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Festival Review - Big Fam 2022

Introduction -


Following my experience at the first-ever Big Fam Music and Arts Festival in 2021, I truly could not believe how well a first-time independent festival could run. In terms of production, music and venue choice, I really felt that it was one of those “lightning in a bottle” scenarios.


With the news that Big Fam would be held in Farwell for its second year at a venue previously unknown to me, I had to wonder if the staff could catch that proverbial lightning a second time.


I’m delighted to report that the answer is “yes.” But really, I shouldn’t have had any reason to worry, as I had also concluded that the festival would be in good hands regardless of what the future held.


I was also reminded of an important personal lesson I learned years ago when it comes to festivals - sometimes, just when you think things can’t get any better, they can!


After its stunning debut in Lake Ann, the EDM, Jam and arts festival made its mark in Farwell during the weekend of September 2-4, 2022, bringing its own brand of family values for an even bigger follow-up.



[Big Fam Map Photo]


The operative word here is “Big,” as the second installment was distinguished by bigger stages, a bigger venue, and an overall bigger experience. Even with a brief weather interruption, the positive energy was undeniable.


As a longtime concert-goer originally from Mount Pleasant, I’d like to think I’ve been to most venues that the Great Lakes State has to offer. So when it was announced that the event would be held at the Liberty Mountain Event Venue in Farwell, I was surprised that I had never heard of it before.


It would prove to be an absolute gem of a spot, and one I look forward to returning to in the future.


Methodology -


Before the inaugural installment in Lake Ann, I had the opportunity to see the venue (Harmony Pines) ahead of time to get an idea of what the finished product would look like. This time, I decided to forego any such preview and experience Liberty Mountain for the first time organically.


In this sense, it was less of a, “Here’s the spot, and here’s what we’re gonna do with it” experience, and more of a “Here’s the spot, let’s see what you did with it” experience.


When it comes to the performing artists, it’s been an ongoing trend for me to not look too much into the lineups of whatever event I’m attending, which is the opposite of what I would normally do.


Just like Liberty Mountain itself, I decided that I wanted to continue this trend of discovery and experience the artists with the best first impression I could possibly have, whether I knew them by name or not.


The only way to achieve this was by going in with as little information as possible and letting the artists speak for themselves, aside from those I already knew and was planning to see anyway.


As with my previous Big Fam review, it is my intention to recount my experience as an attendee by providing a written boots-on-the-ground report, while also providing a behind-the-scenes perspective from the staff and performers.


Day One - Friday, September 2 - Getting the Lay of the Land


My crew and I assembled at the Meijer in Mount Pleasant and prepared to utilize the classic “snake method” of traveling to a festival, where you have to all arrive at the same time to guarantee being parked next to each other.


The hot, sunny afternoon weather was promising enough for the weekend ahead, and upon pulling in, gate staff members were once again very efficient at checking vehicles and delegating appropriate passes.


The volunteers in charge of parking took extra care to make sure our large caravan would be parked together, even helping us find flatter ground to make sure we weren’t parked or sleeping on a steep angle.


The area would quickly fill in around us and our spot started looking more like a home in good time. Even with a crew as large as mine, I never felt like we were short on space.



[Big Fam Sign Photo]


While the general admission campgrounds themselves were sizable enough, they did not prepare me for the actual scope of how much space the venue included, which was nothing short of breathtaking. It took me at least a good hour and a half to make a full circle of the venue grounds, but that may have partly been because I was running into people I knew every five minutes.


That’s another thing I loved about this festival which remained true for the second installment - the name delivers what it promises, creating a space for a “big fam.”


Especially considering that this would only be the second of three camping festivals for me in 2022, it was so nice to constantly run into friends. But this time, it went beyond people I knew from other festivals and college; I was also running into old high school friends left and right.


Similar to the previous installment, the stages and attractions were set in a bottleneck format, meaning you would see everything you needed to by continuing in a straight line, only even more so this time.


The Bayou - First Impression


The centerpiece of Big Fam is the “Bayou” area, which functions as an ever-changing interactive art exhibit with its own stage set in a wooded area. The area changes subtly depending on the time - a chill, atmospheric forest scene by day, which slowly became more lit up and colorful as the sun went down.


By night, you would think you had walked into the grounds of something like Electric Forest or a similar large-scale festival. Big Fam may be its own thing, but it’s difficult to not draw comparisons to those events, which should speak to the production levels.


In the first year, the bottleneck format would take you through the vendors to the main stage and back, while you would have to take a separate path to get to the Bayou. But this time, the Bayou was part of the main path, serving as the first area you would come to past the first vendors.


Once I saw the stage itself, my jaw dropped.


Hand-built out of wood and projection-mapped with a nautical theme, plus two mini-stages on either side for flow dancers, I walked in and was greeted by the downtempo Drum-n-Bass of Detroit’s LSTER, which was the first set I saw that weekend.



[LSTER Bayou photo]


My amazement could not be contained. The 2021 Bayou stage was more of what I would call your typical “stage,” but this new wooden nautical stage was my first clue of how production had ramped up. All I could think was, “How did they DO this?”


It was hard to believe this stage didn’t exist before this event, as it looked like something that just naturally belonged there.


Elsewhere, various decorations contributed to the nautical Alice in Wonderland theme. When I had previously spoken with one of the two curators of this area, Kat Fisher of Katfish EyeKandy, she had told me that the idea was to create a new chapter in the story of Alice.


Indeed, I was greeted by various whimsical actors dressed as characters from the story, such as a playing card in the Tea Party area. Alice herself and the Mad Hatter would host various parties here throughout the weekend.



[Bayou photo 1]


Returning staples included a light-up fountain that emitted fog, multiple bookshelves, mirrors, and paintings that would appear animated with projection lights at night. The boathouse from the previous year also returned, tucked away in an area further down the path to the main stage.


As Fisher told me in the preliminary interview, one new feature was a Fish Market, where actors dressed as mermaids and fishermen would appear at various times.


Later on, intricate displays made of strings that created vortexes and other shapes would appear in the connecting area between the main stage area and the Bayou, courtesy of Chris Griffin and Neural Patterns Deco.



[Strings in the Bayou by Chris Griffin - Photo courtesy Emily Sabourin]


Interview with Dave and Kat Fisher of KatFish EyeKandy -


Following the big weekend, I spoke with Dave and Kat Fisher, who serve on the board of directors and are the curators of the Bayou, to learn more about the second endeavor.


[Note: For the purposes of this section, Kat refers to Dave as “Fisher.”]


As previously stated, the theme of the area is a combination of Nautical and Alice in Wonderland imagery, the idea being to create a new chapter in the story. The project itself is the culmination of years of work by both Dave and Kat, who have done visuals, projection mappings and art installments at various events.


The first subjects we touched on were the Bayou being in a location that made it impossible to miss, as well as the evolution of the stage.



[Bayou photo 2]


“Last year it was a little bit more hidden,” Kat told me. “We could have had more lights, there was a huge hill, but this year if you were in GA, it was right on the way to the main stage and it was the first stop people made.


I feel like we graduated from the small stage at the festival to the second stage, and that felt really good. Some people told us that it felt like two main stages. That was intentional, we could see the spark of the Bayou and what was to come of it after year one. We knew with a little help we could put more ambition into it, and fortunately we had some extra help and sponsors to make sure we could.”


The area had to be cleared of leaves and other debris, which you wouldn’t have guessed, but the stage itself had a surprisingly simple origin story.


“It started with a drawing,” Kat said. “I had this idea that we wanted to modify the stage from year one. Fisher went up to the property and dismantled the stage that was existing, along with the Sugar Shack, and tried to transport that so people still had that familiarity, like ‘I remember that from last year,’ even though it’s in a totally different place. We wanted to build on what we had the previous year.


It took a collection of found objects and new things together to create the look of the stage. We wanted it to look like an old fishing village that had been in that area, like maybe it was part of the Bayou where the water level had receded. But with the whole aesthetic, we built that around the theme, and we had special intention to include flow performers on our stage. Not only do you have the centerpiece for the performer, but we also have the side stages for flow artists in a great viewing area.”


The idea to add side platforms for flow performers was actually a last-minute addition, as Kat joked that a lot happens in the final moments.



[Bayou photo 3]


When it came to selecting which artists would play at which stage, intention was kept in mind to include artists and producers who also play an instrument. This is how artists like Josh Teed and Manthom Phenace, both of which include live violin in their music, as well as artists like Groovee, who plays saxophone, were selected for the Bayou.


While the team works year-round considering which artists to book, with all 10 directors offering input, some of the selections were discovered by happenstance. For instance, Dave noted performer Jason Leech was selected after seeing him at Electric Forest and thinking he would be perfect for Big Fam.


Marketing and Communications Director Andrew Martin would also tell me that the lineup selection process is challenging, but the most rewarding part of creating the event.


Beyond instruments, artists were also selected by virtue of matching the “vibe” of the Bayou, such as the Ohio-based duo InnerVines.


“I love their sound, their music includes frog noises and sounds reminiscent of Charles the First, and we really wanted that kind of swampy vibe, which is what they do,” Kat said. “We were really happy they were able to play after Josh Teed, it was one of the biggest crowds they’ve ever played in front of, and we were really happy to bring them there.”


While Kat admitted that there were some ideas that time didn’t allow for, she said more will be implemented in the coming years. Regardless, by the end of it all, both Dave and Kat were more than satisfied with the results.



[Manthom Phenace at the Bayou Sunday night]


“It was special for me to stand up in the Sugar Shack at the end of the festival and look out and see the entire Bayou lit and filled with people,” Kat said. “Just to see an idea that came from a piece of paper come to life before us. I was so happy Fisher was able to work with me and help make that stage possible, it’s something I will never forget. We were happy a lot of the artists would give us a shoutout, they knew how much work we put into it. I had some tears in my eyes at the festival, there were a lot of moments when the artists we booked were thanking ME for creating the space!


It just all came together so perfectly, and we’re excited for the future and what we can do. We can’t do it without the support of the community and the attendees.”


The Main Stage


I was so enthralled with my first impression of the new Bayou that I almost forgot there was more to see. After letting the charm soak in, I continued forward to the main stage area.


Walking through the path and up some stairs would take you to the secondary vendor area, where various types of food trucks were set up. Beyond that would take you to the Main Stage, dubbed the “Apogee Stage” for the purposes of Big Fam.


This stage was more akin to the setup of something like the Pine Knob in Clarkston (formerly the DTE Energy Music Theater, and the Pine Knob before that). A flat concrete area lay directly in front of the stage, and further up was a very large hill.



[Main Stage as seen from the hill photo]


“Massive” doesn’t even begin to describe it, and I don’t think any photos I took could properly illustrate the scale. I was told ahead of time that this was the largest permanent stage in Michigan, which I could buy easily. I don’t know how big it is compared to the Pine Knob main stage, but I would say it’s at least comparable.


I had to question, again, how I had not heard of the venue before now.


“It was hiding in plain sight, that’s the best way to describe it,” Kat joked. “It was here all along and we didn’t know it! But as soon as we started sensing that there were issues that would require us to move locations, like with the unfortunate passing of Carl Harm, we just had to start looking for a new venue in the area, something that would be accessible to our community and our attendees.


Traverse City is a beautiful area, but it’s a little far. So even having Farwell be in a closer proximity so we can easily access the property to build, it made things a lot easier.”



[Ma Baker photo]


As I was passing through, the Ann Arbor-based electronic jam group Ma Baker was performing, who I’ve seen multiple times at various events. I stuck around for the end of the show, enjoying their lighthearted jam mix before continuing on. With a stage this big, I couldn’t imagine how impressive the nighttime slots would be, but I was eagerly looking forward to more.


I would find out later for myself, seeing in person that the nighttime production included a ridiculous amount of lasers, dancers and more.


At the rear of the main stage, a large concrete wall surrounded the bottom area, where artists were creating a mural with spray paint that would be worked on over the weekend.



[Mural photo 1 - Friday]


Beyond the main stage area on the hill were more vendors, upgraded camping areas, the returning art gallery, and finally, the canopy stage. I threw cursory glances at both and decided I would return later - after all, it was still relatively early in the day, and I still had a whole weekend ahead of me.


All in good time.



[A Scene from the Art Gallery photo]


Other Friday Highlights


After returning to camp and vibing out for a few hours, I ventured back into the Bayou to see what would become of it by night.


The entire area had been transformed with various lights, lasers, fog and other special effects, and I had yet another Deja Vu moment of being back at Electric Forest.


Had I hung out starting earlier and for long enough, I’m sure the effect would have been much more subtle, but since I was away for a while, the transition was astonishing when I got back.


The crowd had come fully alive as well - by my reckoning, most people had been scattered about through the day, but the Bayou was now PACKED. And who could blame them? With the lineup at even just that stage for Friday, it was certainly a great spot to be.


At this time, the Colorado-based bass music producer Shwilly had taken the stage, providing what I considered to be the perfect soundtrack for the setting.



[Shwilly at the Bayou photo]


All of the directors I spoke with ahead of time had told me each artist on the lineup was booked intentionally, and with Shwilly, it really showed. The day had transitioned from downtempo/chillstep artists into the super hype ones you would expect to hear on a Friday night.


As much as I was enjoying the set and area, I had things to do. I stuck around long enough to catch the tail end of Shwilly’s set before making the trek back to the hill, where I would be entering the Canopy Stage for the first time that weekend.


Another Deja Vu moment came here. The Canopy Stage was almost exactly the same as it was the first time around, but frankly that’s fine, as it provided an intimate setting with very impressive lasers and an astoundingly crisp LED visual wall.


Detroit’s own Mac Diesel was wrapping up his set, which encompassed House and DNB type sounds. I had never heard of him before, but what I did made me wish I had arrived sooner.


Regardless, it was a good transition into why I was there in the first place - I was wrapping up some unfinished business by finally catching a set from Faren Strnad out of Grand Rapids.



[Faren Strnad photo]


I’d been trying to see Strnad for a number of years, but every time a show was nearby, something would clash with it. The same was true this time - her set overlapped with Daily Bread at the main stage, who I only got to see a little bit of at the first Big Fam.


I was hoping to see more of him this year, so I figured I would just watch half and half, but that’s not what ended up happening.


This was one of those times where the set just got better and better as it went on, to the point where I didn’t want to leave, and I’m really glad I didn’t. Strnad’s eclectic mix of techno, house and DNB started off light and colorful, later being characterized by dark, red, almost Darth Maul/Rezz-type vibes and visuals that matched my headspace much better.


It may have taken me five years, but I’d say it was worth waiting for, and Strnad would become one of my favorite sets that weekend.


And that was only day one!


Though I would see plenty of other good performances that night, including J.Philip, Shlump and Toadface (who was playing an all-original set), none stood out more in my mind that night than Faren Strnad.


Stormy Saturday Shenanigans


The forecast for Saturday called for storms later in the afternoon, but you wouldn’t know it in the early morning. The day began with a nice breakfast at camp with a custom Jenga game on the side, along with a beautiful sunrise greeting us.



[Chris Stewart, R1XO photo]


Once the Bayou area opened up, listeners were treated to a set by one of Big Fam’s directors, Chris Stewart, performing under his name R1X0. Stewart was actually replacing Dave Fisher [FSHR] for this slot, who was getting some much-needed rest at the time.


Stewart’s chillstep vibes set the tone for the early afternoon - nothing too crazy, just relaxed sounds to wake up and face the day with.


Much of my time for the first part of the day was spent at camp and perusing the vendors, during which my partner and I received some essential CBD massages from Bloom Massage Healing (Thanks again, Marina and friends).


Once the forecast started becoming more ominous, we had to face the unpleasant truth - we were probably going to be dealing with some bad weather again, just like the first Big Fam.



[Dark skies photo]


Being no strangers to the concept, we started preparing in advance - waterproofing the tents, taking down the flagpoles and reinforcing the canopies. There was always the hope that maybe it won’t be as bad as the forecast says, but it just becomes wishful thinking after a certain point.


Starting around 3:00, there was finally some cloud cover over the grounds which took the edge off the heat. The majority of us wandered to the Bayou in time to see the beginning of a back-to-back set featuring TRPLSTVK and Groovee, both of whom I was unfamiliar with at the time.


After a quick intro from TRPLSTVK, Groovee took the stage. His part started off great, as he was playing funky beats with a real saxophone to match. But after about five minutes, light sprinkling could be felt through the trees.



[Groovee Photo]


Initially, I was unphased. I’ve already dealt with way worse even in the months before Big Fam, and my thinking at the time was, “great, maybe a little water will cool the place down.”


Then, a couple things happened in quick succession - Groovee exited the stage abruptly, so at first I thought TRPLSTVK was going back on. I saw Director Dave Fisher walking through the area and I went up to say hello.


Before I could, he looked at me and said “We have to evacuate.”


That’s when I noticed the music had stopped altogether, and right as all the dots connected in my mind, the storm unleashed with torrential proportions. Those who were gathered exited the scene quickly, with my crew high-tailing it back to home base. Leaving the Bayou revealed a very different scene than when we had walked in - thick sheets of rain came down, thunder rumbling in the distance.


I would later be told that Groovee and TRPLSTVK were able to play a make-up set, but I didn’t see them myself.


Back at camp, I helped my friends bust down the canopy, made sure it was reinforced, and crawled into the front seat of my car, not knowing how long I would be there.


Lightning touched down uncomfortably close to the grounds in a field off to my left, and the last thing I remember before I passed out was, “Oh crap…the rain is moving SIDEWAYS.”


***


I regained consciousness around 5:30 and stepped out to survey the aftermath. The rain was still coming down, though nowhere near as violently as before. Most of our tents, including mine, were undamaged, but a few had caved in from snapped poles or were otherwise flooded.


It would be a while before the stages would reopen, so for now, there was nothing else to do but clean up the camp and try to make the best of the situation.


One perk is that the place finally cooled down, though I would rather deal with extreme heat any day. I killed time by cracking jokes and gathering trash, later making my way to the RV section to touch base with some friends from Kalamazoo. Sometime after that, sunshine broke through.


“I think we’ve come to expect the rain at this point,” Kat joked about the weather. “For year three, I think rubber boots should be part of the Big Fam uniform. We were definitely better prepared for it, but it’s still scary when you’re dealing with rental equipment, other people’s property, lighting equipment and art pieces that could potentially be damaged. In both years, the rain we received was quite a torrential downpour. We had to follow protocol to shut down the stage and evacuate for people’s safety. But it lent to the look of the bayou - it’s meant to kind of look like that anyway.”


I was receiving conflicting information on whether the stages were back open or not, and unfortunately missed the Ann Arbor-based jam group Chirp as a result.


At some point I was informed that the “secret set” on the Saturday schedule was the producer known as Jaenga, who I don’t know much about, but I missed him too.


Regardless, I thought his appearance was a funny twist, since playing the actual game Jenga has been a running joke in my camp for a while now.


I wouldn’t find myself back in the festival grounds until much later that night to wrap up some more unfinished business, this time with the Traverse City-based progressive jam group Biomassive at the main stage.


During the first Big Fam, rain and lightning blew in Friday night, meaning several sets had to be canceled including Biomassive. Even though I’ve seen them play here and there before, I was disappointed because that was one set I’d been looking forward to, and didn’t get the chance at any other point between the two Big Fam installments.



[Biomassive photo]


I actually came in towards the tail end where they finished off with an enjoyable mashup of well-known contemporary hits, including “Sandstorm” by Darude and “Kernkraft 400” by Zombie Nation. Maybe someday I’ll see a full set from them, but for now, I have a very enjoyable memory to get me by.


More importantly, I needed to get back to the Canopy stage to see one of my most highly-anticipated sets of the weekend - the return of local artist Ashton Robertson, the mastermind behind Spaceship Earth.


I first saw Robertson perform as Spaceship Earth during a one-night festival in Bangor in 2016. The idea of an electronic artist doing live mixing while also playing electric guitar was a new concept to me, and I made sure to talk to him after the set to tell him how much I enjoyed it.


Each of the times I’ve been able to see him perform since then have always been a treat, but this performance was extra special, as it marked his return to the stage after two years.


Pandemic-related issues putting a hold on all live performances aside, Robertson also experienced medical complications during that time that left him with a loss of feeling in his legs.


However, you wouldn’t know it from watching him play that night.


Interview with Ashton Robertson, “Spaceship Earth”


“I was so nervous, not about the music, but about my legs, since I had lost my ability to walk,” Robertson said in a phone interview. “I was playing a lot of new music and I was lowkey nervous about it, but I thought it went really well, especially with the sound system they had, the BassBoss system just sounded so good. As I started, more and more people started showing up, and it turned into this dance party vibe. I was feeling so grateful and couldn’t have asked for more. It was a really surreal and beautiful experience for me.”



[Spaceship Earth 1 photo]


Robertson has described his music to me in a number of ways, using terms like “quantum dub” and “psychedelic electronic bass” to explain it. Whatever you call it, the music is laced with spiritual and sci-fi themed samples that only add more ambiance to the experience.


Furthermore, Robertson said about half of the material included was being played live for the first time.


In my best opinion, the set could be described as “Mystical Drum-n-Bass,” but even that isn’t totally doing it justice, as the set incorporated many different styles, all accentuated by Robertson shredding on the guitar. He even dropped in some heavy reggae-dub type music towards the end, putting a satisfying cap on his big return - one that I was honored to witness.


Robertson also shared some observations about playing his first set post-pandemic, echoing several thoughts I had myself over the course of the event.


“[The pandemic] is something I almost didn’t think about to be honest,” Robertson said. “It felt really good, I played like two or three shows during the pandemic that were all sit-down, socially distanced, masks only, and I really supported all that stuff. I thought it was important to have live shows. But to get on the outside of it, that return to normalcy felt better than you could imagine. You never know what you have until it’s gone.


Music, live music is the greatest thing ever, and more than just my set, seeing music live felt so good, and seeing people dance in the crowd without limitation was really cool. It’s so beautiful to experience humanity again.”



[Spaceship Earth 2 photo]


Aside from his own set, Robertson added that he enjoyed the festival weekend overall.


“I just really appreciate how Big Fam has a combination of jam bands like Twiddle, amazing electronic music, and hybrid acts like myself and Josh Teed, while also incorporating visual and performance art,” Robertson said. “It’s really a community thing, and I think that’s what has the potential to really grow and create an awesome culture. To me, it’s not only about the music and art, but it’s about growing our communities into safe, expansive places, and fun places where people are really enjoying themselves. So I really appreciate that about Big Fam, it kind of says it in the name, but it was cool to experience it, especially as an artist.”


Spaceship Earth was ultimately my favorite set across the board that weekend, which is saying something given how many I would actually see by the end of it.


To keep up with Robertson and Spaceship Earth, readers can follow his social media platforms at this official Fanlink. For a short clip I recorded of the performance, click here.


After that profoundly enjoyable experience, I regrouped with my friends at the top vendor area, smashed a double cheeseburger, and headed to the main stage for the remaining headliners.

A light sprinkling was back at this time, but only added to the atmosphere, along with the flame and flow dancers flanking both sides of the stage.


We arrived during the last five minutes of Khiva, just before the Widdler was set to make his second-ever Big Fam appearance. gh


Disclaimer for Saturday Night -


Just like the band Green Jelly at Michigan Metal Fest a month before Big Fam, I really must confess myself ignorant to several things regarding the Saturday headliners.


First, let me remind the reader of my strategy going into this festival - to do as little research about the performers as possible, whether I’ve heard of them or not, with the intention of getting as many authentic first impressions as possible.


While this strategy absolutely paid off for me here and at other festivals in 2022, there are a few drawbacks, namely that you might miss important details ABOUT those artists.


For instance, while I had heard of the label “Deep Dark & Dangerous” and seen the logo, I didn’t know (or somehow missed the fact) that Saturday night was intended to be a DDD takeover. To that end, I didn’t know that a lot of these artists on the lineup were on the DDD label, or had