The fourth annual Suwannee Hulaween, held at the famous Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, hosted artists such as The String Cheese Incident, My Morning Jacket, Umphrey’s McGee, Greensky Bluegrass, STS9, The Claypool Lennon Delirium, Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals, Snarky Puppy and many more. Held over Halloween weekend, this magical festival parallels Electric Forest, but with more magic and more instruments. The attendance was capped at 20k people this year, making for a gathering that felt large, yet intimate.
In usual fashion, Suwannee Hulaween started things off with the Thursday Pre-Party, allowing fans to arrive early and expand their weekend with more music and time in the beautiful grounds of Spirit of Suwannee. As patrons arrived, it was obvious that the awe was beginning to set in. Smiles were abundant and attendees were already discussing the unique art installations and natural ambiance as they set up camp.
Fans swiftly immersed themselves into the living magic of Spirit Lake as Trae Pierce & The T-Stones kicked things off at the Spirit Lake Stage, one of two stages in the giant wooded wonderland. Artful details were abundant, from the spooky Spanish moss draped over the tree branches to the graffiti maze placed between the Spirit Lake Stage and the Campground Stage.
To give a little taste of the magic to come, fans were treated with two String Cheese Incident side projects: Kyle Hollingsworth Band which saw a sit in from Brendan Bayliss of Umphrey’s McGee, and EOTO, which featured Jake Cinninger of Umphrey’s and Borham Lee of Break Science.
After the sun finally set on the first day of Hulaween, the lights of Spirit of Suwannee came alive as Umphrey’s McGee took the stage at the Amphitheater. Treating fans to two sets; the band played classics and material off of Death by Stereo and Mantis, including “Ocean Billy,” “Mulches Odyssey,” “Cemetery Walk,” “No Diablo” and “Nothing too Fancy.” The definitive crowd pleaser of the night was a bust out of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”
Fruition held it down at Spirit Lake between the Umphrey’s sets, starting off with the soulful “There She Was” and playing a few rockers off of their well received new album Labor of Love. The progressive, genre-melding band from Portland, Oregon got back to their folkier roots by ending the set with “Mountain Annie” and “Meet Me on the Mountain.” The latter was a stirring dedication to a fallen friend.
Greensky Bluegrass absolutely shut down the Spirit Lake Stage on Thursday night, the first of two sets for the scorching string band this weekend. The show featured an incredible whirlwind of a mash-up when Greensky strung together fan favorites “Don’t Lie” and “Jaywalking,” and hilariously inserted breaks of Juvenile‘s “Back That Ass Up” into the mix. They even teased The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” during the 20 minute debauchery.
The main event truly kicked off on Friday, with the remaining majority of patrons arriving and the Spirit of Suwannee thriving in full force. Performing only their second set in history, Russo, Benevento, & Burbridge treated listeners to an hour of sublime improvisation. All being masters of their craft, it was evident this set would hold unforgettable treasures. At one point Benevento reached his hand into his piano and began picking and silencing certain strings, allowing his instrument to take on new tones and voices.
Greensky Bluegrass’ final set of the weekend was on Suwannee Hulaween’s main stage, The Meadow, and featured String Cheese Incident’s Kyle Hollingsworth for “Federico.” Fans on their way to see Sunsquabi were drawn right into Greensky’s jam-grass sound, exemplifying how this festival excels in bringing circles together, with music that appeals across generations and genres. Greensky brought out Roosevelt Collier to end the set, adding his well-known, wailing lap steel to “Ain’t No Bread in the Bread Box,” as made popular by Jerry Garcia Band.
Friday night meant the first of seven String Cheese Incident sets were about to begin. Fans were eager to see what the band had in store for their annual Halloween celebration, known for stage antics and themed sets full of surprise and wonder. They started their set with a fast paced “So Far From Home” into “Rhythm of the Road” and then “Dudley’s Kitchen.” Cheese fans began stomping their feet and bouncing around as their favorite band began the journey we’ve all come to love. Fiddle heavy songs like “Hi Ho No Show” and “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” were featured to the delight of fans before the band burst into a closing tandem of “Shine” and “Howard.”
Umphrey’s McGee started off their third set strong with “In the Kitchen,” the crowd singing along to the chorus and locking into Umphrey’s unrivaled energy. The band really knocked it out of the park when they played “1348” into ”Hajimemashite” and back into “1348” to end their set. The atmosphere was electric as fans were jumping and falling over themselves to rage an Umphrey’s staple in between a well-executed shredding anthem.
The emerging tour de force, Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals, left The Amphitheater in shambles after an awe inspiring set. Continuing the tradition of Suwannee Hulaween, .Paak and crew were dressed in appropriate 80s costumes; and remained in character during most of their onstage shenanigans. Playing material mostly off of Malibu and his newest album Yes Lawd gave the crowd tracks such as “Got Me Hot,” “Heart Don’t Stand A Chance” and “Put Me Thru.” The group performed live remixes in addition to their original compositions. Skillfully layering elements of hip-hop, jazz, soul and R&B, this set was a breath of fresh air for many fans that were unfamiliar with the group’s work. This fresh air – the shattering of genre-based boundaries – is Hulaween’s wheelhouse.
Headlining Friday night’s festivities, My Morning Jacket, performed an incredible set on The Meadow Stage. After creating quite a buzz on their most recent tour, MMJ selected choice covers for Hulaween as well as epic originals. They played Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” along with “Circuital,” “Off The Record,” “Highly Suspicious” and “One Big Holiday.”
As the night drew on and noise restrictions became applicable, Hulaween veterans knew to head straight to their usual late-night bluegrass sets. Asheville, North Carolina’s Jon Stickley Trio were a highlight of the night with their unique style of newgrass, melding influences from numerous cultures into a style of music that has become completely their own. Stickley sported a bloody wedding dress. “This is my first show in a bra, I hope it isn’t the last,” he commented. The group added an eclectic element to the ambiance and intrigue of Spirit Lake, jumping from salsa-flavored interludes to heavy riffs reminiscent of a hard rock group. JST was the perfect end to the night, sending attendees off on a whimsical journey through the swamp.
Suwannee Hulaween offered three days of Kyle’s Craft Beer Corner, featuring special beer collaborations between Lagunitas and the local Dunedin Brewing. Saturday included a special set from Kyle Hollingsworth and Jason Hann while Lagunitas beer flowed into the cups of the waking masses. While this was one example of the effort to bring people together, this special craft corner was located next to The Patch, which had Artifakts opening up the morning. Artifakts played his usual electro Hip-Hop and downtempo tunes, with fans of multiple communities joining together to experience something new.
Antibalas made a full band appearance for the first time at Hulaween. Normally SCI taps the horn players during their own sets, but this year they let the whole band loose to play The Meadow Stage. If you hadn’t woken up, Antibalas certainly did the trick with their infectious afrobeat sound that garnered an impressive turnout.
Snarky Puppy gave a breathtaking and inspiring performance, the Grammy-winning band from Brooklyn showed fans a form of improvisation not all were familiar with. With elements of jazz, post-rock and funk, fans of all genres came together to witness the spectacle that the band has become. Snarky Puppy was the perfect improvisational appetizer before diving into a three-course meal of String Cheese with a side of Lettuce.
And so began the three-set String Cheese Incident extravaganza, featuring the band’s famous Halloween-themed set as the headlining production of the night. Set one featured “Rhum ‘N’ Zouc,” “Turn This Around” and “Restless Wind.” “Joyful Sound” featured one of SCI’s new elements, a psy-trance percussive jam that has been dubbed as its own song, “Rumble.” Written for Hollingsworth’s daughter as he anxiously awaited her birth, “Can’t Wait Another Day” ended the set in Kyle’s typical funked-up synth fashion.
Lettuce, bringing their signature brand of upbeat New York funk, stormed the stage and immediately got down to business. Bassist Jesus Combs stomped back and forth, as they opened with “Blaze.” The band welcomed Alecia Chakour for “What Do I Have To Do” and “Love You Left Behind,” adding her intensely soulful voice. They brought the set to a close with one of their recent singles, “Phyllis.”
Stringier Things had finally arrived, the long awaited 80s themed set from The String Cheese Incident. Starting the set by playing the Stranger Things introduction song, the band brought out vocalists Rhonda Thomas and Tony White along with the Antibalas Horns. They performed a myriad of high-powered 80s hits, including The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” “She Blinded Me With Science,” “Let’s Groove Tonight” by Earth, Wind, and Fire, Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” and The B-52’s “Love Shack” which was accompanied by hundreds of heart-shaped balloons and confetti to match. Next the band surprised fans with a medley of epic proportions, seamlessly weaving together a rapid-fire sequence of these samplings from the decade:
Another One Bites the Dust (Queen)
White Lines (Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel)
Safety Dance (Men Without Hats)
Come On Eileen (Dexys Midnight Runners)
Relax (Frankie Goes to Hollywood)
Thriller (Michael Jackson)
Never Gonna Give You Up (Rick Astley)
Don’t You Want Me Baby (The Human League)
To add to all this musical insanity, the band’s crew brought out all of the works for one of their biggest productions of the year. Overwhelmingly large, inflatable Rubik’s Cubes bounced above the crowd, while a giant Stay-Puff marshmallow man floated high in the air. There were dancing acrobats on raised poles that towered over the crowd while swinging back and forth, covering the masses with confetti. After a wild group hoot, the band tore into a full-fledged “Burnin’ Down The House” by Talking Heads. The grand finale saw some very impressive pyrotechnic work, complete with fire blasting from the front of the stage, a full fireworks show from behind, and the unforgettable Grinder Girls that sent sparks flying in all directions.
For SCI’s final set of the night, the boys came out swinging with a triumphant “Colorado Bluebird Sky” and then bounced right into “Sweet Spot.” The crowd was graced with a transcendental rendition of “Rivertrance” that sent minds sailing into the night, lost in the stars of Suwannee Hulaween. The lights and the Spanish moss danced together as the cool breeze drew fans closer and closer for the jubilant “Way Back Home” and then “Miss Brown’s Teahouse” which brought in some of that coveted SCI storytelling. The special guests from earlier in the evening came back out for a glorious reprise of the 80’s theme, in the form of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder.
Immediately after SCI ended, fans rushed to see Sound Tribe Sector 9 at The Patch. Loyal Tribe fans packed into the tight space like sardines, eager to see one of their favorite bands. Getting things moving quickly with a second song “When The Dust Settles Reprise,” The Patch exploded with energy. Fans were standing on hay bales and climbing into the trees to get a glimpse of Saxton Waller’s signature light rig. “Blu Mood” into “Shock Doctrine” sent the crowd into a frenzy, with hands in the air as far as the eyes could see. They finally drew the set to a close with a dynamic “EHM.”
Saturday’s late night offerings saw Disclosure settle into The Meadow while Larry Keel and Jon Stickley started the evening’s traditional Suwannee Bluegrass Surprise. Disclosure’s infectious brand of Nu-Disco left heads bobbing and fans grinning while they wrapped their minds around the day’s events. The Bluegrass Surprise at Spirit Lake went on until 4 a.m., with the help of Andy Thorn from Leftover Salmon, as patrons wandered around the art installations, gazing at the crystal gateway, acrobatic fire spinners, and magnificent living sculptures.
The final morning of Suwannee Hulaween began with its traditional bluegrass. String Cheese is known for their Sunday morning bluegrass sets, and this year they asked The Travelin’ McCourys to get the pickin’ started. Known for being legends in their genre, they were a welcome addition to Hulaween’s Sunday morning festivities. Luckily for fans, this wasn’t the last we would see of The Traveling McCourys today.
The Motet’s soulful and funky music was a delight, turning The Amphitheater into a brief church where all were welcome to get down. Their soothing sound combined with Suwannee’s natural mysticism gave fans the beginning feelings of nostalgia.
The String Cheese Incident ended the final sets at Suwannee Hulaween in their usual guest-filled fashion; drawing on Tyler Grant, Dominic Lalli, Joey Porter, Jeremy Salken, and The Travelin’ McCourys. “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” “Shady Grove” and “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance” all featured The Travelin McCoury’s in their entirety to start the set. Fans rejoiced as SCI played “Born On The Wrong Planet,” the theme song to many attendees lives. “Freedom Jazz Dance” with Dominic Lalli and Joey Porter followed by “’Round The Wheel” with Jeremy Salken were and incredible pairing.
Psychedelic supergroup The Claypool Lennon Delirium closed The Amphitheater down in style. Playing material of their debut album Monolith of Phobos, Les Claypool’s signature dark bass tones were a perfect match with Sean Lennon’s hypnotic voice. The group finished their set with two incredible covers, starting with Primus’ “Southbound Pachyderm” and ending with The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The galaxies and celestial patterns that illuminated their backdrop made for a magical pairing with their last few moments on stage.
The final sets of Suwannee Hulaween came down to Big Gigantic with The Motet on The Meadow Stage while Twiddle closed things down at Spirit Lake. Both were suitable options to end the weekend. Twiddle has become increasingly popular and their crowd clearly reflected that, and those who stayed for Big Gigantic were lucky enough to see a rare version of the act, featuring The Motet, Dominic Lalli’s former band.