Big Something knocked another one out of the park. A different park, actually. This sixth edition of The BIG What? was held at Shakori Hills Community Park in Pittsboro NC, a gorgeous location with more room for more of us to rage for three days.
There is much to praise, what with three days of Big Something, lots of other excellent music, great weather, wonderful art, and much more. But the first shout-out goes to the outstanding sound and production crews. Sonically, this was the best festival I have ever attended. With one minor exception, the sound levels were perfect, and that included during set breaks.
On a different note, and this is just me, I found the main MC way too over-the-top for this festival. Your mileage may vary.
Many were on hand Thursday and setting up when Big Something’s Casey Cranford, alto saxophone in hand (and mouth), led a parade through the campgrounds, encouraging us to follow down to the Grove Stage for the first set of the day, from Chattanooga’s Opposite Box. I love this band’s zaniness, and some of that came through during this performance, but the bottom line was: killer swinging prog funk! They eased us in with a ska-punkish tune before going total swing with “Don’t Waste My Time.” Powered by the incredible bass playing of Ryan Crabtree and propelled by Ryan Guza’s drums (not to mention his gold mask), everyone in earshot was drawn in. There was a nice trip exchange between brothers Ryan Long on keyboards and Dick Long on guitar.
Another amazing funk rocker followed, and that swung like mad as well, before Ryan Long (yes, he reminded us this is the band with three Ryans and a Dick) launched into a wild tale about “Sarah & Megan” at a festival, taking drugs for the first time. They wedged great segments of “Cocaine” and “Shake What Your Mama Gave You” into the song. And that was followed by what my notes referred to as “amazing thing,” which somehow worked its way into “No Diggity.” What a way to kick off a festival!
But that was only the beginning. Two years ago at The BIG What?, we had the pleasure of meeting and hearing Urban Soil from Raleigh and were very impressed. This year’s set? Maybe five quantum leaps ahead. They were brilliant. Everyone showed on the very first song, “Got to Let It Go,” but perhaps none more impressively than recent addition Leo Kishore on bass. He was fabulous. Fiddler Greg Meckley, blond dreads flowing, rocked out first, followed by Eric Chesson on guitar (he killed all set), back to Kishore, then he tangled with Sarah Reinke’s electric guitar, then just Reinke. And those were just the instrumental breaks separating Reinke’s magnificent vocals on the choruses.
They switched gears, with Chesson on acoustic guitar and Reinke on washboard and spoons. Everything they did seemed to have the Midas touch. Meckley blew up a solo, and Kishore and drummer Scott Lewis had a great back-and-forth. Immediately after, they plowed into a total shitkicker titled “Carolina” with soaring three-part harmonies (Reinke, Chesson and Kishore). “Alive” introduced a great Latin dance groove, with Meckley and Lewis in the lead and Reinke on more incendiary vocals. Just as quickly, they rocked some prog-ish funk on “Stuck in Traffic.”
There was another shitkicker (look, I know there must be a more delicate way to say this, but I assure you that is a loving description) bluegrass tune, then Reinke abusing her wah-wah pedal and taking a mad solo after Kishore lit it up. Meckley and Chesson were front and center before a reggae-ska-tinged tune with lead vocals by Meckley. And Urban Soil closed with a tune they swung so hard, Texas style.
Two sets in, and already this was beyond imagination.
We heard the first half of Big Daddy Love’s set from the campsite, as I had some straightening up to do, but we could hear well. Too well, perhaps. This was the only set where I resorted to earplugs when we got back to the What? Stage. The electric slide solo on the cover of “Ain’t Wastin’ Time” was dynamite. Brian Swenk’s banjo stood out on “Sugar and Pearls.” Then they crushed one of their signature tunes, “Nashville Flood,” with a rocking “Money for Nothing” thrown in!
Town Mountain are a traditional bluegrass band from Asheville. They sounded great, offering some good original tunes and several fun cover’s, including “I’m On Fire” and “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo,” all with new bass player Zach Smith.
Then it was time for the first of what would turn out to be five sets over the weekend by host Big Something. And for me it was the best. I love what this band can do in a variety of directions, but this set was straight-up prog rock, absolutely killer. “A Simple Vision” was the first of dozens of blistering showcases for Jesse Hensley, a man who deserves much greater recognition. Then it was hip hop delight with “EWI 4000,” Cranford on that instrument, joined by Josh Kagel, doubling on keyboards and trumpet. Bass player Doug Marshall was all over the tune — and everything else all three days, and Hensley ripped another solo.
Mister was called up to sing on “Truth Serum,” and then there was an amazing peak. If you regard Mothership Connection as one of the quintessential funk albums of all time, then you really need to check out their bust-out cover of “Unfunky UFO,” perfect in every way. Drummer Ben Vinograd was king here, and Nick MacDaniels was fabulous. Brand new tune “Cosmic Dust” was followed by the title track from new album Tumbleweed. To close the set, they played “UFOs are Real” (it was the night’s theme). Of course, that wasn’t it. The encore was a huge “Hangover > Intergalactic > Hangover,” with Mister helping again on vocals.
There were some great costumes for the UFOs are Real competition, too!
And the night was young. Over on the Grove Stage, The Fritz threw down a titanic funk set, stunning from start to finish. Jamar Woods led the troops into “Voices,” his vocals so perfect for the band’s deep, deep funk. As we have become accustomed, bassist Jake O’Connor was once again out front and blazing. Jamie Hendrickson (guitar) and Woods (keyboards) knocked out great solos. And there was no letup the entire set, propelled by Mike Tillis and Mikey Spice (drums and percussion). The message of the encore was especially appropriate for those of us optimists: “Things are Getting Better.”
After putting Donna to bed, I made it back to the Late-Night Tent for jamtronic delights from Boulder’s SunSquabi. They effectively blended funk, fusion, disco, jazz, jam, and rock into a huge danceable party. The tent was packed with bouncing, bobbing fans grooving to Chris Anderson (drums), Josh Fairman (bass/synth), and Kevin Donohue (guitar/keys/production). After “Sweet Peas,” the quartet covered “Welcome to the Machine,” first at the song’s original almost dirge-like pace, then suddenly double-time!
We missed the early opening set by Barefoot Wade, an accomplished looper, but we did get to hear the second half of the set by DC’s Ben Coolen. This is a young band with an adequate command of the rock genre looking to expand their horizons, likely at one of their first festivals. It will be fun to watch them develop. We also caught part of the set by Jive Mother Mary, a good Southern rock quartet working on some new material. Of note was “Great Deceit.”
We’d been looking forward finally to hearing Charm City’s Litz. And they were! The sextet rolled out with straight-up R’n’B funk a la Isleys, “Sexy Funk (Fm),” with top-notch vocals from Austin Litz (keyboards, sax, flute) and Justin Robb (guitar). They switched gears entirely on the next tune with a synth intro that led to an art rocker “Turn On Delight > Infrared.” Then it was ripping metal with Artist-at-Large Bryan Lackner on “Bulls on Parade,” followed by several very good new tunes including “Paint the Wall.” The punky funk that followed was killer, with Robb’s guitar sandwiched in between two fine tenor outings from Austin. The set continued to bounce around gleefully from genre to genre, including “A Fifth of Beethoven” (that’s my story, and I’m stuck with it), “Use Me” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
It was time for some Appalachian “folk wave” from Asheville, courtesy of Emma’s Lounge. This really solid band features two whirlwind ladies — Meg Heathman on keyboards and Emma Forster on fiddle — and a trio of guys. This was a fun set, topped off when Heathman, a powerful singer, just owned “Closer” (yep, the NIN tune). WOW!
The Slingshot Boys (not a band) were having fun with water balloons. I doubt anybody complained if they got splashed.
Augusta’s Funk You stepped right up and did what their name implies, first with an islands-style Latin funk tune titled “Central Avenue.” Gavin Hamilton is such an engaging front man, as he showed on “Two-Steppin’,” a tune that featured a great synth solo by Will Foster. After a set full of great originals, including “Past is Past > Space Monkey” and “Strange Being,” they also lovingly presented the Steely Dan classic “FM,” which turned into a tremendous jam with great guitar solos from Evan Miller and Foster on piano. Then the ubiquitous Casey Cranford added his funky alto on a tune titled “Black Dynamite.” The funk was deep once again, with Cranford soloing, then Foster, Miller and then the full band blasting out.
Pat and Janet are ravenous in their appetite for Dr. Bacon, and it is obvious to see why. These boys just ain’t right! They launched with some great funk on “Peculiar,” reversed direction with “Carolina Girls,” and galloped through multiple genres. Right after a new tune called “Maybe Maybe,” there was a marriage proposal on stage for two of Dr. Bacon’s ardent fans.
There was funk (“So Seriously”), then rock (“Scrumptious”), then a wild, bouncy metal-ish funk tune. “Scruthers” was massive funk, highlighted by a baritone sax solo from Myles Dunder. Not sure if it was Dunder or Jesse Talbott who then whipped out a trombone on “Chili Dog > Cobra.” Guest guitarist John Caven (Litz) sat in on the one and only “Get Low” (who would have imagined so many riotous covers of the Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz ‘classic?’). They shut it down, appropriately, with “Overtime.”
There were two huge cubes set up on either side of the What? Stage, and hoopers were often up there lit up in the dark.
Big Something had another relatively early set time (8 PM), and they fired up The Blue Dream set with “The Undertow.” There were, briefly, two power outages somewhere during “Capt D > Megalodon,” the latter a massive funk-up (I mean the song, not the outage!). Next up was a fine version of Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” (think Pulp Fiction). There was some serious space bass courtesy of Marshall on “Waves” and “Blue Dream,” along with more funk and synth solos from Kagel. Then MacDaniels invited Mohamed Araki (keytar), Quinn Carson (trombone) and Tyler (saxophone) from Spiritual Rez to join in on “The Flood.” And the set closed with a nasty, nasty take on “Skin It Back.”
We had to get back to the campsite for a bit and sacrificed seeing Empire Strikes Brass, who always deliver a wide range of covers and originals in their brassy way.
Turkuaz brought its nine-member “powerfunk” invasion to Pittsboro, and from first note to last it was a magical, magnificent performance. A Turkuaz set is a head-on collision with pure joy, powerful funk pouring out everywhere, washing away cares and worries, at least for the moment. Dave Brandwein’s troops are a true force of nature, and they let it all out at The BIG What?, opening with “If I Ever Fall Asleep” and “Nightswimming.”
By the time Joshua Schwartz stepped away from his baritone sax to belt the Barkays’ “Holy Ghost,” a full-on dance party had broken out. “20 Dollar Bill” highlighted more of the bands amazing vocals with Brandwein trying to keep up (fact: nobody can) with Sammi Garett and Shira Elias. The song featured great solos from Chris Brouwers on trumpet (he also plays keyboards), Greg Sanderson on tenor, and Schwartz on bari. Later, Brandwein had a superb guitar solo along with magical space bass courtesy of Taylor Shell on “Lookin’ Tough Feelin’ Good.” After a long instrumental jam, the set closed with a rousing take on “Space Captain,” the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour tune, and then “Monkey Fingers.”
By this time, the painters had turned out in force.
The most remarkable creation was this large painting, a collaboration of a number of artists, which “moved” under the proper lighting. It took three days to complete. Simply fabulous.
Somewhere during this period we got a few — very few — of the forecast raindrops. We headed to the Grove to get an earful of Spiritual Rez, the Boston boys who claim to be “the craziest reggae dance party you’ll ever be a part of.” That was the perfect prescription for the moment, and they brought it. My rain-soaked notes are useless. Toft Willingham continues to be an incredibly dynamic front man with a superb voice. We just danced from one stage to the other.
There had been great speculation about the “mystery artist” in the late-night tent. The wide range of initial guesses included The Mantras and Dangermuffin; some thought it would be a special Big Something set. Turns out they were correct. I had to rely on correspondents, because I was running on fumes, and artificial means of support — caffeine or otherwise — seemed ill-advised at this point.
Empire Strikes Brass led a parade from the Grove that led over to the late-night tent, where our hosts were ready and waiting for their second set of the evening. ESB then joined BS on stage for the first three tunes, including “Salute” (Lettuce), “Will It Go ‘Round In Circles?” and “How Do We Get Down,” the latter featuring Mister on vocals. He was also on hand for a bust-out of “Ms. Jackson” by Outkast).
Four brand new tunes followed: “Plug,” “The Cave,” “Wild Fire,” and “Sundown Nomad.” Cranford had a new instrument on “Nomad,” called The Q Chord. Next up was a trio of “Pinky” tunes: “Pinky Goes to Jail,” “Pinky’s Woman,” and “Pinky’s Ride.” After closing with with fan favorite “Amanda Lynn,” they came back with another bust-out, “Elvira.” This one featured Jeremy Bell and Todd Pettit on vocals; Pettit joined BS for all the sets on percussion.
As often as I can, I repeat my mantra that one of the best aspects of music festivals is ‘discovering’ bands you’ve never heard about before. That was precisely the case when I went to check out Of Tomorrow, a quintet from DC. Two guitars, tenor sax, bass and drums made this set work. They opened their noon set with “Jam > Count,” and I was hooked. After “Vapor or NC,” Justin Robb of Litz stopped by to join his friends on “No Diggity” (another song with a wide variety of good covers). There were numerous great originals and a fine cover of “Use Me” during the set.
Of Tomorrow are Geoff Browning on lead vocals and guitar, Nick Söderström on bass, Aaron Fisher on drums, Gena Photiades on keys, and Mike Candela on guitar. Their setlist cut a swath through a wide range of genres, delightfully so. One of the most impressive aspects of the music scene everywhere is that so many musicians are in perfect sync. For this set, Fisher was filling in on drums, his first time with the band. And yet it was a seamless performance. Bravo!
We Floridians of the Hometeam variety were truly pumped and ready to catch our hometown heroes, St. Petersburg’s Come Back Alice, the only Sunshine State music on the bill. And CBA did not disappoint. They produced a perfect hour of music to show The BIG What? what’s what, Florida-wise. This sextet can do most anything (they’ve got a Led Zep tribute coming up, for instance), but for this set they stuck to a host of fine originals, one of their great Allman Brothers covers, and a quick Beatles encore.
They began with “Ugly Rumors,” a song that perfectly showcases the amazing talents of the core duo, Tony Tyler on vocals and guitar (he also plays keyboards) and Dani Jaye on violin, guitar, and vocals. It is not a coincidence that their four accompanying musicians are all members of a top-flight fusion band called JOOSE. As a unit, the sextet can play wicked funk, dirty, nasty blues, great Southern rock and much more. They worked through many of their best tunes, including “Give It Up,” “Coraline,” and “Fast Train.” I even got a dedication before the awesome “Love Is the Answer,” a song which allows Tyler to demonstrate properly his powerful vocal skills.
Tyler used to play the Hammond B3 regularly along with other keyboards, but the addition of Mark Mayea of Ajeva has kept the guitar in Tyler’s grip. Mayea’s talents belie his young age. His Ajeva bandmate Taylor Gilchrist (bass)likewise has a great set in lockstep with the titanic drumming of Yral ‘datdudeondrums’ Morris, with great colorings added by percussionist Jimmy Rector.
The cover that lit things up was “Hot ‘Lanta.” CBA has played several albums by the Allman Brothers in their entirety; one of the reasons they are so successful is the twin guitars of Tyler and Jaye. Don’t let her amazing fiddle work lull you; she is a stunning guitarist, and they ripped this one up. And their quick loving cover of “Eleanor Rigby” to close was equally joyous.
The Wright Avenue offered an enthusiastic set from a trio plus percussionist. The enjoyable music made up for mediocre vocals as they pumped out several originals and covers such as “One Way Out,” “Kiss,” and “Dreams” (Fleetwood Mac, not ABB).
Back on the main stage, Rebekah Todd and the Odyssey were throwing a party. Her backing quintet is really solid, and Todd is a great performer with a powerful voice. “Let Me See You Hustle” was the perfect way to start. the second tune worked its way into “I Shall Be Released,” followed by a rollicking “’Til the Wheels Fall Off.” Then they blew out some amazing swing blues on “Just Like Rain.” They hit R’n’B, jazz, disco, and lots more. The bass player was excellent, as were Quincy Jones on keyboards and drummer Drew.
Right after the BIG What? family photo, Consider the Source held a clinic at the Barn Stage. They played and answered numerous questions from the crowd. I’ll tell you I didn’t understand much about the technical aspects, but the passion with which they explained their craft was heartfelt and uplifting.
Our first encounter with Matt Butler was on Jam Cruise last January when he directed Everyone Orchestra. That was the first of his tasks for this day with a really impressive lineup of talent. The man is a genius. He explained he would be directing the improvisation to follow using instructions written on a hand-held white board.
The first 15-minute segment was funk deep in the pocket, highlighted by keyboards and a vocal chorus. Casey Cranford and a trumpet player sounded great as well. The second segment, about 12 minutes long, evolved into Afrobeat with a fine guitar solo, superb fiddle work from Dani Jaye and great vocalese courtesy of Rebekah Todd. Part three lead off with synthesizer before a series of fine solos. All the while, Butler was dancing and gesticulating with his bad white jacket and top hat. The fourth part featured Todd again then Jaye, Jaye and keyboards, drums, and then Butler having all of us sing “YES!” They finished with “Sunlight Under Your Skin,” a most enjoyable workout.
Herding cats would be much easier than trying to describe a performance by Consider the Source. This one was stunning, on an entirely different astral plane altogether. During the clinic, guitarist Gabe Marin remarked that he attempts to get his unique double-necked guitar to sound like almost everything but a guitar; in concert he was absolutely successful. Organ, trumpet, saxophone, vibes — you name it, Marin can do it.
John Ferrara is a bassist of monumental skills, equally stunning. He had a great solo during “Keep Your Big Head.” And Jeff Mann’s brilliant drumming somehow keeps it all together. They play completely as a unit. There is no gray area with CTS: you either get it, or you don’t. Incredible isn’t powerful enough to describe them. See what I mean?
That was a very tough act to follow, but Big Mean Sound Machine was up to the task. Their approach is similar to that of Turkuaz, a blazing nonet playing killer jazz funk, or funk jazz. Take your pick. It was all good. Alicia Aubin truly impressed on trombone, and the entire band cooked on tune after tune. They played new single “Seeing the Bigger Picture” and another new tune called “Foundation,” a great Afrobeat romp.
“Life in America” led to a great trumpet solo by Jack Storer with some wiggy Farfisa organ. Another new tune feature some fine Moog work, followed by more great Afrobeat from the band’s first album with a number of great changes along the way.
It was time for a Buffalo invasion of the Aqueous sort. The opener, “Mosquito Valley Pt. 1,” was good but not great for me, given the two previous amazing sets. That quickly changed as they moved from a reggae lilt in “Random Company” into some deeper-than-deep funk on “Second Sight” that went stratospheric during the jam funk of “Strange Times.” But it was the encore that got stupid, all half hour of “Marty.” WOW!
The Matt Butler Show, Part 2, was on tap. This time, he was directing host Big Something, again using the white board. They began with an all-out rocker straight out of the gate. Eventually it turned to hip hop with Mister guesting. There were some tremendous cohesive jams, not surprisingly. Jesse Hensley continued his monster ways, and Cranford played some nasty EWI throughout. Josh Kagel’s synths were great.
Zach Deputy stepped into some huge funk; “Gonna get loud!” he promised. The funk and Afrobeat were interwoven as Deputy’s rich voice got the crowd bouncing to Doug Marshall’s awesome bass, Ben Vinograd with him pushing the pace.
The theme of the night was The Glow, and by now for certain everybody had it. After a quick break, Big Something began their “regular” set with “Saturday Night Zombie” and “In the Middle.” I got my favorite “Illuminated,” and then it was time for two great guest appearances. First Tony Tyler of Come Back Alice joined in on the Allman Brothers Band’s “Stand Back,” and then Dani Jaye guested on “Passenger.”
There was a great “Club Step > Calm Like A Bomb (Rage Against the Machine) > The Curse of Julia Brown” trio to close the set. The first encore was “Bright Lights > My Volcano” with Mister on the latter. And how else could you possibly finish off such a love fest with playing “Love Generator?”
Zach Deputy had last honors with his bouncy island grooves until late into the night.
Kudos to Big Something and everyone involved with the operation of The BIG What?
After attending the 2015 edition, we missed last year’s party. You can bet that won’t happen again!
All photographs courtesy of David Lee / Gypsyshooter and Mandi Nulph (my festival daughter).
[Despite my best efforts, if I have misidentified a photograph or a song title, it can be very easily corrected!]