When entering any music festival, there is something special about going through those front gates for the first time. We leave our worries, our inhibitions and our tempered “real life” selves at the door. Upon entering the swampy woods at Spirit of Suwannee Music Park on Halloween weekend, there was an undeniable energy greeting you at the gate, coursing with an essence of adventure and exploration that has become the bedrock of Hulaween. It is this spirit that draws people from all walks of life to this enchanted forest in Live Oak, Florida, coming together to be themselves without restraint. And to listen to some killer live music, of course.
Hosted by The String Cheese Incident, Suwannee Hulaween 2015 featured an eclectic mix of world class musical acts that thrived off of the people’s energy and propelled it into unforeseen realms of artistic expression. It ended up being the biggest, most-extravagant event ever held at the historic festival site, even breaking the all-time attendance record according to guitarist Bill Nershi of SCI.
Things heated up in a hurry for the majority of the crowd that had already filed in to Suwannee on Thursday afternoon. EOTO was a fitting opener, comprised of drummer Michael Travis and percussionist Jason Hann from The String Cheese Incident, with their improvised electronic beats breathing life into the wooded Amphitheater Stage. Next up was an hour of the dirtiest New Orleans funk around, brought by Ivan Neville and critically-acclaimed Dumpstaphunk. Neville’s outfit left the woods coursing with such a frenzy that members of Cheese even came down to join the crowd in anticipation of what was to come.
After much adieu, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead came on to headline as the only Grateful Dead reincarnation of the weekend. Coming to the end of an extremely well-received fall tour, JRAD brought the absolute heat to the early-arrivers of Hulaween. The childhood friends closed the set with an unprecedented sequence of “Help On The Way > Slipknot” into “China Cat Sunflower” with a tease of “King Solomon’s Marbles”, leading into “Franklin’s Tower” which finally gave way to “I Know You Rider.” Deadheads left rejoicing, and everyone else left with a newfound appreciation for the iconic music that has changed so many lives.
With the remainder of the festival’s massive crowd finally rolling into the park, Sister Sparrow and The Dirty Birds stole the souls of the few lunchtime warriors in attendance.
Later in the day, Railroad Earth presented a jovial yet precise set of their Americana-jamgrass brand to an anxiously awaiting throng of diehard fans. The loyalty this band and their fans have to each other is especially apparent at a festival of this magnitude, with people really showing out in force despite the afternoon time slot. Over at the Amphitheater Stage, The Floozies turned things up a notch with an energizing electronic dance party to get ready for the moment people had been waiting for all day – The String Cheese Incident.
The gracious hosts opened the first of seven sets with some signature songs including “Song In My Head” and “Can’t Wait Another Day” before welcoming Todd Schaeffer and Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth on stage for an epic version of “Sometimes A River”, a song that Schaeffer helped write more than a decade ago. Bill Nershi spoke very highly of his friends and guests, even calling Schaeffer one of his favorite songwriters of all-time.
Papadosio filled in the break with a spell-binding show that continued to build on the momentum that Cheese left off with.
Then The String Cheese Incident had one more set for the night, and started off hot with a beautifully contrasting “Colliding” into “Restless Wind” finally taking one of their famous “Suwannee Jams” into fan-favorite “Joyful Sound.” They busted out a nasty version of the new funk jam, “Stop Drop and Roll” then settled into an explorative “Shantytown” to “River Jam” to “Just One Story” to close out the set. Afterwards, with most of the crowd heading towards Primus, the boys came back out for a delayed encore of “Ramble On” that had the lingerers out of their minds with uncontrollable glee.
If anyone thought Cheese blew their minds during the first two sets, it was time to pick up the pieces and throw them into the mental blender of insanity known as Primus. Les Claypool is one twisted musician, and together with Larry LeLonde and Tim Alexander they cast an undeniable spell of distortion and chaos on the Amphitheater Stage to headline Friday night. Upon entering the forest, it was immediately apparent that something was different this time around. From the uncontrollable mosh pit to the naked women in the trees, Claypool’s raw energy on the bass brought out the wild things inside those woods, and it was considered by many the most badass set of the entire weekend.
Pretty Lights closed out the main stage for the evening, with Derek Vincent Smith bringing his unparalleled light show and groovy electronic anthems that have pushed him to the forefront of the electronic scene for many years now. At the same time, Dopapod was busy holding it down over on the Spirit Lake Stage, with their heavy explorative jams fitting in perfectly with the creative atmosphere surrounding the stage.
There was something special in the air as people arose from their tents on Saturday morning, and it wasn’t just the humidity. Halloween was finally upon us, and the people that had gone to bed the night before arose as terrifying zombies, ghouls and ghosts, majestic fairies, obnoxious vikings, triumphant heroes and so much more, with quite a few poorly hidden Waldo’s thrown in for good measure. The forest was alive and crawling with every character and creature imaginable, and personalities to boot.
The celebration started off with Jon Stickley Trio, who played their innovative, upbeat folk style to the early motivated crowd. Next up on the main stage was the decorated Sam Bush Band. The master of the mandolin delivered a breath-taking set that delighted everyone in attendance, taking full advantage of the sunny skies with some signature songs including “Circles Around Me” and a heartfelt rendition of “One Love” by Bob Marley.
The reggae vibes carried over to the Amphitheater Stage with a free-spirited set of fan favorites from Slightly Stoopid.
The String Cheese Incident made a glorious return to stage for the first set of their most anticipated night of the year. They came out rocking with “Dudley’s Kitchen” and threw in the recently revived “Xai Xai” a few songs later. That went into the feelgood anthems “Sweet Spot” and “Close Your Eyes” before the set ended in a high-stepping “Rivertrance” jammed into “Beautiful” for a little audience appreciation. Halloween had finally come, the freaks had assembled by the thousands, and the atmosphere was absolutely electric.
Future Rock filled the short gap with their synthesized electronic rock before it was time to dig in for the funk to come. The String Cheese Incident’s “Ghoul Train” set was hosted by none other than GZA from Wu-Tang Clan, filling the role of Don Cornelius from the iconic Soul Train television show. In addition to the hip hop legend, they enlisted Antibalas’ horns section, vocalists Sheryl Renee and Leonard Julien, and a whole troupe of dancers to make sure this one fell nothing short of spectacular.
The Commodores were the first to be honored, with a bouncing version of “Brick House” bringing us straight into the roller rink with Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real.” The crowd got singing and swinging to “September” by Earth Wind and Fire before the horns pushed Average White Boy’s “Pick Up The Pieces” to all new levels of soul. “I’m Your Boogie Man” was seductively synthesized and even featured a rap from GZA in the mix of the classic from KC & The Sunshine Band.
The second half of the set started out with GZA promising to keep the crowd “hot, fresh and sweaty,” and they did not disappoint with a flawless take on “Car Wash” by Rose Royce before bringing things back to the soulful 70’s with Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade”. Bassist Keith Moseley was visibly having the time of his life when it came time to honor some of the forefathers of funk. The band paid tribute to James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”, before closing out victoriously with “I Want To Take You Higher” and “Dance To The Music” by Sly and The Family Stone. A giant locomotive was floated out onto stage for the last few songs, with pyrotechnics and confetti overwhelming the senses to make for the wildest dance party The String Cheese Incident has ever thrown.
After a short break, Cheese wasted no time getting the third set started with a hard-hitting “BollyMunster” opener into a fast-paced “Desert Dawn”. In true SCI tradition, Bill Nershi led an epic “Group Hoot” that set the stage for the greatness in store for a crowd that had all but lost their collective minds at this point. Then came a full exploration of the favorite “Best Feeling”, that even saw a funked up version of “Exodus” by Bob Marley sandwiched in the middle. Next was a percussive “Search” into the inspirational anthem “You’ve Got The World”, giving way to a classic “Black Clouds”. With a flawlessly executed transition, they set into “Rosie”, even bringing out the Antibalas horns to dig deep into the infectious groove of the beloved disco number.
There was only one way to cap off this immortal night, by bringing everyone back out on stage and rejoicing in the love that brought us all together. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder paved the way for a moving version of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family”, a victory lap for a defining show, one that is sure to go down as one of the best nights of The String Cheese Incident’s career.
Odesza brought the bass to the Amphitheater stage to keep the people moving and the ground shaking. The trees were alive with LED lights, hoops, costumes, and every manifestation of color imaginable. Under a magical haze of Suwannee fog and the brightest lights, the two brothers transported the audience into a technicolor dimension of futuristic beats that were simply out of this world.
Talk about some hard acts to follow. Chance The Rapper and his live band were more than up to the task, bringing his “Social Experiment” concept to an inspired crowd that was ready to buy in completely. He talked of love, of self-expression and of unification, sparking self-confidence and purpose in the many thousands of wildly different attendees. With everyone dressed to the nines in so many various costumes, his message of togetherness really hit home. Of course we are all different humans, and we come to Hulaween on many different paths, but Chance insisted that we were all there for a common purpose, to dance and to love and most importantly, to be ourselves. Chance brought much-needed closure to an epic day of music, inspiring us all to brighten up the world around us by shining bright, together.
Sunday morning was a time to reflect and recover from the euphoria of Halloween night. Shook Twins were a perfect fit for this atmosphere at the Amphitheater stage. The angelic twin sisters brought their unmistakable brand of harmonized folk music all the way from Portland, Oregon to mesmerize a thin but faithful crowd. They were a perfect fit for the festival’s vibe, tapping into the psychedelic, explorative nature of Hulaween with a tripped out version of their hit song “The Window” in addition to “Mad World” from the classic soundtrack of Donnie Darko.
The Shook’s good friends Elephant Revival were next on the mainstage. The eclectic group from Colorado came together in a tight-knit musical relationship that made for an unrivaled set of gypsy and celtic influenced folk music.
The String Cheese Incident has been known as a constantly evolving musical project for many years now. After thoroughly establishing their current level of excellence, Sunday afternoon served as a chance to take it back to the Colorado flavor of bluegrass that has been their backbone since day one. Enlisting the help of Sam Bush and Charlie Rose, they played a dazzling acoustic set of folk classics under picturesque weather. The set varied nicely with timeless covers of “Catfish John” and “Deep Elem Blues”, mixed in with twangy originals “Birdland” and “Lester Had A Coconut.” The entirety of Elephant Revival was finally welcomed to stage to close the set with a stirring version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”.
For their seventh and final performance of the weekend, the pressure was high to send it off the right way. The String Cheese Incident responded in full with a set of signature jams that left their adoring fans more than satisfied. The set opened up with the feel good, Hollingsworth-led “Lets Go Outside” before diving into an unforgettable “Little Hands”, featuring a riveting fiddle solo by Michael Kang. Local-legend Roosevelt Collier assisted in a passionate “Outside and Inside”, giving way to some old favorites, “Windy Mountain” and “Bumpin Reel.” The show got into the hip-hop vibe with “Sirens” before closing out with the triumphant anthem “Colorado Bluebird Sky”. The String Cheese Incident definitely felt the unfiltered love at Hulaween this year, and capped their show off with the jubilant Bob Marley classic, “Could You Be Loved”.
Immediately after Cheese had finished for the weekend, people were ready to kick a little dirt at the Amphitheater Stage during an energetic performance by the funk ensemble of Lettuce. Coming in hot out of Long Island, New York, TAUK was up to bat next on the Spirit Lake Stage. The crafty quartet is one of the fastest rising jambands in the scene right now, and laid down a groovy set of their coveted funk-rock fusion. Closing honors were given to STS9, and the jamtronica titans dominated the airwaves with pure funky bliss highlighted with a top-notch visual spectacle. Bassist Alana Rocklik carried a confidence on stage that inspired of the most sensational sets of the weekend.
Hulaween was about so much more than just the incredible music this year. The grounds were teeming with hundreds of visual and interactive art exhibits that made the trek from your tent to the stage, or even just to the port-o-john, like something out of a psychedelic dream world. The Spirit Lake area boasted a breathtaking conglomeration of everything bright, fiery and psychedelic to create a multi-sensory experience that sparked the imagination of everyone that wandered through the toothy gate. In addition to the commissioned art, a special recognition is due to the thousands of wild and whacky costumes worn by Hulaween attendees this year. People took it upon themselves to create a living experiment of creativity and expression, and it was that collective enthusiasm that pushed this crazy weekend right over the edge.
Every festival has it’s own magic to it, a special feeling that keeps us coming back. In it’s third year at this location, Suwannee Hulaween has cultivated a trusting, welcoming atmosphere that opens the doors to love from all corners of the universe. It is where we take off the masks of society to find and express the colorful souls within, a place where we come together in a melting pot of our wildest selves. Diversity is celebrated as the lifeblood of this social experiment, connecting thousands of people through art and music to discover an uninhibited love that can only be found at Hulaween.
Hopefully people will not be content to simply experience it all again next year, but have been inspired to harness this magic and unleash it on the world. From the mind-bending music to the breath-taking art, tied together by an enormous wealth of personality, it is hard to find a more honest manifestation of life than at Suwannee Hulaween. So next time you hear someone groaning about “going back to real life,” after a festival, remind them to come to Hulaween, and see for themselves what “real life” is all about.
Written by Richard Oakley