The Big What? was the 8th annual throwdown, revved up, twist yourself sideways summertime dreamtime festival conceived and executed by North Carolina's hometown heroes BIG Something. The Big Where? was the vast expanse of the Shakori Hills Community Arts Center - 75 acres of shady woods and rolling fields in the central Carolina countryside, roomy enough for multiple stages yet cozy enough to call home. The Big When? was three days of perfect sunny weather in early August with a radar reading royally relieved of rain. The Big Why? was why not? And the Big Who?, of course, was you and me and a couple thousand of our oldest and newest friends, brought together in celebration and reverence for another boisterous bacchanal at the behest of the Bigs.
The festivities commenced on Thursday afternoon with a welcome parade and a genre-hopping tour de force from Empire Strikes Brass, who skipped through hot jazz, rocksteady, funk and more. "Never give them a stationary target" they say, and this act never stands still long enough for anyone to pin a label on them. An energetic set of self-proclaimed "space age folk wave" from Emma's Lounge led to the funky soul supergroup sounds of the Nth Power. Featuring imaginative guitarist Nick Cassarino from the Jennifer Hartswick Band, the incessant groove of bassist Nate Edgar from John Brown's Body, and the breathtaking beats of drummer Nikki Glaspie from Dumpstaphunk and Beyonce's band, their next-level know-how brought an awe-inspiring display to the early hours of the festival.
Up next was People's Blues of Richmond, one of the most explosively powerful, fist-in-the-air steamrollers of a band to appear in recent years. They smashed everything in their path, including a monstrous version of Santana's "Soul Sacrifice" almost exactly half a century after it crushed the crowd into the mud at Woodstock. Hallowed hosts Big Something then appeared for their first of three massive sets throughout the weekend, each of which included new songs recently recorded but never before played live. Opening with "The Undertow," they flooded fans in Led Zeppelin's "The Ocean," debuted two new numbers in "The Breakers" and "Static," and capped things off with "The Curse of Julia Brown" before an enormous encore of Pink Floyd's epic "Echoes."
Along with an endless array of musical thrills, The Big What also offered a bounty of other opportunities to enrich your eyes, body, mind and soul with delights. From delectable food options to inspired craft vendors to a tent teeming with visual artists' creative creations, there was almost nowhere to gander without going all agog. Fire and flow artists lit up the night while the days were filled with art, costuming, hooping and dance lessons. Yogis even got their yin-yang yanked.
Friday launched with the groovy blues of The Wright Ave and the expansive sound of Urban Soil, who effortlessly leaped from jamband expeditions to traditional bluegrass while somehow staying cohesive, always sounding like themselves despite exploring the outer reaches of their capabilities. The Americana soul blast of the Broadcast blew up any notions of a mid-day nap before Big Something saxophonist Casey Cranford led a lively and jubilant set as Casey & the Comrades. The Jonathan Scales Fourchestra then proceeded to positively lay waste to the land with an astonishing and electrifying explosion of sound. Hailing from Asheville, NC, the steel pan maestro led a trio of otherworldly players through a set of truly jaw-dropping musicianship.
The frenzied attack of Too Many Zooz, a trio composed of saxophone, trumpet and drums, overwhelmed the auditories before Dr. Bacon sizzled the senses and fried up any remaining synapses with their genre-defying ride through high-energy rock, funk, and other flavors too numerous to name. Big Something then appeared again for their second set of thick grooves and intense, triumphant exultation. Cranford's electronic wind instrument blended with Josh Kagel's keyboards to create an exuberancy perfectly complementing Jesse Hensley's fiercely proficient barrage of notes and singer Nick MacDaniels' rousing howls and bellows. Their stimulating set featured David Bowie's "Starman," the Too Many Zooz horns sitting in on "The Flood," and an encore debut of Tedeschi Trucks Band's "Do I Look Worried" with singer Caitlin Krisco & guitarist Aaron Austin from the Broadcast joining the fun. Latenite blowouts by electronic jam funk band Sunsquabi and Big Something's own Nick and the Nomads put the perfect sonic cherries on top.
Saturday saw Baltimore's Litz ignite the afternoon with an animated outburst of pure funky rock before Hank, Pattie & the Current added some acoustic aromas with sweet and spirited soulgrass takes on their own originals plus beloved covers like Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke." The remarkable West African rock of Toubab Krewe led into a sensational and enchanting set by the Mantras, whose real-time mashup of Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" with the Grateful Dead's "Fire on the Mountain" was as hot and incendiary as the name suggests.
Big Something then took the stage for their final set of the gala - three hours of heavenly harmonics and satiating screams of joy. "It Comes Around" featured Toubab Krewe's Justin Perkins on kora, the 21-stringed African harp instrument renowned for its distinctive and delightful tone. Compelling covers included the debut of Pink Floyd's "Young Lust" and Hensley's guitar ripping through Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" as part of their 5-song encore. As the moon rose higher and the stars twinkled on, the final notes faded into the ether. Another Big What? had seen its day, but the memories and friendships forged were made to last, and the ripples of those rhythms will someday answer all the questions asked.
- Paul Kerr
- Photos by Willa Stein