Written by Elise Olmstead

Photos by Eli Tuchler

How does a festival get its vibe?  Is it the lineup, the art, the people or the intention?  For a truly palpable vibration, I think it’s a combination of everything, and then something you can’t just write into a schedule– a special secret ingredient that you can’t quite put your finger on.  The Big What has this mysterious magic that the band BIG Something creates with their uplifting music, colorful personality, and message of love and acceptance (while never taking themselves too seriously). All of these fantastic festival ingredients make for a unique and special occasion.

The family here is always a pleasure — full of confident sass and tons of Southern Charm.  We barely got through the doors without a lovely lady getting fresh with our golf cart escort and a friend sticking glow stick “antennae” behind my ears.  Everyone’s clothes were dripping with color, faces shining with smiles, and hands waiting for hugs and high fives.  Even when I broke a rule on Saturday, when I apologized to the staff member later, he wrapped me in a big hug.  All is well in the Land of the What.

The Big What? took place this past August 17-19, 2017 at the beautiful Shakori Hills venue in Hadley, NC. This was our first visit to Shakori Hills, and I enjoyed the way that the stages were laid out, with nothing too far away.  Showers were available for those who took the trek (I certainly did), as well as water spigots, and what kind of Big What would it be without the North Carolina swamps and spiders.  With very little rain this year, we enjoyed easily avoiding any sort of swamps, and even the heat was not too oppressive under the shade tent they provided or the Big Art Tent.

The Big Art Tent

Speaking of the Big Art Tent — the group of artists in the gallery created a magical world of art for you to explore, and art director Leslie did a great job of bringing together so many talented people.  North Carolina has a very vibrant art scene, so when this many amazing artists get together sparks can fly.  A few of them collaborated on a mural together, that we watched take shape from the concept in the beginning, to the breathtaking end result animated by the talented Dustin Klein of VIDEOmeTRY, who did projection mapping on the mural and made it come alive.  The concept was developed and constructed by Jeremy, artist and carpenter who made the infamous moustache seesaw ride and giant electric guitar.  The artists who collaborated were Leslie Caneda, Julia Catherine, Jenee Harrison, Jessica Camilli, Zilla Smith, Jerry Cahill, Lacey Vilandry, and Josh Zarambo. The full list of artists in the gallery listed below.

Mural with projections from VIDEOmeTRY

Besides fantastic art, there were workshops, secret sets, costume themes, and of course amazing music!  It was an incredible sight to look out at the crowd and see a plethora of question mark totems, wacky costumes and smiling faces.  Costume themes included “UFO’s Are Real” on Thursday, “Blue Dream” on Friday, and “The Glow” on Saturday, with winners being called up to the stage every night after BIG Something’s set by emcee extraordinaire Darby.

Performers in the Photo Booth on “Blue Dream” night

The BIG Something fan base is filled with so many dedicated and enthusiastic fans, their uniqueness and excited spirit is only encouraged by the band.  There were two big fan photos scheduled for the Big What family — The Big Hug on Thursday at Big Art Tent, and a Big What Family Photo at 4:20 on Saturday.  I managed to sneak my way into the huge family photo, where we were nothing but smiles and hoots and hollers!

When you weren’t taking part in the scheduled photo opportunities, you could visit the Photo Booth by Andy Cox Photography and take home a photo with your closest friends.  After printing out a keepsake memory, you could browse the vendors, grab a taco, and make your way to the many workshops. Brook “Dang” Jones once again conducted her famous tie-dye workshop, personally walking you through advanced and beginner techniques for creating a wearable work of art.  Sheryl McNair Pope conducted a different hooping workshop each day, while Jacqueline Brooke guided you through yoga classes to start your morning right.

I must commend The Big What for their performance troupe – a group of dedicated ladies who wore themed costumes every night and were elevated on huge boxes constructed just for them.  Friends like Maria Ekaterina, Ahlee Dawson, and Lisa Claire wowed the crowds with their LED hoop dancing after the sun went down.

Brook “Dang” Jones teaching tie-dye techniques

With so much going on, how could we forget the music?  We arrived just in time Thursday to hear the country/folk band Urban Soil from Raleigh, then after “The Big Hug” photo, everyone was riled up for a Big Daddy Love performance — the blues jam band that captured our hearts over the years. They took a hiatus recently but are back sounding better than ever.  BIG Something came hot right out of the gate, with samples and space-y noises into “A Simple Vision,” rap vocals from Mister including during a brief rendition of Beastie Boys “Intergalactic”, and lots of songs to go with the “UFOs Are Real” theme — including the song of the same name, along with “Unfunky UFO” and “Cosmic Dust.”  Their set was followed by The Fritz at the Grove Stage, who played my favorite song of theirs–“Stuck In Between” along with a sick mash-up of White Stripes “Seven Nation Army” and “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by The Eurythmics.

The Grove Stage

Friday some of the stand-out sets from the day included DC band Bencoolen, who play My Morning Jacket influenced alternative rock.  The afternoon got incredibly funky beginning with LITZ, who has been on fire lately, Funk You from Augusta, GA, and Dr. Bacon‘s unique flavor of funk from Asheville.

BIG Something‘s two sets included so many of my favorite songs like “Pinky’s Ride” and “Capt D,” as well as a plethora of sit-ins and more vocals from Mister–my favorite appearance from him being during a cover of “Ms. Jackson” by Outkast.  Other sit-ins included Empire Strikes Brass horns, vocals from Jeremy Bell and Todd Petit, and Mohamed Araki (keytar), Quinn Carson (trombone) from Spiritual Rez.

BIG Something

After BIG Something I was up front and center for Turkuaz smiling my face off – I haven’t seen this “funk army” for 2 years, and was pleased to hear so many new songs, including some vocals from the talented saxophone player Joshua Schwartz, as well as an old favorite “Monkey Fingers” towards the end of the set.  “Reggae Dance Party” band Spiritual Rez played into Empire Strikes Brass’s Parade to the late night tent — where we all waited to see who the surprise band would be!  Like magic, it was BIG Something themselves, breaking out lots of new music and blowing our soft, squishy little minds.  Leslie did an impression of herself for me the next day, telling me she was standing near the front of the stage, eyes wide and hair blown back in disbelief and wonder.  Keep your ears peeled for this mind-blowing new content coming soon to you.

Matt Butler of Everyone Orchestra conducting BIG Something

Saturday my true highlight of the day was Everyone Orchestra, featuring members of many bands playing that weekend including Big Mean Sound Machine, Big Something, Aqueous, Come Back Alice, Rebekah Todd & The Odyssey and LITZ.  It was great to watch Austin Litz shine like a mad scientist on his keyboard and saxophone, while Rebekah could croon along to any tune.  The day was full of so many jam favorites, like DC band Of Tomorrow, both a clinic and a set from Consider the Source, dance funk band Big Mean Sound Machine, and Northeast jam darlings Aqueous, who lit up the night before BIG Something’s last sets.

Nick MacDaniels and Mister

Their first set was conducted by Matt Butler — the first time I saw him conducting a full band and not a collaboration of musicians from different bands.  This made for an even more seamless experience than usual, since everyone was used to playing with each other. During set break Mister came out to show off his rap skills one last time, then the final set washed over us on the hill like a peaceful sunset.  I stood back with the artists attending to their easels, basking in “The Glow” of their loving music.  We heard “Curse of Julia Brown,” a cover of “Calm Like a Bomb,” and when they began playing “Song For Us,” I leapt to my feet and ran to the photo pit to find Taco and wrap my arms around him.  This song is certainly a song for us…a song for you…a song for all of the Big What family with hearts just a little too big for this world.

The Big What Family photo

I remember standing behind the stage at Mountain Music Fest with Nick MacDaniels talking about Big What.  “Not all festivals have that something special, that feeling, that weird wackiness,” I was trying to express (not so well).  “Your festival has it.”  We hadn’t been in three years, and there was no way we would miss 2017.  The weekend was special for me in so many ways, but I know it was very special to so many others.  When I saw Nick late Saturday night, sitting as relaxed as can be on a golf cart amongst lots of friends, and smiling like he always is, I thanked him again for inviting us.  The magic was even more clear, colorful and real than I had remembered, though I can’t seem to express what that magic is.  That is the big question…the big WHAT?  The what that makes us sparkle, the what that will stay with me forever.