Written by Charles “Bones” Frank
Like so many of us rich with excitement from arrival and first day festivities, I pulled the old didn’t-set-up-a-tent-during-the-day move. Thusly by the time I retired from the prior evening’s mystery set, alas my friends, I simply threw up a hammock, giving no regard to the great Ra’s morning positioning. I awoke to the yellow disc in the sky beaming dir-ect-ly on my head, front and center to my vision. Yes, the sun was out, the hour was too early, and the hammock was placed poorly, but no matter my friends, my spirits remained at an all time high because it was indeed Friday at The Big What?! The day breaking early only meant hours of eating and camaraderie before the stages again took center place.
After several hours of pleasantly sitting still and under as much shade as possible, I entered a world that only humbled my mind and blazed my eyes: the art tent. The BIG Art Tent was curated by Charleston phenom Leslie Caneda and populated by favorites new and old. The entire tent from wall to wall was filled with texture, exploration, and evidence of the foremost creative minds in the industry. The love was real here too, almost a micro snow globe indicative of the festival as a whole. My old friend Bryan Stacy detailed a new series of images depicting evil robotic spores and concepts he was working on for a graphic novel, one of which was the feature of the largest canvas in his corner. My mind melted with his words even imagining how talented a creator Stacy continues to be. Josh Zarambo’s work on his psychedelic images of a kind of heaven landscape, complete with angelic beings and flashes of light. I made my rounds and left with a brain swollen with beauty. From the art tent I galloped down just in time for the backend of The South Hill Banks, a young progressive bluegrass group from Richmond.
Having seen South Hill Banks several times, I was so pleased when their name finally crested the Big What? lineup. They play quick, tight original bluegrass that has a little contagious property about it. Guitarist and vocalist Lance Thomas has a smile for the ages, and he wears it well during each and every song. To the early afternoon crowd’s delight, South Hill Banks broke out their cover of the Phish classic “Back on The Train”, perhaps a nod to the cancellation of Curveball, the news of which had reached The Big What? the day before. In fact, I spotted a few Curveball refugees in the crowd cutting their respective rugs extra hard as South Hill Banks finished off their set.
I retreated to my shantytown for hydration, rest, a fat sack of dried fruit, perfect to pack in some nutrients before the rest of the day took form. Gathering some stamina, I moved fluidly around both stage areas as the alternative jam machine Emma’s Lounge laid their brand of spacey, rock molded Americana down. A Myles Dunder sit in punctuated the jaunt as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” took listeners to the jungle before the first drops of a brief and crisp rain descended. The Big What? was fighting mightily and valiantly against an originally poor forecast for the weekend, and having mostly success, but this brief mist shower felt right, and was well timed as Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers began their occupancy from the main stage. I am always grateful and keen to hear names completely unfamiliar to me, and Hertler and his band played their roles so well in this regard. Their sunset spritzer sound was refreshing, new, and earthy. The band, some stage props, and the visuals were all adorned with floral patterns and daffodils as Hertler in his overalls washed the stage in his presence. The Rainbow Seekers steered the evening on course, as the chief event began to peek over the remaining Friday schedule.
Patrons dressed in red and white striped shirts, pants, socks, caps, even winter caps (somehow?) began to litter Shakori’s fairgrounds. Yes, Where’s Waldo? night had arrived. In truth, Waldo was absolutely everywhere. It seemed as if the majority of festival goers participated in the great Waldo show out, and this served both as a hilarity and as a catalyst for Big Something’s most effective weapon: energy. A crowd in unison is a crowd that creates energy is felt, received and regenerated by those on stage. Waldo night was officially a party. Big Something took the stage clad as Waldos to meet their troupe. The crowd thick with horizontal stripes fell immediately into the cool dance breaks of “Jose’s Pistola”, before the boys wound a set comprised of mostly originals including the soft build of “Wildfire” from The Otherside. “Wildfire” is becoming a vehicle, demonstrative on this night of a power packed closing stanza. “The Undertow” took the now fever pitch Waldo maniac crowd to a high before Cranford’s EWI made its’ move for the Prince staple anthem “1999”. From the side stage, yet another trick up the sleeve of Big Something, Vulfpeck’s rhythm guitar master Cory Wong joined MacDaniels for the duration of the purple one’s banger into the undeniable power pulsating “Megladon” which finished the main course ruckus outing. Smiles a plenty filled the glow, a palpable liveliness spread over the concert field, only to be turned into tractor beam stares of captivation for the next band on the schedule.
Two words folks: Lazer/Wulf. I had been turned on to this power metal jam trio (tip of the hat to Doug Marshall) earlier in the weekend, and this was the “what the heck is happening” band of the weekend. I lack the accurate syntax to properly describe this band, but do not ever miss this band. Lazer/Wulf took viewers on a power hour of bug zapping rock and roll that left me wowed. The timing of these three metal bosses was stunning. The guitarist leapt about from riser to stage with impeccable vigor. The crowd swapped “mind blown” faces. All was well. Sets like this play such a critical part in the element of discovery that perfectly curated festivals like The Big What? exhibit. The blanket of night was upon the festival, the crowd, now twice as thick as the earlier hours, moved seamlessly and together, one cell bound in the matrimony of sound. From the booming noise quake of Lazer/Wulf to the smooth explosion of Sunsquabi I went.
Also a trio of completely different composition, Squabi’s intricate production heavy sound filled the stage. Synthesizer and drums met uniquely over live riffs as the boys from Boulder worm holed the evening mass. Sunsquabi, this year a Big What? veteran put a nice electro touch on the festival, which until their set had been missing, and was a nice changeup and received well. Fans were jumping beans just ready for more, and more they would receive.
Already having one “mind blown” operation with Lazer/Wulf was appreciated, little did I know that double trouble was around the corner with Cory Wong. Cory Wong’s set at The Big What? was one of the most peculiar, intriguing, awesome 90 minuets of music the weekend had to offer. Wong’s wrist flicked across his guitar reminiscent of the old #2 pencil-becomes-rubber-in-front-of-the- eye trick we all learn as children. Wong, along with his band, dressed in tracksuits and ultimately transitioning to matching “Team Wong” jerseys were all obvious technicians of classic musical theory. Along with his absolutely fierce funk strokes, Wong’s stream of conscious banter with the crowd was something to be heard. He captured ears and held them tight for the duration of his set. After explaining a time signature to the enamored onlookers, Wong decreed that we all engage in “tanging the hump”, and whatever that meant, it worked, because the crowd was a bunch of hump tanging groove machines. I spoke with Cory briefly about his unique nomenclature and stage presence and the festival in general.
In regards to his banter and antics, Wong educated me, “Some of the stuff is worked ahead of time a bit, but I would say that 50% of it is all made up on the spot. I have a stream of consciousness thing that helps me really get into a flow with that sort of banter. It works amazing when there’s a good energy in the crowd.” He continued to this point, “A lot of times I’ll just try and experiment with that sort of thing, and sometimes one of those bits will stick and I’ll develop them, usually it’s just creativity and energy coming out of the moment, then later I’ll think back about it and develop more. I like the vulnerability.” Wong expressed his admiration for the event as well, commenting “The Big What? is such a fun festival to be a part of. I truly enjoy hanging out with the people and the bands and just walking around the grounds. It’s such a nice vibe, I also really dig the artist tent where the visual artists house their creativity. It’s all so cool. It’s flattering and fun to be welcomed into the scene with open arms.”
Following Wong’s splendid wonkery set, solely the mystery set remained. Tonight, Big Something took their places again on the Grove Stage to unleash their guest filled, late night treat. The secret Big Something sets always have a few curveballs tossed in to keep the crowd high on the vibe, and tonight’s was true to that sentiment. In a salute to their now infamous Pink Floyd tent Big What? set from a few years past, the group opened with Floyd’s “Fearless”, before getting the collaborations going. Sizemore would again lend his lovely keyboard chops on “The Hangover” followed by a rousing “Wooly Bully” cover, which naturally sent the late night crowd in circles. Slide major Tony Tyler from Come Back Alice would play part in the fan favorite “Amanda Lynn” before a moving tribute took place. Following “Amanda Lynn”, a great shuffle occurred on stage, where all the members of the band traded places with the members of Black Garlic, a West Virginia shred unit, which I had the pleasure of covering earlier this year at Mountain Music Festival. Black Garlic was hit with tragedy when their beloved lead guitar and vocalist Stevie Watts was killed in a mid day car accident only a month prior. This is just how much love is in this Big What? family, giant, jubilant images of Watts was displayed on the screens behind Black Garlic, who wove their way through a few of their own originals before Cranford and MacDaniels joined the West Virginia warriors on Tyler Childers’ “Whitehouse Road”. This was a sentimental, and triumphant moment for many, as much of the festival family knew and loved Watts. To close out this set of guests and celebration, Jesse Hensley and MacDaniels shared the stage for a duet of John Prine’s “Illegal Smile”. The vibe was simply pure on this now nearly 4am “evening”. I simmered down as the final glorious day of The What? lay in wait.
The third and final day of the festival arrived with promise. In addition to the host’s two sets, including their highly anticipated set covering The Who, the schedule was packed with heavy hitters. However, though we had fought off a storm all weekend, pushed it back and back with valor, it would finally find its’ way to Shakori’s grounds. Mother nature reminded us all to be grateful and humble of our gathering, and to welcome the rain graciously. Before her whip cracked with thunder, and her winds blew the water in, some of the earlier afternoon bands did get sets off in their entirety, including Groove Fetish.
For now, the sun now dominated most of the grounds, and the crowd at the Grove Stage was eager for sound. Groove Fetish is a steady, groove plus grit hypnotic sound. The band continues to evolve; their riffs are dominating but tender, all under the backbone Drew Massey’s masterful rhythm work on the kit. They will suck their crowd in, and almost subtly coax them into a deep and bobbing dance party. This is a band that is moving forward, ascending lineups all over the southeast and never to be missed. The early afternoon show came to a raging climax as they moved from their original “Illusions” into the Stone Temple Pilot’s “Wicked Garden” to close their set. One more dosage of full sun coverage would be all she wrote, but it was to be a good one.
Come Back Alice, the soul funk rock and roll dynamo unit from St. Petersburg, FL absolutely smoked their late afternoon slot. They are simply put irreplaceable, straight to the core vocals with a composed and whole sound taboot. Tony Tyler’s voice is a tractor beam; let it draw you in. Following Alice’s jamboree, I moseyed back before the storm ultimately took its’ course.
The rain came lightly at first, lightly spritzing the crowd taking in Becca Stevens’ beautiful serenade set on the What Stage. Stevens’ was such a nice pace change, as she gently yet powerfully sang from her perch. However the storm would not remain as kind as Stevens’ offering, and the storm began to cut its’ way into the schedule. A set from TAUK was cut just short, as lightning began to accompany the now downpour. BIG Something after one attempt to get their last original set off was forced to leave the stage, where they finally did return but had to splice their last two sets of the evening together. Nevertheless, they did indeed deliver The Who set to a wild, wet crowd.
As returning attendees already knew, and as new ones found out quickly, Big Something obliterates any cover or series of covers they take on. Their catalogue is rich with off the wall covers, each stamped heavily with the Big Something sound. The Who set was no different, delivered masterfully, true to both The Who and the sound of Big Something, and to the delight of the festival who feared that after Big Something departed the stage initially, as all storm reports indicated that they would not return. Within this hybrid mix of originals and The Who covers, ears gleaned as classics like “Who Are You?”, “515”, “Eminence Front” and “The Seeker” comprised the meat of the set. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’riley” took the closing duties before the appropriate Big Something original “Waves” broke through. Though the ground was now ridden with puddles, and a non stop barrage of water bullets from the sky, this set was taken in with so much love and appreciation. It was a glorious way to throw the exclamation point on a weekend that throbbed with the heartbeat of pure, unadulterated love that only the Big What? can offer.
Success, sweet, sweet success. The boys had done it again. Patrons, staff, and artists alike departed with their love generators renewed, refreshed, and redeemed. The Big What? closed its’ gates on another year, with hopes that the love people gathered can be transmitted and paid forward into the lives of many. Until next time my friends, be good, and be peaceful.