Written by James Vensel
Photographed by August J. Heisler
A cool stiff October breeze had swept me back to the swampy south lands of northeast Florida and my heart swelled with a profusion of excitement and joy. Another year had passed and I was crazy stoked to finally return home to the beautiful Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park for Hulaween Festival October 24-27, 2019. The 800 + acre swampland plays host to a multitude of festivals and events throughout the year, perhaps even home to the greatest musical spookfest on the face of this planet.
Despite the circulating rumors of financial distress, and the news that Silver Wrapper (a Chicago based entertainment company) would be closing its doors forever, The Spirit of Suwannee remains undeterred and we are invited once more to the 7th annual Hulaween Music festival. You will find this esoteric Halloween extravaganza has a truly unique atmosphere. Maybe you’ve heard stories of the natural beauty and mystique–the Spanish moss hanging loosely off the ancient sprawling oak trees. It feels like I’ve landed on “Kashyyyk,” Chewbacca’s home planet. In fact, there is plenty of wild game on site for anyone who dabbles in wook hunting… Or haunting. Remember to catch and release!
It was Monday afternoon when I arrived at the gate. SOSMP is one of the few festival grounds that allow us to show up so early, something I highly recommend. This made it really easy to snag the campsite that we wanted. It’s my second year in this location, and I don’t think I’ll be changing it up any time soon. I settled in and just sort of spent the next couple of days relaxing, mostly . We got a few good rounds of disc golf in, then I made it a point to re-familiarize myself with the park’s massive layout. I notice a steady flow of Hulaweenies through the main gate. Campsites begin to merge together into what feels like one enormous eerie spooky circus. Halloween tends to bring out a more creative side in people. The evidence is there. You can see an absolute love for it everywhere you turn–people creeping out their campsites, adorned with ghosts, ghouls, and graveyards, or scattered with bones and covered in cobwebs . It’s no wonder why I love it here so much. I come from a generation that seems to have never stopped celebrating Halloween. I mean we’re all pretty much pros at it, right?
Hula has a vibe like no other. Here jam band culture collides with burn life and laid back transformational efforts. The Oasis Workshop provides us with various classes throughout the weekend including mindfulness breathing,Yoga, and juggling to name a few. As Hulaween moves onward, our community grows into a small city. At the center of it all lies Spirit Lake, an endless gauntlet of new discoveries and hidden gems. The land is a psychedelic playground that vibrates ancient mystical energies, with towering cathedrals of bent and refracted light. Prismatic beams of color deviously reveal wonderfully sinister works of art. Steel creatures breathe fire from their mouths. Yup, come sit on “Uncle Charley’s Red Hot Cock,” a rooster with a built in seesaw whose flames shoot higher the harder you ride it! Or gamble away your ground scores at the ever popular no-money “Frick Frack Black Jack Casino” complete with a kissing booth and a talent show for anyone brave and willing. There were church pews packed with people laughing at others as they randomly approached a podium, sharing stories, telling jokes, or even confessing their deepest darkest secrets. Crack the code to an interactive puzzle and unlock the doorway to a secret ball pit. The lake itself hosts an incredible sound and light show all weekend long. Lowly lit nooks of seating along the edge offer you a place to chill out or decompress after a set.
Now I’d like to share with you a bit of my own personal experience and try to give you some musical highlights along the way..
Thursday kicked it off with the Magic City Hippies. The indie-funk trio hails from Miami, FL, and casts an upbeat yet relaxing slew of poolside melodies, throwing back and forth some pretty funky riffs, and getting us sweaty and ready for the rest of this hot Hula week. Holly Woods was captivating hearts in Spirit Lake, mixing live violin with earth shattering bass, and clashing house beats with dubtrap and weaving in soft melodic lyrics. Eoto could be found whomping out the amphitheatre. I have never seen them in the light of day , but this was by far my favorite set. Jason Hann and Michael Travis (the powerhouse percussion duo behind Hulaween’s host band The String Cheese Incident) started this side project back in 2006. These two dish out an experimental blend of dubstep and breakbeats flowing between trance and reggaeton, while keeping an open structure to their music with completely raw and improvised sets. Their music explores an outer worldly electro jam funk dub flow of jamtronica.
Shout out to Electric Kif! My favorite new discovery of the weekend, it was a cosmic twist of soul and psych-rock that was literally MELTING over top of some rockin’ jazzy grooves. It was tough to pull away but I had to quickly get back to the patch if I was going to catch every bit of Umphrey’s Mcgee. To me they are the heaviest, hardest hitting jam band in existence. Fusions of jazz, electro, blues, progressive metal and funk produce an insanely hardcore jam sound with an enticing lazer light show I wont soon forget. Their music is true head banger’s delight. I just couldn’t help but feel like a complete badass as we raged away to that sweet magical metal mayhem. Greensky Bluegrass was at the amphitheater. The five piece string ensemble out of Kalamazoo MI breaks into a whirlwind of acoustic splendor. The crowd was whipped up into a stomping frenzy as they cranked out songs like ‘Windshield’ into ‘Living Over.” They picked at my heartstrings with a ‘Steam Powered Aero-plane.” Now this was how I was going to finish off the night. Bluegrass. Bourbon. Bedtime.
I woke up early and attended the breakfast buffet. It was only 10 dollars for all you can eat off the hotline, plus fresh fruit–coffee and OJ optional. It was a funked out Friday afternoon. The Motet and Lettuce spent the whole day crushing it at the Meadow. The Funk Hunters grooved in Spirit Lake and people partied pretty hard with Pigeons Playing Ping Pong at the Patch. Afterwards we made it back to the Meadow for something truly special, and in a world of its own. It was the host band of Hula, the grand facilitators of funk freaky fun time, and the main reason I come back year after year–The String Cheese Incident. I could probably describe them as a neo-psychedelic jam band with bluegrass centered at its core, but I think we must dive a wee bit further. Their music has a way of bringing together several different genres, starting with a psychedelic bluegrass that was laced with elements of reggae,jazz, and electronica. Throw that in a blender and serve it with some chunky samba salsa. Now it’s time for us to tango. When you find yourself at a String Cheese show, you find yourself inside a living, breathing, moving masterpiece of love–a nearly overwhelming eclectic collective of beautiful and wildly wonderful cheese heads stewing in a hot fondue of togetherness and entangled in a cheesy web of weird. S.C.I. fully encapsulates the raw essence of jam culture, so come really to get a little wild. You’re guaranteed to have a “gouda” time. Two sets later and I’m so pumped up. We left the Meadow and made a B-line towards the campground stage. The Heavy Pets were killing it as usual, showcasing an incredible high octane rush of electronic riffs and skillfully executed instrumental solos with wildly elegant basslines dancing with explosive drums kicks. They are definitely an undeniable force to be reckoned with. Phew. At this point I headed back to camp and called it a night.
After a cold shower and a cold hearty breakfast; now I’m ready for another intense day of music, art, and exploration. Psychedelic Saturday! Woohoo! For me it started at the meadow with Steel Pulse, a roots reggae group out of Birmingham England. This band be jammin’ for the longest, nearly 45 years. It was the first time they played at Hula. I’d absolutely love to see them back. I stuck around here for awhile and then caught the first set of Cheese.. Now if cheese is not your thing, that’s alright. There are still plenty of things to do here at the Hula. With 5 stages, a silent disco, and many workshops, you really have to choose your battles. Many of us deal with conflicting artists. Big Wild or Flying Lotus? Thundercat or Manic Focus? Marc Rebillet or Bassnectar? While some folks struggled to make a decision, for me it was plainly obvious. I grab a quick bite to eat with my boys at “The Grilled Cheese Incident” and head back to the Main stage for another round of String Cheese. And on it went… I have long since forgotten the outside world as time here at Hulaween appears to have stopped moving. Reality starts to waver. The second set comes to a close and we slip on down the way. At this point the festival is in full funking swing! And even though it must have been the hottest hula on record, many people are still rocking out in full costume swagger. People are bojangling up and down river road, shouting out in endless laughter and presenting their best selves to one another. We are in the thick of it all now, and it’s getting good and weird, just the way we like it. Manic Focus was at the amphitheater doing what he does best–wiggling his way into our ear canals with electric soulful vibes. I soak it in and match my way back to the meadow for the most fun I have had all week. The String Cheese Incident Theme Set!!! The creme de la creme of cirque du Hulaween. This year was “Smells Like Teen Spirit of the Suwannee,” an amazement of jaw dropping 90’s nostalgia. The boys came out dressed as the men in black , and almost immediately laid into it setting it ablaze with a light performance that could flag down a spaceship.
The set list is as follows:
Give it away – Red Hot Chili Peppers
Santeria – Sublime
Smells Like teen spirit- Nirvana
Loser – beck
One hand in my pocket – Alanis Morissette
The Wedge – Phish
Creep – Radiohead
Evenflow – Pearljam
Don’t go chasing waterfalls – TLC
No Diggity – Blackstreet
California Love – 2Pac
This is How We Do It – Montell Jordan
Can’t Touch This – MC Hammer
Groove is in the Heart – Deee-Light
Woah. Holy frickin smokes. We just got our 90’s handed to us on a jewel encrusted platter of melty cheesy goodness. The production was astronomically off the charts crazy! Every theme set somehow tops the last, and the bar is set higher each and every year. We headed back to camp for a decompression session with a bird bath and a change into some dry clothes while I tried to wrap my head around what just happened but I couldn’t. We walked down to Spirit Lake to see what fun we could get into before The Grass Is Dead started up. Never miss a Sunday morning set yall! This bluegrass band performs various arrangements and interpretations of Grateful Dead tunes. It was the last set on the Saturday roster. My fresh change of clothes now soaked again. I dwell for a while at the lake, but then set off to find some other campsites. Late night shenanigans until the sun came up and I somehow manage to bring myself some sleep.
Sunday morning starts a little earlier than the rest. I am on my way to the mainstage to see Billy Strings, one of my favorite guitar pickers of all time. Billy pushes the very bounds of bluegrass, a genre usually resistant to change. He is not afraid to take chances and fearlessly mesh an otherworldly creativity into a rich and rigid tradition. Every single song they hit were crowd pleasers. Plus we were treated to some amazing bluegrass covers. Songs like “All Time Low,” “China doll,” and a debut of “ My Florida sunshine.” This Bill Monroe cover was originally written about this very same sweet little piece of the world. And after a totally awesome “Turmoil and Tinfoil” I spent some time checking out the live painters. Heaps and heaps of talent and creativity every witch way I turn. Back one last time to the Meadow stage for String Cheese’s last throw down of the weekend. Normally two shows, but today they were squashed into a solid two hour set. The set was chill compared to the last two nights, and Billy Strings popped up for a couple songs too. All the while G love and Special Sauce were funking it up at the patch and Ripe was ripping it up at Spirit Lake. The Sunday set list came to an end with a double set of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and Tchami at the amphitheater.
Somehow four days have come and gone, but that doesn’t mean it’s all over. Renegade dance parties and drum circle jam sessions can be found in every corner of the park. The time is now to cram every last moment of fun into our memories, before it all somehow comes to an end.
This was my fourth year at Hula. It has without a doubt become one of the most important events in my life. It is a reunion of a family and forever friends, and I am so very blessed for the experiences I have had here. Hulaween is a complete 10/10. Would I recommend it in the future ? That’s a no brainer. I would absolutely put it on your calendar for next year because HULAWEEN 2020 is going down with or without you. But I’d rather see you there!
I want to give a quick shout out to our photographer and friend August J. Heisler. To my pals Byron,Winston, Damon, Nick and everyone else in or near the bluegrass rules pavilion, and literally everyone else who attended or worked this festival in any capacity. Already miss you so much. I cannot wait to see you down the road!