Big Something's beloved summer festival The Big What? made a triumphant return from pandemic hiatus with a three-day celebration of community and ecstatic sounds. Launched in 2012, the festival's wanderlust found a fresh home at Pop's Farm in southern Virginia, bringing a new spark to a reunion of old friends. The weekend was a wet and wild throwdown, but the afternoon rains didn't soak the spirits or the schedule, as the organizers deftly maneuvered to ensure every band still played a lengthy show after the cloudburst.
The Big What? is also a vibrant feast of visual arts, and the huge art tent was bursting with a kaleidoscope of creativity and imagination, much of it happening live. Likewise, the spectacular light and video production by Life is Art Studios continues to be such a vital and visionary contribution to the overall aesthetic that it's hard to imagine the festival without it. Morning yoga and afternoon workshops on painting and plant propagation rounded out the itinerary, but of course the sparkling and inviting music always took center stage.
Kicking things off Thursday with The Talismen was indeed a good luck charm, with wholehearted soulful and funky jams brewing a sense of joy and discovery that carried through the weekend, like a ribbon cutting on a bridge to outer space. The gifted and versatile Josh Phillips was up next, backed by several skilled comrades from Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band for some funky feel-good vibrations. The comedy dance-funk outfit Sexbruise? followed with two sets of hilarious social commentary and frantic rhythms before Sammy Rae & the Friends set the sun with their catchy and soulful horn-driven energy.
Festival founders Big Something took the stage next for their first of six sets over three days, unleashing an electrical charge equal to the lightning of the following days. Highlights included Josh Phillips joining for "Travelers," a brand new original called "Clouds," and a feisty encore cover of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard's "Head On/Pill." The first evening wrapped up with the Late Night Mystery Stage featuring Josh Daniel's heartfelt acoustic renditions of Grateful Dead classics and more, including an inspired version of "Terrapin Station" in the shadow of the moon.
The sonic stew started cooking on Friday with spirited jam rockers Dustin Smith & the Daydreamers leading into the swinging grooves of The Settlement and the singular rocking bluegrass of The Kind Thieves, proving a perfect way to start the audible feast. The afternoon rolled on with Red Panda, the fiery side project of Big Something's Nick MacDaniels and Jesse Hensley, followed by roots rocker Cris Jacobs bursting out stirring originals alongside classics like "Love the One You're With." He was joined by powerhouse vocalist Kanika Moore from Doom Flamingo who set a new standard for the Artist-at-Large concept, bringing power and passion to elevate each act that she paired with to new heights.
The fun continued with the danceable rock-edged sound of Kendall Street Company, the groovy jazz fusion of Butcher Brown, and the electo-prog of Lespecial, whose were supercharged by Kanika's vocals on "Machine Elf" and a massive ground-shaking take on Tool's "Forty Six & 2." Big Something hit the stage next for two sets of merry musical mayhem, illuminated by Kanika joining for "Waves," "Bright Lights", Radiohead's "Creep," and the debuts of both Mark Ronson's "Daffodils" and The Allman Brothers Band's epic and eternal "Whipping Post." Late night duties were aptly covered by the jamgrass jamboree of Into the Fog, who kept toes tapping till almost 4am with lively originals and classic covers like "Deal" and "Midnight Moonlight."
Saturday started with the superb singer/songwriter stylings of Ranford Almond, the combustible rock of Loud Music Company, and the dancetastic funk-pop octet Reliably Bad. Up next was Council Culture, a joyful and virtuosic side project from Big Something's Casey Cranford and Ben Vinograd, followed by the tour-de-force vocals of exuberant country rocker Maggie Rose. The final evening of music was ushered in with the colossal and flashy jamrock sound of The Mantras, whose ferocious "Magillicuddy" and outrageous "Jabberwocky" cranked the energy to extreme levels.
The last main stage music of the festival was a monumental three-set masterpiece from Big Something, with a bright waxing moon illuminating the dancing souls below. Maggie Rose joined the festivities for debut romps through Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and The B-52's' "Love Shack," and Ranford Almond helped close out the show with a potent encore of The Beatles' "Dear Prudence." Late night sounds included a journey into deep space hosted by electro-soul and hip-hop crate digger Daily Bread, and a final Mystery Stage duo performance by Nick MacDaniels and Ranford Almond that continued till the crickets were crashing.
The first Big What? in three years wrapped up with a farm full of fulsome smiles, frayed feet and fabulous flashbacks, equal parts homecoming and hopefulness that the future will see this remarkable community continue to grow, love and dance together under the summer skies.
Words by: Paul Kerr
Photos by: Jerry Friend