full sing along by this point, this writer included. The nautically charged “The Flood” then made way for the huge jams that would end the second set. “The Flood” had people’s heads on consistent bobble while their bodies spun, as Marshall’s bass was again at the forefront of a massive seaside barnburner.
The encore offering saw the boys drum up “A Simple Vision” before two ripping covers were taken out for joy ride. The Who’s “Eminence Front” and “Baba O’Riley” were served up so hot on this Wilmington evening, that there would be no chance for “people forget” as The Who’s 1982 anthem states. BIG Something stormed Greenfield Lake so fiercely on this Cinco de Mayo that it is hard to imagine the place returning to the peacefulness that the lake embodies. While most people were momentarily frozen staring at each other in jubilance of the show we had all just experienced, I was light on my feet and anxious to go deeper.
Entering The Whiskey, a stalwart of Wilmington’s music scene, and longtime hosts of the tidal waves that are a Mantras show, I was greeted by many good people and it was indeed a reunion of friends, which accurately exemplifies the heartbeat of the Mantras. A diverse collection of people, netted together for one thing: a rawk show. The five-piece unit from Greensboro has been in the mind warping business for over a decade, and by the looks of things, this crescendo of Cinco de Mayo would be no different.
The initial drums of “Rocky Peace Blues” came whacking into focus as the show began. The Mantras employ both Brent Vaughn, a percussion wiz, and drummer Justin Loew behind a traditional kit. These two students of rhythm come together to deliver impeccably timed compositions that are the backbone of both this opening track and the band itself. The drums break into a locked in bass line by Brian Tyndall, as Keith Allen steps to the microphone, axe in hand ready for duty. The small but elusively spacious venue fills while Allen recites my favorite line from this tune, “if money makes the man talk, I converse another way.” Grins begin to recede up people’s cheeks, as it is clear that this is the place. Conga drums again give home place to “Miguel’s Travels,” the Mantras second take of the night, from their 2008 entry How Many?. This song is a side-to-side knee shaker, peaking with Allen’s definitive vocal noise making. The bowels of the room shake in unison under the wave of synchronized stompers that comprised the crowd. It was back to 2010’s acclaimed Dharland album for “Response Ability,” where the searing guitar solos that define Allen’s tone ring true. ‘Don’t sound alarmed my friends,’ as “Response Ability” reminds, but the Mantras began pulling the pins out after this, as the rejuvenation grenade that is MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” began. This cover has always been a crowd favorite at their shows, and on this late night gem at The Whiskey, the case was no different. Julian Sizemore’s work on the ivory and ebony makes its way to the tiller as people hug and rejoice.
The Mantras have their collective finger right on the trigger of their fans, as they are masters of impeccable timing and arrangement. I cannot stress their precision in this craft enough, starts and stops out of thin air wrap this group in cohesion. “Song For You” saw the band return to original material, again drawing off of How Many? to follow the cover. This number is positive, it is bolstered by feelings of reaffirming relationships and frankly the sound in The Whiskey is so good that it is as if the club is rewarding the band for their work. I meandered to the bar at the back of the room to tighten the screws to my head a little, order a stout IPA, and take in the wholeness of the Mantras sound. Behind the band are a series of screens and lights, with which the visuals and lighting engineer Dustin Klein takes complete control. Many people refer to Phish’s lighting guru, Chris Kuroda as “CK5”, the 5 indicating that he is the fifth, unspoken member of the band, equally as important a role as his onstage counterparts. Dustin Klein is in this case without question “DK6”. His projections are on serene display as the group worked their way into “After Awhile Crocodile,” another rock-heavy piece that oozes over itself behind the precise crashes and breaks of Loew. Sizemore’s keyboards dance on this tune before the “JBRML” staple concludes. “All You Here” appeared next in the rotation, from the bands latest release Knot Suite, and I finished my high gravity beverage to return to the front of the room.
A poignant move, the Mantras transitioned seamlessly from their longstanding classic into Bob Marley’s “Positive Vibration.” Annnnnnnd it was officially a party ladies and gents. There would be no prisoners taken during this hootenanny, no cards left on the table. The room was in a roar by the conclusion of this brilliantly placed cover, just in time for “The Word,” an all-instrumental juggernaut. Sizemore begins to flex his muscle on the decks during “The Word,” as he moves between piano and synthesizer like a fluid cell membrane. The band traverses farther down the deep space wormhole as every part comes together during the piece. Again, incredible precision with their timing is a dead center feature on this beast of a movement. For those readers and listeners that are fans of constriction and release, this gang knows how to deliver. A slower version of “Water Song” alleviated the pressure that was conceived during “The Word,” and the tides began to return to a calm melody. Another flawless transition into “Kinetic Bump,” the single from 2013’s Jambands Ruined My Life left the now neck-broken assembly in a dance heavy frenzy, before Sizemore’s soothing, southern vocals assumed leadership on “Southbound,” the Allman Brothers Band classic left no silence to be found by any patron on this late Cinco celebration.
Before closing the book on Cinco de Mayo’s festivities, the Mantras returned to the stage to encore with “There’s Always Tomorrow,” a lengthy multi part record that sees the entirety of the unit leave their mark on the night. A long middle section, prime for improvisation, stands on high before retreating back into the arsenal of the bands pages. The song climaxes as each member and instrument deliver their final exclamation point of the show. Matt Gordon’s work behind the soundboard bled through into the cleanest, most well oiled throw down that puts a quintessential bookend on this writer’s long adventure. I stuck around to jaw with the fine folks of the Mantras and their hoard, known as the Mantourage, before I stumbled my way into the chaos of Front Street, and shortly thereafter into the sanctity of my hotel bed. Life is good indeed my friends, life is good indeed.