Written by Charles “Bones” Frank
Friends, amigos, and comrades, hello and good tidings to you all! Though I write today under balmy and grey skies at my home in Greensboro, my soul is still bright and brimming from the weekend. I returned home from Big Something’s 7th annual The Big What? festival only 48 hours ago with a tired body, but replenished mind and spirit. The Big What? is an absolute jet engine of a love generator, which is fueled by the incredible lineup Big Something continues to build upon year after year, but also on the love that permeates the grounds, campers, artists and staff. The Big What? called the Shakori Hills grounds in Pittsboro, NC its home for the second time in as many years, and stands as a testament to how a music festival can have transformative properties upon all parties involved. In my humble opinion, although the festival officially comes to a close when the bell tolls on the weekend, The Big What? leaves such a mark that it is really a year round event, only punctuated by the physical gathering. There is evidence of this laden across social media platforms, and in the consistently reoccurring conversations of attendees well after the event has wrapped. Good people, allow me to humbly recreate some of the magic that The Big What? conjured in the woods at Shakori Hills this past weekend, topped of course by numerous sets from the mighty hosts, Big Something.
I think I speak for most of us when I say that the act of arrival on festival grounds holds a special place in the collective hearts of live music lovers everywhere. There is nothing quite like the bottled excitement that has been brewing, just itching to turn its’ energy from potential to kinetic as a festival gets underway. Upon arriving, all the stress and nerves that come with preparation simply lift away, and the reality that the weekend is finally here begins to set in. This sentiment has never been more true than arriving at The Big What?. The footprint of the grounds at Shakori for The Big What? is relatively small, the drive down the dusty road and into the bowels of the grounds is littered with foliage, friends on the road side, happy campers trekking gear, vendors completing their setups eager to sling their wares, and the hum of golf carts rolling from A to B. Thursday brought clear skies, as rain that was once forecasted had been pushed back farther into the weekend, leaving the sun plenty of space to light up the site as people got settled. It was hot, yes, but the heat takes a back seat on arrival day, the jubilation is too tangible. For many, day one marks a return to The Big What?, and for some it marks their inaugural voyage into the purest family on the scene. After setting up camp, exchanging greetings with my friend, the amazing photographer and head of the media team, Rob Roane, I cracked my first beverage and took in a large sip of life. The Big What? was finally here.
The slate for Thursday looked as strong as ever, with Big What? family favorites like Consider The Source and Dr. Bacon rounding out a lineup augmented of course by two sets of Big Something. Additionally, the unannounced late night mystery set loomed, as people began to theorize what the “???” on the schedule would bring. Myrtle Beach’s Treehouse had the honor of ringing the opening bell at this year’s festival, and their brand of clean reggae was a great way to ease into the arms of the weekend. Their sound from the main stage (the What Stage) could be heard by most nestled up in the campgrounds still getting their introductions and cooler diving underway. As the late afternoon began to fold over into the early evening, the party was about to get officially started. The Scott Moss Band took the dinnertime slot on the Grove Stage, and though I was busy destroying the del-ic-ious pasta dish from the hard working crew at the hospitality tent, I was able to make it over just in time to catch a wonderful, down-home rendition of “Maggie’s Farm” into “Star Spangled Blues” from Moss and his cohorts. As the dust settled, people began to gather in front of the What Stage for a Big What? tradition- the family photo. Big Something are the kings of inclusion in regards to their fans. The avenues of accessibility that this band creates between fan and performer is unrivaled, and the family photo is just once instance of this. Taken once at the start of the weekend and once at the conclusion, the photo demonstrates both the growth of the event throughout the course of the weekend, and the admiration from attendees to get to play such a cool role at the festival. Following the photo, Big Something took their places to welcome their horde.
Staying true to the evening’s pre-announced costume theme of ‘Jock Jams’, the band came out to rumbling applause adorned in athletic jerseys. In yet another example of how this band gets the fans involved, their attire matched so many in the crowd. I took my place right in front of the sound booth in my black Greensboro Swarm jersey, where behind me Cameron Grogan and the Life is Art visuals team began to masterfully concoct the lighting rig and astounding visuals projected on the array of screens lining the back of the stage. Before I go further, let me truly tip my hat to this back of the house mega squad. Grogan, along with Life is Art, is at the absolute tip of the lighting and visuals game. The Big What? production is second to none in this regard. Amidst the flashing lights, Big Something got their Jock Jams set off with a bang, hopping immediately from the “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble” intro into the 2 Unlimited classic, “Get Ready For This.” Imagine the energy that a festival Thursday brings combined with live Jock Jams from Big Something…thusly the title of the next song is apt, “Turn Down for What?” The earth was shaking by the time the first Big Something original came through the PA, as a well-placed “Saturday Night Zombie” kept the energy high. Cranford’s EWI sounds danced over the melody as MacDaniels’ vocals cut right through the dance party in front of the stage. Other highlights from this initial offering included a massive “The Flood” featuring a sit in from Consider the Source’s Gabriel Martin, as well as the Reel 2 Reel one-hitter quitter “I Like to Move It.” And we did…MOVE IT!
The night was in full swing. People holding their various libations up over the crowd in search of the clink-clink of any matching ‘cheers’ were too numerous to count. Yes, the celebration was on. Consider the Source took the helm at the Grove Stage for a power hour of their dose of heavy, Middle Eastern math rock jams. The trio never disappoints, and John Ferrara’s base solo had onlooker’s jaws on the ground. I made a quick romp back to the What Stage for Big Something’s second set of the festival featuring the lyrical styling of Mister, a long time Big What? rapper from Detroit who lent his skills on each song of the set. A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” was easily the fan favorite from the set, dubbed the “Mr. What” set. “Truth Serum,” the title track from Big Something’s album of the same name came after, before a few more original Mister songs preceded the blow out encore of “California Love.” Mister has deep, commanding vocals which foil perfectly to Big Something’s kind of contagious evil yet bouncy sounds.
Taking the penultimate spot of night one was Asheville’s Dr. Bacon, which is where my feet led me with zeal. Dr. Bacon has taken many forms over the years, transitioning from a more Americanagrass unit to the hybrid multi instrumental jam beast they are today. Their set kept the energy peaking on this night, now in its’ maturity. Every Bacon show is high energy, however this one was special. Dr. Bacon is a stalwart of The Big What, and the band did a great job of utilizing all the space on stage to keep the guns a blazing. Jesse Talbott and Myles Dunder moved from side to side, as Bacon threw down party anthem after party anthem from their catalogue. I cannot emphasize enough how tight this band has become. They are true conductors, professional players, and ooze with vitality. Their original tune “Chili Dog,” bolstered by the massive belting of Dunder’s baritone saxophone, played its’ role well behind the consistent rising thumping of drummer Ben New’s kit. A brief rip into the riff of the White Stripes’ “7 Nation Army” served as in intro for the first big surprise of the evening: The Mantras’ keyboard wizard, Julian Sizemore emerged from stage right to join Bacon for “Mati” and the duration of the set sans the encore. Sizemore’s presence at The Big What? was kept under lock and key prior to the event, however after concert goers noticed him ambling about the grounds earlier in the day many people wondered when the master of the ivory might take his residency. Sizemore’s rig remained on stage as Dr. Bacon concluded, giving a small hint as to what may be to follow in the mystery set.
The Big What? and secret sets go hand in hand. The band always does a tremendous job of treating patrons with these sets late into the night, and though sometimes the secret gets out early, that was not the case at the 2018 edition, as the crowd murmured in wonder of what was about to happen. Although a little bit of the mystique of the secret set was lost when earlier in the week a tree descended on the barn that was to be the location for these sets, no matter. The Grove Stage would end up serving just fine and then some, providing even more room for lighting and effects to enrich the outing. For the first year, in addition to the main stage, the Grove Stage also featured screens, which would depict all types of cosmic and psychedelic imagery as musicians did their dirty work. This all came culminating together as the mystery band took its form, to the pleasure of the pairs of eyes that now flickered throughout the crowd.
Cranford and Sizemore, along with organ extraordinaire Bill Stevens and others began to shuffle around the stage. Could it be? Yes! Yes! Descending from orbit, it was Casey & The Comrades, Cranford’s recently formed side project. The saxophone/EWI master took his place, this time center stage as the quintet got underway. The Comrades offered beautiful jazz odyssey style sounds late into the night. This band was aliens in the world of mere mortals, gracing The Big What? with interstellar sounds from dimensions unknown. Offering both originals and smooth covers, the band moved through a few drummers, each one’s style different than the last, and each one seamless in this space where time seemed to stand still, bowing and quaking with each note. An old favorite of Greensboro’s Pizza Jams, Jeremy Fountain stood out during his turn on the riser. This show also played as an introduction to William Trentini, the young axe man from Boone, who is certainly a player to keep an eye on as the future looms. The first frames of the Allman Brothers Band “Hot ‘Lanta” tore through the now wee hours of morning, followed by the perfectly blended sounds of a Casey & The Comrades original dubbed “Mr. Donahue.” A reworked version of an old tune by one of Cranford’s former bands The Brand New Life entitled “H1N1” came next, with his sax leading the group through a dark and deep corridor of sound, giving way to some shred work from Trentini on the back end. This continued as the Hendrix classic “Crosstown Traffic” saw the young slayer and Sizemore trade bursts. Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” again saw Cranford lead the ambient charge as the Comrades floated back off into the nether regions, fading off as gracefully as a shooting star’s final moments across the canvas of night.
As the clock ticked feverishly past 3am, I made a slow and steady trudge back to my site. It would not be long until the hot August sun crested the horizon, demanding attention from most tent dwellers. Night 1 was in the books, and what a dynamite blast of a way to begin!
…stay tuned next week for Part 2 and more photos!