Like many other events in the last couple years, the inaugural installment of the Big Fam Music & Arts Festival had to be placed on hold in 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
With that in mind, the production team was forced to take some time off, heading back to the drawing board to make the festival bigger and better for 2021.
So was it worth the wait? The short answer is a resounding “yes.”
Marked by rapidly changing weather, a well-curated lineup, and a small-festival setting with a big-festival feel, attendees of the first Big Fam were treated to a weekend of fun, friendship and new memories for everyone.
Housed at Harmony Pines in Lake Ann during the final weekend of August, I was lucky enough to be given a behind-the-scenes look at the grounds in July. At that time, very few structures had been built, but the team told me they had big plans for utilizing the space. Without giving too much away, they showed me where certain things would go, and what sort of amenities would be in place.
It was hard to picture it all when looking at the bare grounds, but I was very excited to see how it would all come together.
Upon arriving on Friday, August 27, the first thing I saw was a very large pyramid structure that had not been there before. I guessed (correctly) that it would be projection-mapped by night, and by that sight alone, I knew we were in for something special.
I had no trouble getting in. The gate staff were very efficient at checking my vehicle and credentials, and before long, I found myself pulling into my camp for the weekend. Multiple members of my personal festival crew had already arrived and were hard at work establishing our home base.
Many in my camp for the weekend were people I’ve been to multiple festivals with, while others were people I hadn’t met yet who were supposed to be in my group for Electric Forest 2020. Some of those people had made the trek to Big Fam, where we would be meeting in person for the first time.
Gray clouds streaked the sky with tinges of blue strewn about, looking like they might open up at any moment, but the weather held off long enough to get a feel for things.
Luckily we had planned ahead for that, and had erected a large canopy for the crew to gather under, which was anchored to the ground with cinder blocks. Believe me, we’ve already learned the hard way that if you’re going to have a canopy at a festival, it must be weighted.
Other people around us wouldn’t be so lucky, but for the time being, the weather had graced us with a break.
Since this is my first festival review since August 2019, I am not focusing on any one area in particular - it is my intention to give a review of the overall Big Fam weekend, as well as to recount my boots-on-the-ground experience as it happened.
The first thing to discuss is the grounds themselves. While the venue in and of itself encompassed hundreds of acres of pine forests and open fields, nothing ever felt too far away.
All stages and attractions were easily walkable from the camping areas, and even if you didn’t have a map (which we did), navigation was no trouble.
Immediately adjacent to the campsite was the canopy stage, a large covered enclosure that proved to be a popular spot when the rain eventually came.
Following that were the vendors, medical tent and pathways to the other areas. Continuing past the vendors would take you to the main stage.
The main stage was impressive in its own right - very large and sitting at the bottom of a hill, it was flanked by twin Big Fam banners. It looked very professional - if you didn’t know any better, you might not think this was an independent festival.
There was also a smaller stage by the main one, which was reserved for flow artists and fire dancers of all varieties - quite a sight to see when the sun went down.
Each stage was accentuated with high-powered LED display walls and lighting systems. While I do realize this is a new festival, it’s hard NOT to draw comparisons to other well-known ones.
From the bottom of the main stage and looking back, I had several moments of Deja Vu where I could have SWORN I was at the Electric Forest Ranch Arena stage.
That’s how well the production was - again, it was a big-festival feel in a small setting.
With the pyramid on the visible horizon, it also reminded me a lot of the former Sacred Vibrations festival, which occurred in Shepherd, MI from 2017 - 2019.
Another pleasant surprise was a grand piano and some giant banjos that were on display in the vendor grounds.
I’m not sure if it was the same artist, but giant instruments are also present at Wheatland Music Festival in Remus, MI every year. That festival is important to me because it was my first camping event, and I’ve been to it every year since 2012 (besides the obvious).
Unfortunately, Wheatland was canceled for the second year in a row this year. But seeing those instruments brought me a lot of joy, because it reminded me of what it was like to be there, even if in a small way.
Other attractions included a very large enclosed gallery, which housed the work of various artists for sale in a museum-type setting, as well as a nine-hole disc golf course. I don’t play myself, but several other people seemed to be enjoying it.
All of this was rounded out by the Katfish EyeKandy Wonderland, an interactive art and music experience area with an extra stage, which you reached by following a different pathway down a hill. (More details on this area later in the story).
While it is not my intention to “grade” Big Fam, there are a number of things I look for in the way of cleanliness and available amenities.
When it came to hygiene, Big Fam did an outstanding job, especially under the current climate.
Anyone who has been to a festival knows that the Port-o-Potty situation can quickly become nightmarish if not regularly maintained. One festival from many years ago sticks out in my mind, where there was an inadequate amount of POP’s available that were never cleaned. In that case, by day two, I decided to just hold it until I got home.
That was absolutely not the case here. There were more than enough for use by the stages and near the campgrounds, and they were cleaned out every morning. Soap dispensers were rarely empty, and even if one was, the others were full.
Hand washing stations were also available near the vendors, ensuring cleanliness before a meal.
Another thing I really appreciated was the separation of trash and recycling bins. I’ve written before about the sustainability and ecological mitigations that have taken place at other festivals, and I was glad to see the staff taking this small step to make a big difference.
In the common areas, I was also pleased to see that the attendees largely seemed to be mindful of their environment - I didn’t see one piece of trash on the ground in the main stage or vendor areas.
It’s one thing if there’s trash in your own campsite, so long as you clean it up. But in the common areas, I didn’t see trash on the ground, nor did I ever see any overflowing bins.
To me, this says the attendees were being respectful of the space, which is refreshing to see.
Even more so was the fact that I never felt the festival grounds were too crammed or congested - despite having at least 1,000 attendees, there was plenty of room for people to spread out at all times.
Most importantly, this is one of those festivals that lives up to its name. Almost every two minutes I ran into someone I knew, regardless of whether I last saw them three months or even six years ago. It truly did feel like a “Big Fam” reunion of sorts.
Especially given the last two years or so, that was one of the best parts for me. I believe that no matter how great a festival may or may not be on its own, it truly is the PEOPLE that make the experience, and in this case, Big Fam hit a home run.
After minimal human interaction since February 2020, it was flooring to see so many people I knew again.
Earlier I mentioned how the grounds appeared to stay litter-free the whole time, which I believed reflected a good attitude by the crowd.
But it wasn’t just the good will of those in attendance - after the festival was over, I learned that it was largely a tag-team effort by two different volunteer teams working together, Manifest Green and Lake Five.
After the weekend, I had the opportunity to speak with representatives from both of those groups.
The first person I spoke with was Austin Boughner, one of the founders of Manifest Green, the organization in charge of coordinating cleanup volunteers.
Staying Green and Clean, Part 1 - Manifest Green
Boughner began his cleanup activities at Sacred Vibrations festival, where he was eventually put in charge of cleanup staff in 2019. Earlier that same year at Electric Forest, he was inspired to start the Manifest Green team.
“We had a good night [at Electric Forest], and as the sun was coming up, we were walking around and seeing how trashed the place was,” Boughner said. “So we went back to camp, saddled up with a bunch of bags, and spent the next seven hours picking up trash. Then, we started talking about what it would be like if we created our own business to do this.”
Flash forward to 2021, Manifest Green launched its first year as a serious festival cleanup organization. Big Fam was stop number 12 of the year with more on the way.
To keep the grounds clean, Manifest Green works nearly round-the-clock.
“Our mission for Manifest Green is to maintain the cleanliness and waste of the festivals as efficiently as we can,” Boughner said. “We always make sure the trash bins are never overflowing - we normally take the bags out when they’re about three quarters full, because the dumpsters are usually about ten feet tall. The bags get really heavy and they can rip open - it’s just easier to throw them in the dumpster when they aren’t all the way full.”
Due to some people not showing up at previous outings, volunteers with Manifest Green must pay a deposit in order to ensure the shifts are covered. Boughner says this is a strategy that has paid off, and Big Fam was one of their most successful stops yet.
“We had three shift leaders, and then three people working under them,” Boughner said. “We had four people on the clock at all times and three rotating six hour shifts. So all day, we had a team leader and three people with that leader that would have spot cleaning bags in their hands. They would go around and pick up microtrash, while also doing their rounds, making sure the bins aren’t overflowing. We always had a squad from 10 a.m. to 4:30 a.m.”
Once bags are taken from bins, they are then taken by golf cart to the nearest dumpster.
“A huge aspiration is for our people to be able to vibe in a safe and clean environment,” Boughner said. “Nobody wants to be at the stage dancing on cups. It’s a big thing, our motto is ‘Purifying the Atmospheric Vibrations.’ We do whatever we can to ensure that everyone has good vibes.”
Although Boughner and company were hard at work making sure trash was off the ground and away from vendors, he did note that the crowd itself was doing a great job of it.
“I was really surprised with how mindful everybody was,” Boughner said. “Throughout all the festivals I’ve done this year, there have been some really dirty people - people that will just make piles of trash without even a trash bag. Big Fam was definitely the most mindful festival I’ve been to so far this year in regards to the waste they produced. There was almost no microtrash in General Admission where everyone was camped at, it was really clean.”
In the future, Boughner hopes to take bigger steps with Manifest Green, such as an informational booth and an expanded festival presence. Big Fam was stop number 12, and Boughner hopes to make it to at least 20 next year.
“We’re definitely looking for more people that want to get involved, because it’s hard to get so many organized for festivals,” Boughner said. “Our volunteers can’t always go to festivals every other weekend, so I’m trying to build a bigger team, and that’s something I’m really working hard on.”
More information about Manifest Green can be found at https://www.facebook.com/manifestgreenteam.
Staying Green and Clean, Part 2 - Lake Five
After speaking with Boughner, I was able to catch up with Kyle Carpenter, the Co-Founder and Vice President of Lake Five.
While Manifest Green is responsible for the volunteer staff cleanup, Lake Five provides the necessary infrastructure and logistics, including trash bins and recycling containers.
Also a newer organization, Lake Five began its activities in 2020, but became a registered nonprofit this year.
“Our first goal is consumer-directed,” Carpenter said. “We hold a variety of events ranging from things like what we did at Big Fam, to cleanups at local parks, trailways and waterways, as well as providing free educational resources to consumers. Obviously someone cannot make a change in their daily life habits without being educated first, so we like to provide free educational resources.”
Lake Five also works to help businesses become more eco-friendly through consulting services.
“That means businesses who want to be more sustainable, have a smaller carbon footprint, we want to work with them in any way possible to help them meet that goal,” Carpenter said.
Long term, the organization hopes to make meaningful eco-friendly changes on both local, state and federal legislative levels.
However, the Big Fam weekend was actually the first large-scale operation that Lake Five had joined, having previously only organized park cleanups and similar events.
Where Big Fam is concerned, efforts to figure out how many bins would be needed began last year, starting with a test run of about 30 staff members while on the grounds. The data developed from that test run was used to generate a model of how many bins would be needed for the actual event, and where the best placement would be.
“Big Fam had their own goals, they wanted to become a leader in being a green music festival,” Carpenter said. “They want to be known for everything being clean from the time you arrive to the time you leave. For a first year festival, it was really good to see that the directors for Big Fam were so adamant about that. They never even hesitated with us - we said, this is the price, this is what we want to do, this is what we think will work. They never second-guessed us. I go to a lot of festivals myself, so this was a great opportunity to combine my passion for the environment and my passion for festivals.”
That model was then shared with the staff of Manifest Green to determine the best practices for the weekend.
“Basically, we worked hand in hand with them in the weeks leading up to the festival,” Carpenter said. “We showed them where we thought the high traffic areas would be, and as the festival went on, they gave us feedback on where the bins could be moved to. It was basically a lot of coordination between us and Manifest Green, which was fantastic.”
Waste and recycling bins were provided by GFL Environmental and secured by Lake Five.
Despite some confusion with signage on the bins (both types had a similar black and green color scheme), and potentially hazardous situations with broken canopies from the storm, Carpenter also said the attendees appeared to be largely mindful about their waste.
“I think part of the reason for this is that the grounds were pretty much in a bottleneck,” Carpenter said. “You had to walk through the vendors to get to the main stage, so there weren't a lot of places where people could wander off where trash would be missed. Since everyone was going through this main path, it was kind of easy to keep people in this bottleneck, and that’s where we had most of the trash and recycling bins.”
In the future, Lake Five aims to have improved signage to better differentiate trash and recycling bins, as well as the possibility of providing attendees with a sustainable welcome package.
That package would include things such as trash bags, wooden utensils and eco-friendly stickers, Carpenter said.
The team has already been asked to return to the next Big Fam, but for right now, its members are still enjoying a successful first festival appearance.
“We never expected an event this large to be our first major outing,” Carpenter said. “All of our local events have been ten to 12 people max, so going from that to an event that has roughly 1,500 people, and the fact that it went off so smoothly with an amazing team, was just surreal. I cannot say enough about how great our staff were. Having this opportunity to have our first real large-scale event was amazing.”
To learn more about Lake Five, visit https://www.facebook.com/LakeFiveMi/.
KatFish EyeKandy Wonderland -
As previously stated, the centerpiece of Big Fam was the KatFish EyeKandy Wonderland, an interactive Alice in Wonderland themed art area with an extra music stage. The Wonderland itself was accessible by walking down a hill into an area known as the “Bayou.”
Several different interactive exhibits were on display, such as a projection wall, a telescope, a boathouse, a sugar shack, a misting light up fountain with seats around, and even a full-on library in a separate clearing.
Some structures, such as the boathouse, could be entered. There were various pieces of art on display inside.
By night, all of the installed art pieces took on a different dimension, as the placement of lights and projectors caused them to appear animated in ways that were not apparent during the day.
Small decorations that were scattered about, such as frogs and keys, even inspired some attendees into believing there would be some sort of mystery prize for locating all of them. Some also believed that there was something that could be unlocked with the keys.
There were actually no such incentives, but so many people repeated this idea that it eventually became common belief. Some workers of the festival decided to play along with it, adding more credence to that theory.
The Bayou Stage area, its musical lineup, and all pieces of art and structures installed in the Wonderland (minus a select few) were all curated by Dave and Kat Fisher, who also serve on the Big Fam Board of Directors.
“Many of the art pieces are designed specifically with subtle optical illusions that you might not notice right away if the art were viewed in a traditional gallery setting,” Kat Fisher told me in an interview after the festival. “These paintings are also made with a combination of UV reactive and non-reactive paint to create another layer of movement. These pieces are then placed with sound reactive color changing lights and paired with projections. The intention is that the viewer can sit for a moment and watch the art move and change with light and sound. Art at the festival was paired with seating arrangements to encourage people to sit for a while and to become completely immersed in the experience.”
Upon entering the site, viewers could see and interact with various installments just by walking around. Mirrors, floating cubes and keyholes dotted the landscape, along with multiple spots to have a seat and take it all in.
Dave and Kat said that part of the idea is to find a comfortable spot and actually experience that art, rather than observing one piece in a gallery for a few moments before moving on to the next one.
“We wanted it to spark a memory, or something that seems oddly familiar to you, but just a little different,” Fisher said. “We tried really hard to give you the feeling of being at our home, we wanted people to feel comfortable.”
This display area, touted as a “dreamscape” by the Fishers, marked their first large-scale production. However, the project was a culmination 20 years in the making.
“KatFish EyeKandy is what really started off as my artistic endeavor,” Kat said. “When I married Dave, I started signing all my art pieces Kat Fish, and then EyeKandy just became everything I made. Then as EyeKandy progressed, Dave started buying RBG [Red Blue Green] lights and we started messing with them to see how it changed the artwork. I pulled Dave in to be part of it with me, and since then, it’s become something we’ve done together. It was Dave’s idea to put projections on the art, and then that became the focus. We developed art pieces specifically designed to have projections on them.”
In the last four years, they have displayed their works and created viewing rooms at other events.
“We started exhibiting at Sacred Vibrations 2017, that was one of the first shows I had done,” Fisher said. “I did that show as a vendor, but part of what we were doing was that we had the entire tent made up with the color-changing lights, so that people could come in and have the same experience in the vendor space as it is in our home studio. People could really see how the art changed with the lighting.”
Other outings included the now-defunct Centennial Nights series, an arts and music event that took place in Mount Pleasant, MI, as well as the off-season Electric Forest gathering in 2020.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple, like all other staff members, needed to get creative in figuring out how to keep promoting and improving Big Fam. Starting in 2020, several live streamed events featuring the artists on the lineup were held via Twitch, and Dave and Kat both provided visuals for those performances.
Like many others, Kat found herself without a job due to the pandemic, so she used that time to fully prepare for the big weekend in advance.
“Any time you have a day job and you’re trying to pursue something on the side, you can only put half of your time in it,” Fisher said. “But when COVID happened, I was suddenly laid off from work, and I was able to pour everything into painting every single day. I was trying to take full advantage of that, making Big Fam the best it could be. I worked for over a year - every single piece I made was meant for display at Big Fam, or to be part of the scene at Big Fam.”
As previously stated, the EyeKandy Wonderland went beyond a display gallery or a room - it was an entire area of the festival unto itself.
But before the Wonderland could be built, the area it was installed in needed a complete makeover. Again, I was given the ground tour back in July, and it was difficult to imagine what the end result would be.
A list of tasks had been read to me, much of which involved pulling weeds, razing the landscape and planting new grass.
“Once we decided that was going to be the space, that’s when we first started referring to it as the Bayou,” Fisher said. “We wanted it to feel organic and cohesive in consideration of the rest of the property. We spent weeks on this project, we were going up there every weekend. We pulled out a lifetime's worth of ferns to make it safe to walk in barefoot. By the end, we had lush grass everywhere. We had volunteers that helped pull weeds, we had people with four wheelers and different equipment getting the space smoothed out.”
Indeed, by the time I arrived at the Bayou, it was completely transformed and unrecognizable. Clearly some serious work had been taking place behind the scenes.
Alice in Wonderland has always been a favored motif for Fisher, as well as a favored story. The idea to create a themed art area was combined with the bayou aesthetic.
“If Alice in Wonderland had another chapter to the story, where would that adventure be? So we thought, ‘Alice travels to the Bayou.’ We wanted to find a way to mesh those two stories together,” Fisher said.
“Everything had a central theme throughout, it all went together. You would see a common theme in every area. One of the first pieces I made when I decided it would be Alice in Wonderland themed was this giant 4x4 clock piece, which looks weathered and like it’s been outside for years, and the frame is covered in moss.”
The biggest highlight in my eyes, and in those of many attendees, were the tea parties hosted by actors portraying Alice and the Mad Hatter.
Both welcomed guests to a long decorated table with cushions laid about. At that time, I was dealing with some upset stomach issues, but the Mad Hatter passed me a steaming mug of lemon ginger, which calmed my system almost immediately.
Little moments like that are always among my favorites in a festival setting - the ones where you find or receive exactly what you need at that time.
Alice herself even recited the entire Jabberwocky poem flawlessly, which was a nice touch.
Some flow artists performing in that area even took the initiative to dress as characters from the story without even being asked.
Those who hung around long enough would occasionally see special appearances from artists on the lineup - Reggae Dub producer Zen Selekta showed up for the tea party one night, while artists like Benji Robot would appear for secret sets on the Bayou stage.
Even big-name headliners like Dixon’s Violin would come down to check out the Bayou periodically, according to the Fishers.
But none of this would be possible without the help of the production team, they said.
“We were fortunate enough to have a group of friends to get behind our idea, and they wanted to do everything they could to see it succeed,” Kat Fisher said. “We owe a lot to our friends and the volunteers that helped us.”
In talking about long-term goals, the Fishers told me that they would like to do for other festivals what they’re doing for Big Fam now, with an eventual intention of doing it for something like Electric Forest.
But for right now, the Fishers are relishing the fact that they were able to manifest the first iteration of their life's work, and are looking forward to doing it at Big Fam again. Big plans are in the works, but the only way to find out how this project will evolve is to wait and see.
“What I really hoped we showed people is that you can follow your dreams at any age,” Kat said. “There’s no expiration date on your dreams. Just because you didn’t do something by the time you hit 30, doesn’t mean that you can’t still pursue those things that you’re passionate about. Don’t ever quit pursuing those things. We put everything on hold when our daughter was born, and after she graduated, that’s when we decided to start doing other things we wanted to do. I hope a lot of people that know our story know that when they were at Big Fam, they were witnessing our dreams coming true, to share that moment with Dave and I.”
To learn more about KatFish EyeKandy, click here.
After spending the day getting a feel for things, most of the crew wanted to go see Benji Robot at the main stage, a downtempo producer based out of Ann Arbor.
Although I remember his set being good, the group that was on before him, WokeZan, actually sticks out more in my memory.
WokeZan is an electronic duo consisting of Connor Wilson and Dirk Phelps, who both played shredding guitar licks set to their own beats.
The use of live instruments in electronic music is always one of my favorite things to see. I had never heard of them before, but what I saw of their show was enjoyable.
I headed back to camp sometime during Benji Robot’s set, at which point a light sprinkling and drizzling swept across the campground.
But it didn’t last very long - the cloud cover broke up over the area, and a double rainbow was clearly visible across the sky.
Afterwards, I didn’t have anyone I planned to see until the Ann Arbor-based jam band Chirp took the Canopy Stage.
I know I’ve seen Chirp play before, but after thinking it over, I can’t remember when or where. But regardless, watching Chirp was my personal highlight of Friday night, and one of my favorite sets of the weekend.
After the festival was over, I was able to interview Jay Frydenlund, who plays guitar, writes songs and sings with Chirp, in addition to handling managing and booking duties.
Interview with Jay Frydenlund of Chirp
“Chirp has been a band since 2015 and we formed in Ann Arbor, Michigan,” Frydenlund told me via Email. “We originated as a group of friends playing music together who shared a lot of taste, though I am actually the last original member. All of the past members, however, have been integral to the development of the band’s style and sound, and we wouldn’t be where we are without their contributions.”
Citing influences such as Yes, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan and the Beatles, Chirp may be a jam band, but their actual sound is a little hard to describe. Their Big Fam set encompassed elements of jam, folk and funk genres.
“It’s hard to sum up, as we like to bounce around genres quite a bit, and tend not to say no to ideas or covers regardless of what genre they may fall,” Frydenlund said.
Indeed, their energetic set included a cover of “Ramble On'' by Led Zeppelin.
After a certain point, Frydenlund and guitarist Sam Naples both entered into a dueling guitar match, both feeding off of each other into a climactic crescendo. Both did so with large smiles, reflecting a genuinely fun atmosphere.
“We felt very well received by the crowd for our set Friday night, and I think, I hope that came out in the way we played,” Frydenlund said. “Big Fam was rad and seemed to be a total success from our POV. Things ran smoothly from arriving to playing Friday night through Sunday night when we left. We were blown away by how well curated the festival was musically and artistically, and there was never a dull moment. I can’t wait for next year!”
Sometime after Chirp played, the skies finally opened up and unleashed a downpour, which might not have been an issue normally, except there was now lightning involved.
Because of this, all festivities had to be put on hold, and all campers had to retreat to their sites.
Unfortunately, this meant that I had to miss Biomassive, an electronic rock group from Traverse City that I’d last seen perform at Sacred Vibrations 2018. Luckily, this was the only set I had planned to see that I missed, and it was due to circumstances out of my control.
The experimental bass producer Yheti was due to perform Friday as well, but was cut roughly ten minutes into his set, or so I was told by those who were watching him.
Witnesses also informed me that he played later that night, but I was long asleep by then.
Remember how I mentioned the cinder blocks for weighing down our canopy? Well, that ended up being the best $6 investment I’ve ever made, as it most certainly would have blown away otherwise.
At times, it definitely looked like it was trying to.
Although the weather would continue to be sporadic through the weekend, there were no further shutdowns after Friday night, besides a delayed reopening for the Bayou on Saturday.
Saturday was much kinder to the audience in terms of weather, although it was a lot hotter and much more humid. I would often find myself praying for a light sprinkling or more cloud cover.
A little rain never hurts anybody, but after it leaves, it tends to create an even harsher environment, where the air is thick and feels like you’re swimming with no water.
But hey, I suppose it’s better than having constant torrential downpours. Luckily, even with the overnight weather considered, there were no outstanding puddles, stuck cars, or any of the other hazards heavy rain can bring.
My first set of the day occurred in the early afternoon at the Canopy Stage, which turned out to be Marketing and Communications Director for Big Fam Andrew Martin, performing as “A Tropical Martian.”
I previously spoke with Martin in my Big Fam preview article, which provided insight into what to expect. Later on after the weekend, I would have a chance to follow up with him on how he felt the inaugural Big Fam went down. But at this time, Martin was entertaining the crowd with his blend of self-described Funky Tropical Bass House.
True to his name, tropical beats infused with trap and funk pumped out of the speakers, accentuated with bright visuals of palm trees, cool shades and neon pink lights.
And Martin himself looked like he was having a blast.
“That was my time to release all the positive feelings that I had during the weekend,” Martin said of his set. “A lot of the time was spent doing serious business and making sure things were taken care of. That was my one time to let loose, so to speak, and really get to express the love that everyone showed us the whole weekend. It was definitely an unforgettable moment for me. I just hope we can keep putting this passion and energy into this project for years to come.”
One of my favorite moments from his set was when he played a remix of George Clinton’s “Not Just Knee Deep,” which has sentimental value to me for its use in the movie Good Burger.
With a bright afternoon sun high in the sky and a Lake Michigan breeze casually blowing through, it seemed rather appropriate to have a tropical-themed set at that time.
I didn’t watch too many other sets that afternoon, so I used the extra time to peruse the vendor booths. I got samples of CBD massage candles, a back and neck massage with said candles, and browsed the art galleries.
Somewhere along the way was a posted food truck, Cap'n Cone, serving Superman ice cream topped with Hot Cheetos(!). I didn’t try any, but everyone I talked to said it was great.
I took their word for it.
I wasn’t planning on watching the San Francisco-based producer Ravenscoon, someone who I hadn’t heard of before now, but all my friends were talking about how excited they were to see him.
I decided to check the show out myself to see what the big deal was, and I can definitely see the hype now.
This set was great, but the best part was going WAY down into the middle of the crowd, where a large amount of friends from Kalamazoo had gathered. Down here, we were able to get a real feel for how crisp and powerful the main stage sound system was.
Again, it felt like this could have been any other mainstream festival with the production values.
Looking behind you and up the hill, you could almost swear you were at the Ranch Arena stage at Electric Forest.
But this wasn’t Electric Forest, this was BIG FAM. And Big Fam had some Big production values.
And there truly is no better feeling than finding the people you love deep inside a large crowd to watch high-fire bass music with. I’d forgotten what that even FELT like - I’d been away far, far too long.
Later, the majority of the crew and I met back up to see a performance by The Widdler, an Austin, TX-based producer who I’ve seen a few times before.
I enjoyed the show, I know that much, but trying to describe what this guy’s music sounds like is difficult. It’s bizarre and addictive - sometimes described as deep reggae dub, other times as weird experimental dubstep.
A friend of mine even remarked that he’s called the Widdler because “that’s what he does to your brain - he widdles it.”
I suppose that’s one way to describe it, but attempting to explain what it was like would simply be an injustice at this point. Anyone who was at that set knows, as well as anyone who has seen him before.
Following that performance, the stormy weather started rolling back in, and I was spent for the night.
We headed back to home base, lowered the canopy poles, hunkered down, and grilled marinated burgers and steaks into the early hours, thunder rumbling in the distance all the while.
Highlight of the evening, you’d better believe it!
Sunday Highlights -
Before I even arrived at the festival, I already knew Sunday would be the busiest day on my end. Many of the artists that I wanted to see would be within quick succession of each other, sometimes overlapping.
That’ll usually happen at least once during a festival weekend, but I can’t remember another time where so many were so close to each other for me.
Knowing this, I would have to make some tough calls later on in the day.
But first, some of us decided to strike out for Lake Michigan around 9 a.m. that morning. We ended up going out to Platte River Beach on a whim, but were surprised to find it was one of the most unique beaches any of us had ever been to.
The Platte River actually bottoms out into Lake Michigan here - both are separated by a stretch of land in the middle, meaning you have to wade through the Platte River to get to the Lake Michigan beach. It’s easy to see why this spot is supposed to be popular with tubers and kayakers in the summer.
There was also educational signage posted about native and endangered species, such as the Piping Plover, a rare bird (which I’ve seen once) that nests along Lake Michigan. Although we didn’t see any, we were still careful to keep an eye out.
It was a brief interlude in the big weekend, and a very refreshing one at that - another state treasure right in our own backyard.
Once we got back, much of the day was spent lounging about with friends and neighbors, enjoying each other’s company and staying out of the sun. But once the ball got rolling later that afternoon, it did not let up until late.
The first group on the list was Kalamazoo’s own FENDZ, consisting of Patrick “Large Mouth Bass” McKenzie and Travis Wagner. I’d seen McKenzie perform on his own plenty of times, but never with Wagner as FENDZ.
Their set was something else - combining metal, dubstep, live rap from Chicago-based Yung Tact, and spooky haunted house vibes, plus the entire Kalamazoo squad assembled up front, this ended up being one of my favorite sets of the weekend.
One reason for that is because it’s been so long since I’ve been able to enjoy music from (and with) the Kalamazoo locals in person that it really felt like being back home for a bit.
I’ve already interviewed McKenzie plenty of times, both for the Big Fam preview and for other festivals, so I decided to interview Travis Wagner for the review.
Interview with Travis Wagner from FENDZ
“It was definitely one of the most fun sets I’ve played, and I think Pat would agree,” Wagner said in an interview after the festival. “It was Sunday and it was still daylight, and you just never know how many people are gonna be at that kind of timeslot. After a three-day weekend, it’s not unexpected if people can’t make it. But everybody showed up from Kalamazoo, we had a lot of people come from the east side and Detroit too. It was definitely a bigger turnout than I expected, and it was a lot of fun.”
In terms of the “spooky vibes,” there were a lot of ghostly-sounding synths, and the duo even opened up with a remix of “Dopesmoker” by the infamous metal band Sleep.
“Every year, we do a song or two for Halloween, and those always end up being some of our favorite ones, and then they aren’t Halloween songs anymore,” Wagner said. “But we definitely like having some of that spooky stuff going on.”
When I last interviewed McKenzie, he had stated that FENDZ incorporates the sounds and styles of the 2012 era of Dubstep and related genres. Since I wasn’t listening to Dubstep at that time, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, but after hearing the set, I think I understand now - a lot of wobbles that are high up on the oscillators.
Wagner says they incorporate all of that, and more.
“I wouldn’t say it’s old school, but it’s reminiscent of some of those old style wobbles,” Wagner said. “Everything we do has a melody, some sort of melodic element to it. We’re just not big fans of just hard for the sake of being hard, or aggressive. There’s a time and place for it.”
But FENDZ goes beyond meshing electronic styles, as they’ve been known to take steps into other genres, as well. This is evidenced by the Chemicals EP released this year, which encompasses an alternative rock style.
“We were playing an electronic set, but we don’t make all-electronic music,” Wagner said. “We use a lot of live instruments, and I play with a drummer and a bass player as well to put more rock stuff out. Just blending the genres. I personally like when it’s not just one genre dominating a festival. It would be cool next year to see more of that, like Sunsquabi.”
Wagner says future plans for FENDZ include more of that genre merging, as well as the potential for more live instruments at performances.
“I think the live set is going to be much more fun, because I’ll have a trombone and a guitar on stage and I’ll be singing,” Wagner said. “We’ll still have Ronnie [Yung Tact] come rap for us. All those things make the show way more exciting for me.”
Prioritizing Saturday Sets
As previously stated, there was a lot of overlap happening on Sunday night, so I had to pick and choose where I wanted to be, and when.
I then went back to the Canopy Stage to catch Zen Selekta, where most of my friends had all gathered. Zen Selekta was one of my favorite sets at Sacred Vibrations 2018, and I haven’t seen her perform since then.
We all enjoyed her deep and heavy reggae dub sounds, which have only become more refined in the last three years.
Afterwards, I made the tough decision to divide my time between Viskus at the canopy stage and Sunsquabi, one of the main stage headliners for the weekend.
If FENDZ brought the back-home Kalamazoo feeling to their live set, the performance by Viskus was the proverbial homecoming show.
Nick Krauskoff was originally performing under the name Psyntimental as a solo artist, staking a claim in the Kalamazoo area for a number of years. The project later became a duo with his friend Trent Nedbal, and ended up being one of the winners of the annual Untz contest in 2018.
By winning that contest, the duo were able to play at several big-name festivals that year.
Following that circuit stint, he moved from Michigan to the Texas area in 2019 and rebranded himself as a solo artist under the name Viskus.
I hadn’t had a chance to see him play since Electric Forest 2018 at the Silent Disco stage, so I was looking forward to seeing how he had developed in that time.
Naturally, I had to interview him about Big Fam once it was over.
Interview with Nick Krauskoff, aka Viskus
We communicated via email after the big weekend, and the first thing I wanted to know about was his biggest achievements since making the switch from Psyntimental to Viskus.
“I would say my biggest achievement has been my own personal growth,” Krauskoff said. “The person I am today is not particularly proud of the person I used to be, and the fact I was able to see that within myself and make an effort to be better than that person is something I can take with me everywhere.
My label releases, tours and festival bookings are all fantastic achievements for me as well, and I am eternally grateful for all those opportunities. But at the end of the day, those things are very quick and short lived, whereas the person I have become continues to aspire to positively impact the people I come in contact with on a daily basis for the rest of my life.”
When it comes to Big Fam, Krauskoff said one of the highlights was playing for people he hadn’t seen in quite some time.
“Playing for all my Michigan family is truly special, it’s unlike playing for any other crowd,” Krauskoff said. “I just feel this deeper connection at home than I do anywhere else. Every time I go to select a song, faces pop in my head of who each track reminds me of, and I'll start bringing the track in and just look up at their faces, eagerly ready to give them what I know they like. It's way more personal and allows me to just get into the set more, as well.”
With the Kalamazoo family up front once again, I thoroughly enjoyed getting down to the strange sounds Krauskoff provided, especially for the low-tempo glitch stomper “Dirty South” - which also happens to be a collaboration with Ravenscoon.
In the weeks following Big Fam, Krauskoff has been hard at work with new releases, including the new “Courage to Fly” EP, as well as a slew of remixes for his single “Gelatinous” (including one by FENDZ themselves).
When speaking of Big Fam itself, Krauskoff said he enjoyed his experience.
“The way they set up all the vendors in relation to the stages was very well designed and helped make navigating the place super easy and enjoyable,” Krauskoff said. “The people, the vibes, were absolutely unmatched. Nothing beats the Michigan family vibes up in Northern Michigan. The production and sounds were also top notch, as well.”
Also, there wasn’t a single other artist on the lineup who had an inflatable wavy arm guy on stage with them.
That guy looked like he was having fun, too.
Wrapping up Sunday with Sunsquabi and Dixon’s Violin
I was worried that I might miss Sunsquabi, an electronic jam/funk group from Denver, since I hadn’t had the chance to catch them before and they partially overlapped with Viskus.
But luckily it turned out they were playing longer than I thought, and I was still able to catch a good amount of the show.
It was certainly one of the bands I was looking forward to seeing the most that weekend, and judging by the very large size of the crowd, I wasn’t the only one.
At this point in the evening, it was getting late and I was exhausted. There was nothing left to do but lay back and let the sounds wash over me.
I even got to hear them perform “Just a Little,” my favorite song by them.
What more can you say? It was a great show! This was one of those times where I lost myself within the music, mentally begging for it to never end. But when it finally did, Sunsquabi was met with ear-shattering cheers.
Another band off the list, and another stand-out performance during a stacked weekend.
But most importantly, Dixon’s Violin, the final performer of the weekend, was who I had been looking forward to seeing above all others. Anyone who has seen the electric violinist play can understand why.
During my behind-the-scenes tour in July, I was informed that he would be the closer. Following the high-energy set of Sunsquabi, I think I understand why - Dixon served as the “cooldown” for the night, and the nightcap for the weekend.
It’s been since the last Electric Forest in 2019, which was also one of the best sets I saw that weekend.
It isn’t just the ethereal sounds Dixon provides, it’s also the wholesome messages that he delivers in between songs. He has an uncanny ability to say so much with so little, as well as an astonishing ability to say exactly what you need to hear at a given moment.
Much of it had to do with how good it was to engage in activities like live music after such a long time, and why we should never take these activities for granted again.
Moreover, after a weekend full of jam and electronic-type music, it was refreshing to hear something completely different being played, even if it was the last performance I’d see.
It ended up being my favorite set of the weekend, because at that moment, it was truly what I needed the most. Just like with Sunsquabi, I sat on the hill and let the music carry me away.
At the time of this reporting, Dixon’s Violin is on a small tour. If he’s coming to your area, I would highly recommend seeing him if you’re able to. I promise, you won’t regret it.
The Next Morning -
At this point in my festival career, the process of setting up and tearing down is as efficient as ever. After that, there was nothing more to do but clean up, say goodbye to everyone and take a few last-minute photos.
We parted ways and left Lake Ann, elated and satisfied with our experience at a stellar first-year festival.
However, there was one last order of business - I needed to follow up with Andrew Martin about how it all went down from his angle.
Following up with Andrew Martin, Marketing and Communications Director for Big Fam -
Sometime after the big weekend, after everyone had taken some time to rest and recuperate, I was able to speak with Andrew Martin. Aside from talking about the weekend in general, he also provided some insight into what it took to make it run.
When we last spoke, he had said that Big Fam would be an experience that even he himself couldn’t fathom, yet.
At the start of the follow-up interview, I recounted my experiences to Martin, including everything that you’ve just read to this point, and why I thought the team did a great job, especially for a first-year festival.
According to Martin, that’s been the general consensus of the feedback he’s heard since then.
“Obviously we can’t control some things, like the bees, but it’s just about making sure we have those logistics down to a T when it comes to those future years,” Martin said. “People really appreciate those things, all the small details like medical and security. We wanted to make sure all our bases were covered to the point where people couldn’t find those minute details.”
[Side note - that’s one thing I forgot to mention. There were a LOT of bees.]
In terms of turnout, Martin said the amount of tickets sold exceeded expectations. While the team had been expecting to sell about 500 tickets, the actual amount was closer to 1,000, give or take.
“That’s an incredible turnout for a community that’s never experienced this event before, for a first-year festival,” Martin said. “It takes a long time to build a brand and community, and it’s good to know that the people we’ve surrounded ourselves with have kept that scene working. It spread a lot through word of mouth, even with other festivals going on around the same time.”
I can attest to the fact that their efforts in promoting the festival to a wide audience were successful.
Sometime on Saturday, I met a man from Georgia. He told me that a friend of his from Saginaw had invited him to Big Fam, which they decided to attend ahead of a different event out of state.
“A friend of mine came from California, there was a decent amount of people that came from Colorado and Florida,” Martin said. “It was amazing that people came from so far away to see what we’ve created. When we first put tickets on sale, it was crazy to see almost nobody we knew on the ticket list. Yes, we knew people were coming that we were friends with. But it was this overwhelming joy seeing people, who we have no idea who they are, coming to support us. We didn’t expect this for a first-year festival.”
Being part of the team of an event like this takes a lot of work, both before and during. Martin was kept busy most of the time, aside from performing his own set.
“I didn’t even get to go into the Bayou until Saturday, so that’ll give you a little perspective from how much work we were doing every day, including Friday,” Martin said. “We were all so busy in our roles. Some of us, including myself, have never been in this leadership role for a festival.”
That said, Martin was still able to find time to enjoy himself, naming a few personal highlights.
“There were a lot of sets I wanted to see that I didn’t get to catch, but as far as locals go, the eRoy live band, I got to step in and see that,” Martin said. “All of those individuals are incredible people. I actually pulled up on it and forgot it was happening, and at that point, I actually got to step away and enjoy myself for about thirty minutes or so. What those people put together for their individual sets, let alone a combined band. They blow me away every time, and I loved working with them.”
Despite the fact that Martin was kept busy with his own responsibilities, he still feels that the event was a success.
“The energy was incredible, I can’t even begin to describe it,” Martin said. “I like to go to festivals myself, but it was crazy seeing a festival and helping to run it from a behind-the-scenes standpoint. I still felt that same energy that I would being an attendee and having free will - I loved it even more, being able to be behind the scenes and putting my love and energy into a festival, rather than going to an event that someone else has created. We got to help set the tone.”
I mentioned how I felt the festival lived up to its name, explaining how I kept running into people I knew from various points in my life.
“It’s crazy how we can all be apart for years, and everyone gets back together and it’s almost like nothing has changed, to a degree,” Martin said. “I saw people I was decent friends with in college, and they were mind-blown and happy to be there and see everyone. It’s that wholesome energy you have when you get all these people together in one spot.
That’s the beauty of the community we’ve created - it has branched from other events like Forest, and other festivals we’ve been a part of. It’s crazy to see how fast that can grow.”
Finally, I asked if he could share any plans for the next Big Fam installment. As usual, Martin didn’t want to give too much away, but said the team is ready to begin planning the 2022 edition.
“We’ll let everyone imagine what we’ll do in the years ahead,” Martin said. “We have a lot of work in front of us, and we’re all ready to dive back into it and get things rolling for next year. I can't wait to see what this is going to build into and what we can do.”
Truth be told, I was fully prepared for Big Fam to be canceled again, since most other things had been this year.
Even though I had been to a few shows in 2021, the fact that I was able to do any was a small miracle in itself.
Especially with the recent cancelation of Wheatland before this event, I wasn’t getting my hopes up.
In the months leading up to Big Fam, I realized that I had completely forgotten how to get excited for an event like this. I hadn’t been to one since September 2019, and I had completely forgotten what it’s even like to BE at a festival.
In fact, sometime before Big Fam, I realized I hadn’t legitimately smiled about much in the last few months, either.
Let’s face it - no matter how you slice it, it’s a scary world out there right now, and the deprivation of my favorite types of events wasn’t helping my mood any.
Sure, there were a few shows here and there, and there were also some camping trips with friends, which is great, but not the same.
I didn’t realize just how badly I needed this weekend until I got there, and after great personal reflection when it was over with.
Might be a no-brainer, but moments like these are what I’ve been needing the most. This is what’s been missing from my life since 2020, and it took me until Big Fam to remember why.
Not only did I get to celebrate a weekend away with old friends, I also got to meet new ones in person for the first time and make new ones altogether.
And just the fact that we were all ABLE to spend a weekend together after being deprived of each other’s company for so long should not be taken for granted, now or ever.
In that sense, Big Fam truly lives up to its name - It’s as much about celebrating old friendships as it is the beginning of new ones.
And what better place could those celebrations take place than a setting like this? What more could you possibly ask for? A beautiful site in nature, clean facilities and grounds, friendly people both new and old, and a well-rounded lineup with minimal weather interruptions?
Frankly on my end, I don’t think the Big Fam production team could have done any better if they tried.
For being a first-year festival, you could have fooled me. Furthermore, I truly believe this was the best weekend I’ve had in nearly two years.
With all this in mind, it’s difficult to imagine how it could possibly get any better after the first installment. The standard has certainly been set very high, but if my talks with the staff are any indication, the future of Big Fam is in good hands. I’m reminded of one lesson I learned in 2018 at Electric Forest - just when you think things can’t get any BETTER, they can!
I am more than confident that the festival will continue to grow and improve exponentially, and as a nine-year camping festival veteran, I can safely say that this one comes highly recommended from me.
In the absence of what I would normally be doing, it was the perfect cap on a golden summer. I know I’m not alone in saying that I’ll be excited to find out what will become of Big Fam next year.
Until then, stay safe out there, and I’ll be looking forward to reuniting with everyone in Lake Ann.
Happy Big Fam, friends. Until next we meet.