Suwannee Hulaween : Stringier Things
October 28-30, 2016, at Spirit of the Suwannee in Live Oak, FL
Written by Sean Heeter
Photos by Roger Gupta
The String Cheese Incident knows how to throw a party. For thirty years the band has brought their traveling carnival to cities across America where fans can let down their hair, dress up, and get down to the genre melding melodies of Cheese. However, for the past four years, their carnival has found a temporary home at The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida as Suwannee Hulaween over Halloween weekend. Together with Silver Wrapper, The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, and Purple Hat Productions, The String Cheese Incident has created an event that’s more than just a party. They’ve created a place to bring together the community of musicians, visual artists, and fans for an unforgettable weekend of fun deep in the Spanish moss draped trees of North Central Florida.
What started out in 2013 as a small event with approximately 7,000 people, Hulaween quickly blossomed into an end of the season festival that draws people from all over the country. The venue is “Nestled on the shady banks of the historic, tea-colored Suwannee River,” and has over 700 acres of wooded camping for tents and RV’s. This year Hulaween sold out with 20,000 in attendance, but the flat campground and spacious camping areas made navigating the park easy. There is plenty of space to set up camp, but everyone is close enough to meet their neighbors and to make connections that last long after the festival has concluded. As Hulaween has grown, the production has kept up with the demand, and for the first year there was the addition of a Thursday pre-party.
Previous years Hulaween was held on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but the addition of the Pre-party allowed patrons early entrance to the park and a full day of music. As people trickled into the park and set up camp, the music awaited them. Trae Pierce & The T-Stones and Future Vintage kicked off the weekend of music at 1 pm on the Spirit Lake Stage and the Campground stage respectively. Marco Benevento opened up the Wood Stage where fans gathered underneath the trees to watch Marco’s solo act of the weekend. Dressed in his trademark colorful black and white striped suit and top hat, Marco treated fans to his high energy “experimental jazz.” The multiple stage set up at Hulaween allowed there to be music to match a variety of tastes, and the ease of access to each stage insured that not a note was missed. After Marco in the Woods Stage was Con Brio. The septet from the Bay area of California blends funk and psychedelic-soul to take listeners through a multi-genre ride, leaving them breathless afterwards. The Ohio based band, Broccoli Samurai, played at the Campground Stage while Kyle Hollingsworth Band played on the Spirit Lake Stage. It was Broccoli Samurai’s first Hulaween and they were sure to make an impression. Dressed to the nines in their Halloween costumes, Broccoli Samurai played their asses off to a packed crowd, gearing everyone up for the rest of the night.
The Pre-party featured two SCI side projects, and along with the Kyle Hollingsworth Band, Eoto played a special set to open the festival. While billed as Eoto, the show at the Amphitheater Stage was Eoto and Friends featuring Jason Hann and Michael Travis of the String Cheese Incident, Jake Cinninger of Umphrey’s McGee, and Borahm Lee of Break Science. The addition of Jake on the guitar and Borahm on the keys gave the jamtronica duo more room to improvise and extra layers added to their sound. The Werks followed Eoto at the Spirit Lake Stage, and dressed in their costumes, turned the wooded stage area into a packed house. Coupled with the crowd and the light direction of Alex “Herm” Schneider, the stage felt like a club. This was one of the more anticipated shows of the evening, and as the sun went down, the Werks turned it up, and in Hulaween fashion, they played a “Hulaweener Jam” and “Frankenstein” during their hour long set. Umphrey’s McGee played two sets on Thursday night, and after the Werks, they took the stage at the Amphitheatre. They opened with “Bathing Digits” into “Rocker Part 2” and closed the set with “Wife Soup.” Fruition, the Portland, Oregon based Americana string band, played in between the Umphrey’s sets, giving listeners a refreshing change of pace. The Florida natives The Heavy Pets also played during this slot at the Amphitheatre Stage. Umphrey’s second set opened with “Cemetery Walk” and then “Bad Friday,” and closed with “Ocean Billy” into “Nothing Too Fancy.” They encored with “Slacker” into “Ocean Billy” to close out their first night at Hulaween. Greensky Bluegrass played next on the Spirit Lake Stage and gave fans their first taste of bluegrass for the weekend. They opened with “Windshield” and then played “The Four” and “Train Junkie.” Their set was comprised of originals, however, they closed with “Money for Nothing,” by Dire Straits and encored with a song off their new album, “Past My Prime.”
The Pre-party gave patrons an added experience with early entry to the park and an extra day of music, preparing them for the weekend ahead. While there were some phenomenal acts and “must-see” shows, fans who arrived Friday still had a full weekend of music on the horizon and plenty of special acts remaining on the bill. One of those special shows was Russo, Benevento & Burbridge. Joe Russo and Marco Benevento added bassist Oteil Burbridge (The Allman Brothers Band and Dead & Company) to create a unique and one of a kind improv set at the Meadow Stage. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe brought the funk to the Amphitheatre Stage before Greensky’s second set of the weekend in the Meadow. Kyle Hollingsworth joined the band for “Federico” and Roosevelt Collier sat in on his sap steel guitar for “Ain’t no Bread in the Breadbox.” Next up on the Meadow Stage was the beginning of the much anticipated five sets of Cheese throughout the weekend. They opened the weekend with “So Far From Home” and then played “Rhythm of the Road” into “Dudley’s Kitchen,” and closed the first set with “”Let’s Go Outside,” which was fitting for the madness that had ensued during their first set at Hulaween. Umphrey’s McGee and Gramatik played simultaneously during Cheese’s break, giving patrons a variety of music to choose from. Umphrey’s filled the Amphitheatre stage while Gramatik played at the Patch Stage, a new stage this year at Hulaween. Cheese opened their second set with “Hi Ho No Show,” then “It Is What It Is,” followed by a twenty-two minute “On the Road.” They closed their first night with a seventeen minute “Howard,” and encored with “Johnny Cash.” My Morning Jacket closed out the music at the Meadow Stage and was another highly anticipated show at Hulaween. The show was a mix of originals and covers, such as “Rocket Man” by Elton John, and “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd. My Morning Jacket brought uninhibited rock and roll to Hulaween and they closed their show with “One Big Holiday,” which was fitting for the weekend.
On Saturday morning Larry Keel and Drew Emmitt opened up the Meadow Stage, playing bluegrass in the sun to relax some and to wake others. The group, named “The Shit” before the show, consists of Larry Keel on guitar, Jenny Keel on the upright bass, and Leftover Salmon’s Drew Emmitt and Andy Thorn on the mandolin and banjo respectively. The “Brooklyn based afrobeat and jazz ensemble” Antibalas played next on the Meadow Stage, followed by Snarky Puppy at the Patch Stage. The addition of a fifth stage gave more bands the opportunity to play for the festival, while giving fans an array of musical acts to choose from. Manic Focus and Heather Gillis Band played at different stages during the same slot Snarky Puppy, all leading up to the pinnacle of the weekend, three sets of Cheese. The first set they opened with “Stop, Drop, Roll” and then played “Rhum ‘N Zouc” into “Restless Wind.” Very fitting for the weekend they played “Joyful Sound” into “Rumble” and closed the set with “Can’t Wait Another Day.” After Cheese’s first set, Lettuce brought the funk to the Amphitheatre stage. Nigel Hall joined the band on vocals. The crowed was arm to arm and overflowing into the road near the vendors. Rufus Du Sol and Common For the Cure also played on different stages during Cheese’s setbreak.
Cheese’s second set was the pinnacle of the weekend. The Hulaween theme was Stringier Things, a play on all things String Cheese and the hit Netflix show Stranger Things. The crowed filled the meadow back to vendor row, dressed in costumes and adorned with lights. The field was swimming with people anticipating what Cheese had in store for their 1980’s themed show. The band took the stage, and they were joined by Rhonda Thomas and Tony White on vocals, and the Antibalas horns: Martin Perna on baritone sax and flute, Jas Walton on tenor sax, Jordan McLean on trumpet, and Jeff Pierce on trumpet and trombone. The show was an 80’s mash up, with the band cramming a whole decade of music into an hour and a half set. They opened with “Would I Lie to You?” and then played “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” A few songs later they played “White Wedding,” “Sweet Child of Mine,” and “Love Shack.” Half way through their show, Cheese played a medley of segued songs. They played “Another One Bites The Dust” into “White Lines” into “The Safety Dance” into “Come On Eileen” into “Relax” into “Never Gonna Give You Up” with a “Thriller” tease. Then they closed out their 80’s set with “Don’t You Want Me” and “Burning Down The House.” During the show there were aerialists on stage, blowup Rubix cubes being tossed around the crowd, and a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. The production of the show was phenomenal and upon the final note commencing, fireworks were shot from behind the stage. At the Meadow Stage, there was a second row of speakers in the crowd by the soundboard. This ensured that no matter how far from the stage, each note was just as crisp and clear as the first row.
Bob Moses played at the Spirit Lake Stage during Cheese’s thirty minute set break, giving fans a chance to catch his set instead of waiting at the Meadow Stage. Bob Moses is a Canadian DJ duo who must a must see and rare opportunity for a lot of fans. The stage was packed and their lights were beaming through the crowd. Bob Moses continued to play thirty minutes into Cheese’s third set, giving fans a change of pace if they chose. String Cheese opened up their third set with a Colorado and Cheese fan favorite, “Colorado Bluebird Sky.” They played a twelve minute “Rivertrance” which had the crowd going wild. Then they played “Way Back Home” into “Miss Brown’s Tea House,” and closed the set with “Colliding.” They encored with “Sign, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” After the conclusion of The String Cheese Incident, Logic played in the Amphitheatre Stage and Sound Tribe Sector Nine (STS9) played at the Patch. The Patch was packed and the production of STS9 transformed the patch during their hour and a half set. They opened with “This, Us” into “When the Dust Settles.” They played “Give and Take” into “Grow” into “20-12.” They finished their set with “EHM.” The Revivalists played next at the Spirit Lake Stage, followed by Keel & Stickley’s Guitar Freakout, and lastly Grass is Dead Jam featuring Larry and Jenny Keel. The late night pickin’ and Dead tunes closed out the Spirit Lake Stage for Saturday night.
Sunday was the last day of music at Hulaween. Fans woke up early, or stayed up all night, and came out in full force to see the Travelin’ McCourys. The bluegrass band opened up the Meadow Stage pickin’ in the sun, getting some fans rowed up while others basked in the sun or hid from it in the shade. The Motet played next at the Amphitheatre Stage and once again brought funk to the forest. Thriftworks also played during this slot at the Patch Stage. String Cheese Incident’s first daytime set was relaxed. Billy remarked that “The shape of the crowd follows the shadow line exactly.” They opened with “Song In My Head.” They played “Get Tight” with Tyler Grant on electric guitar. Next they played “Down a River,” followed by “Born on the Wrong Planet.” They closed their show with “Bolly Monster,” giving an upbeat and whomp to wake the crowd a bit. Keeping in the Sunday bluegrass tradition, Cheese’s final set of the festival went back to the bands more traditional bluegrass roots. Joining the band on stage was the Travlin’ Mccourys. The fiddle, mandolin, and banjo gave Cheese an extra twang. They opened with “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” followed by “Shady Grove.” They played “Sometimes A River” and “You’ve Got the World,” before Dominic Lalli from Big Gigantic and Joey Porter from The Motet joined them on stage for “Freedom Jazz Dance” and “’Round the Wheel.” To close out the show, Jeremy Salken and Dominic Lalli from Big Gigantic accompanied Cheese for “Beautiful.” The range that Cheese had throughout the weekend kept each show fresh and interesting. The various genres, sit-ins, and covers made each set unique and memorable. The Claypool Lennon Delirium, a duo which has been highly anticipated throughout the summer, followed Cheese on the Amphitheatre stage and Big Gigantic featuring The Motet closed out Hulaween on the Meadow Stage.
In addition to the top notch musical acts, the visual art and art installations at Hulaween are unparalleled. Under the direction of Art Director Andrew Carroll, The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park was transformed into a remarkable work of art. Carroll said, “I’m extremely thrilled and honored to have been returning as the Art Director for the Spirit Lake 2016! It’s a very exciting project on a remarkable chunk of land. My intention is to bring the local art community together in a way that unifies us all creatively while blowing people’s minds.” The Spirit Lake has installations put in place on the water, while the Spirit Lake Stage and Campground Stage had art installations throughout the woods. From sitting benches that viewed the lake to colorful structures that highlighted the wooded areas, there was a visual aspect to Hulaween which matched the musical creativity which brought people to the festival.
The String Cheese Incident, Purple Hat Productions, and Silver Wrapper know how to throw a party, but more importantly they know how to unite the musical and art community to create a special, one of a kind event that continues to draw people from across the country. Brian has been to Hulaween since its inception in 2013. After his fourth year he said, “My favorite part of Hulaween is the creativity of everyone involved. From the professional art at Spirit Lake to the individual patrons crazy campsites and costumes.” For Brian Hulaween is more than just a party and the event is more than just the music, his experience is all encompassing of the essence of Hulaween. He goes on to say, “I knew the first year that I was going to keep coming back because there’s just a certain feel to Suwannee Hulaween that you don’t get anywhere else.” Brian’s experience isn’t unique and the magic that Suwannee Hulaween creates continues to touch every patron that steps foot onto the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park.