The Big What? 2017

Matt Butler brings his improvisational spin to this year's Big What and it was incredible

Joy. That was the overriding emotion seeping through three days of fist-pumping grooves, smiling faces and swaying sun-soaked bodies at The Big What. A festival filled exclusively with bands whose sound is a celebration, and the joyous people attracted to that energy. 2017 has been a banner year for BIG Something. They played Jam Cruise, opened a tour for Umphrey's McGee, and took the sixth year of their festival The Big What to a beautiful new venue in the North Carolina countryside. The meadows, groves and woods of the Shakori Hills Community Arts Center in Pittsboro created the perfect atmosphere to dance under the starry skies.

Despite some sizzling summer heat and a water park's worth of humidity, the dance party was unstoppable. After all, the only thing worse than sweating your way through a music festival is skipping a music festival because you were scared of sweating. The weekend was a testament to writer Tom Robbins' assertion that "The weather should either be celebrated or ignored." All of the bands encompassed an ethos of joy and positivity in their sound, which combined with the audience's collective giggling groupthink to create a truly beautiful and weird community where everyone could hang their hat for three days and very long nights. Many people described it as the friendliest music festival they'd ever attended. 

The festivities started on Thursday, with the "belligerent jungle funk" of Opposite Box and soulful rock of Urban Soil. With two alternating main stages, there was never any overlap between bands. This was followed by an inspired group event called The Big Hug, in which hundreds of sweaty audience members gathered together as one, and tried to hug each other without actually touching. The heartfelt moment was photographed by a drone which promptly flew straight into a tree.

The music continued with the rocking bluegrass of Big Daddy Love and the hard-driving bluegrass of Town Mountain. Then BIG Something took the stage for their first of five sets throughout the weekend. Their singular blend of funky dance-infused rock and roll was on remarkable display from the start. Their sets over the next three days included original debuts, old favorites, and debuts of an assortment of covers by Parliament, the Allman Brothers, Outkast, Little Feat, Lettuce, Dick Dale, and the Oak Ridge Boys. They also welcomed many special guests, with Zach Deputy and Mister making appearances as well as members of Spiritual Rez, Empire Strikes Brass, Come Back Alice, and Moon Water.

Thursday continued to redefine the possibilities of a mere weeknight with the stunning funk rock alchemy of The Fritz and the dazzling live electronic funk of Sunsquabi, whose energy was only multiplied by the enthralled masses lurching under the swirling lights of the late night tent. A surprise super late night bluegrass set by The Kind Thieves kept the devoted dancing til the break of dawn.

The Big What devoted a large amount of space to the Art tent which was positively overflowing with energy and expression, with many pieces being created live in the moment. Other pieces were set up closer to the stage and around the concert field. One collaborative painting featured a digital frame which added effects within and around the painting itself to create an astonishing otherworldly effect.

Friday kicked off with the loop-filled Caribbean jamband sounds of Barefoot Wade, the energetic rock of Bencoolen, the southern rock of Jive Mother Mary, the audaciously extravagant "power funk" band Litz, and the delicious soul-grass of Dr. Bacon. BIG Something tore up another huge set before Empire Strikes Brass took us on a funky world tour of horn-based jazz in a multitude of sounds and styles.

The astounding funky jubilee of Turkuaz followed, and was considered by many to be the highlight of the entire weekend. Their powerfully energetic nine-piece sound was like a cannon firing bliss over the festival, as was evident by the throngs of people who simply couldn't stop dancing. The mighty "reggae funk dance experience" of Spiritual Rez was up next, followed by Empire Strikes Brass leading a literal parade of singing, dancing devotees to the late night tent for a mystery BIG Something show unlabeled on the program. Late into the evening the glittering guitars and soaring saxophones kept the fans frolicking.

Special kudos to the sensational lights and "live video art" provided by Life is Art Studios, which genuinely raised the festival to another level. Each band had its energy amplified and multiplied through the imaginative and powerful multimedia extravaganza happening behind, above and all around them. Rarely has the video component of a concert added so much to the overall experience. The scene was further set with a giant box on each side of the stage which elevated hula hoopers into performance positions far above the crowd. Fire spinners and a water balloon battle further kept the merry mood dialed in for the weekend.

Saturday opened with the genre-busting Of Tomorrow, the "southern Gypsy funk" of Come Back Alice, the bluesy power trio The Wright Ave, and the rocking soul of Rebekah Todd & the Odyssey. A special set by Matt Butler's collective Everyone Orchestra followed, with a roster consisting of Big What musicians from a variety of different bands exploring an improvised and wildly inventive set of rock, funk and all the tasty spaces in between.

The breathtaking "sci-fi Middle Eastern fusion" sound of Consider the Source vaulted us into Saturday night, followed by the delicious nine-piece funky dance party known as Big Mean Sound Machine. The luscious improvisational groove rock of Aqueous came next, followed by a very special BIG Something improv set led by Everyone Orchestra's Matt Butler. Taking their cues from the new conductor, the band ebbed and flowed, rose and fell, was destroyed and re-born while the dazzled audience reveled in seeing their favorite band drawn laughing out of their comfort zone into a new state of in-the-moment creativity.

A regular full set of BIG Something followed to close out the main stage, and although the "island-infused drum n' bass gospel ninja soul" of late night chameleon Zach Deputy would keep the merrymakers out till sunrise, it was here in the climactic moments of BIG Something's set that the energy of the weekend found its zenith. This was truly a rare and special weekend of music and community. The kind of festival where people post afterwards "Thank you. I needed that more than you could imagine." The kind of festival which BIG Something captured perfectly in the refrain of their final encore: "Feel the love we are generating!"

- By Paul Kerr

- Photos By Jerry Friend