[Words and photos by Adam Taylor]
The String Cheese Incident’s Suwannee Hulaween, which just celebrated the second year of its reincarnation after a few year hiatus, is held at one of the most beautiful and enchanting outdoor music parks in the country, The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park (SOSMP). The home of festivals such as Wanee, Bear Creek, Aura, and The Purple Hatter’s Ball has a stunning landscape, with a mixture of grassy clearings spread out amongst a dense forest full of gargantuan Live Oak trees. The winding trails, and Spanish Moss draped over the trees, amplify the connection to nature you feel in this place, making the venue as central a piece of the festival experience as any of the music performed or friends made. Taking place over Halloween weekend, from October 30th through November 2nd in the wilderness of Northern Florida, Suwannee Hulaween features an incredible seven sets of Cheese – three on Halloween night including a special theatrical cover set as well as two each other evening – in addition to a stellar, impeccably selected lineup of other acts, both in headliners and artists lower on the bill. Some of these included Beats Antique, Greensky Bluegrass, Keller Williams & Friends, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Shpongle, Thievery Corporation, Kung Fu, and Big Gigantic.
Aside from the non-stop music heard throughout the grounds, whether that be from a campsite, car stereo, or one of the stages, and the beautiful natural setting you find yourself immersed in, the weekend is non-stop stimulation. Everywhere you turn, there is something competing for your attention: live artists, wildly dressed performers or crazy costumed fans . From the Spirit Lake, which offers some incredible visual imagery, which even further transforms the landscape when the sun goes down, to simply walking around to check out how people have set up and Cheesified their campsites with spider webs, tapestries, inflatable furniture, light projections and more, there isn’t a dull moment, even when there are no artists performing on-stage. Even in while immersed in live music, the madness onstage can’t keep you from looking around at the effects of the lights on the mythical looking Oak trees, wandering over to the the live artists, or being drawn in by the hoopers, some in large groups, in total synchrony.
My journey to The Spirit of Suwannee involved planes, trains, and automobiles and began with waking up before the crack of dawn to catch the first flight out of Chicago to Atlanta. I rendezvoused with my crew of ATLiens before our road trip down to Live Oak, loading up on snacks and food at everyone’s favorite Wal-Mart in lovely Valdosta, GA. Seriously, after a 5-hour car ride with the promise of 7 sets of Cheese at the end of the tunnel, this South Georgia mecca of commerce felt like being in an episode of South Park. We finally pulled into the park at dusk Thursday night to be greeted by beyond friendly and enthusiastic staff. Since SOSMP is a park that is literally built for crowds and even more-so for music festivals, entry into the park is smooth and ticket issues, while rare, are quickly resolved. The grounds are pretty spread out, yet incredibly easy to navigate, with easy to remember landmarks throughout: the Bat House, the Lake, the General Store, the disc golf course, the stables, and so on. One of the most unique parts of attending a festival at SOSMP is that open campfires are not prohibited. Aside from this being a lifesaver given that the temperature dropped below freezing at night, who doesn’t like sitting around a fire, staring at the flames while reflecting on the face melt you just experienced and sipping on hot bourbon-cider? This goes on-and-on when it comes to things I love about this park, but you definitely get the picture by now.
I’m a huge fan of the festival pre-party, and there was a great line-up of artists set to open the festival on Thursday night at the Amphitheater stage. With acts like Particle, Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, Modern Measure, and MZG, the night could have easily been complete. But the crowd wasn’t through yet, and neither was the music: we were treated to a 2-hour closing set from Electron, the all-star supergroup formed by Marc Brownstein, which also includes Aron Magner of The Disco Biscuits, Mike Greenfield of Lotus, and Tom Hamilton of Brothers Past. This was truly the highlight of the night for me. Brownie & Co. played to the energy in the crowd on this one, catering to emotions of excitement and gratification with everyone in attendance having made the journey from near and far to make the most of their Halloween weekend. I feel like the set-list was also very well thought out, a sprinkling of DB tracks including ‘Home Again’ and ‘Confrontation’ and later a mesmerizing cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ to warm up the crowd on an extraordinarily chilly night in North Florida.
Bonus: Camping in the area behind the main stage, as we journeyed back from Electron, the SCI production team was testing the lighting rig for the nights ahead…sweet.
Friday, October 31st
Friday, October 31st, Halloween Day, was one of the most picturesque days for camping and listening to music outside I’ve lived to experience. Slightly cool weather, but warm in the sun, not a cloud in the sky – wary, but anxious festival-goers arriving in a steady stream of cars from all over – the knowledge that The String Cheese Incident, who many have not seen in so long, will be taking the stage that night for not one, not two, but three sets. It was hard to even imagine that besides Cheese being the main course that evening, it was sandwiched between early sets by Greensky Bluegrass and Emancipator and late night sets by Beats Antique and Thievery Corporation, with a palate cleanser in the form of Simon Posford, AKA Shpongle, coming between Cheese sets one and two, as the production team prepared the stage for the special Halloween cover set.
With so many of my favorite artists coming together in one night, in a place tied to so many memories with so many of my close friends, Friday of Hulaween was really one of those days that I felt like it was made for me. Greensky’s matinee set was only made better by the fact that the band members were dressed as “Perfect Little Angels” – while there might be nothing funnier than seeing 5 grown men dressed up as angels on-stage, those that know Greensky were cracking up at the irony of the group’s costume choice. Emancipator’s set at the Amphitheater stage was something I had long looked forward to. The past year I have crossed paths with Doug Appling’s musical ventures several times, but this was my first time seeing just violinist Ilya Goldberg and Appling up there without the Ensemble since Hulaween 2013. He never disappoints, and with the fading sunlight popping through the moss-draped trees onto the transfixed and costumed crowd, I couldn’t help thinking how well planned this scheduling was with SCI coming up next. Thinking ahead to the genius of Shpongle getting everyone moving for the Afterlife set as darkness creeps in, and to how nuts Beats Antique is going to be in this very location when 8,000 people stagger over after a heavy dose of Cheese. A wave of excitement washes over me and I know it’s time to put my game face on.
While that was my magical moment of the day, theres is nothing in the world like the first set of Cheese. While this is not to say that Set Two: The Afterlife wasn’t one of the most ridiculously awesome musical experiences I have ever been a part of – I mean, The String Cheese Incident in elaborate costume playing songs like ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ ‘Live and Let Die,’ ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ and ‘Thriller?’ Plus pyrotechnics, horns, huge blowups skulls, Giant Michael Jackson, and confetti cannons? Pretty sure we’re painting a pretty clear picture here. And I don’t want to put down any aspect of that third set, continuing the trend of the day, seemingly crafted for yours truly with an explosive rendition of “Rosie,” a personal top-choice, but SCI’s opening set just hit it for me in all the right places. Something about sunset Cheese, the first of seven sets over the weekend of your favorite band and after such a long wait, truly put me in a state of total joy. Opening with ‘Restless Wind’ and moving into ‘Joyful Sound,’ ending with ‘Valley of the Jig’ and ‘Can’t Wait Another Day,’ I was in bliss. This feeling is the best in the world, and especially knowing that that was just one down with six more to go.
Shpongle and Beats Antique, as expected, were in their best form, both with distinct world sounds. Having attended the Creature Carnival Tour in Chicago a few weeks earlier, featuring Emancipator, Shpongle, and Beats Antique, I knew to expect a lot of theatrics from the latter, yes even more than we usually see from Zoe Jakes, including a variety of dancers, masked drummers and performers, a giant inflatable Cyclops Kitty, wacky inflatable arm-flailing tube-people, and a hammering of psychedelic, mind bending visuals with Lafa Taylor actings as the ringleader of this midnight circus. The Bassheads in the crowd definitely got their fix, opening with with Bassnectar’s remix of ‘Rustabout’ and dropping ‘Butterfly’ later in the set. This all after 3 sets of Cheese with still more to come.
Thievery Corporation is always an eye opener, and Rob Garza’s brainchild always seems to entertain no matter the crowd or time of day. Sticking to the theme of old world and ethnically influenced sound, the crowd arrives at the main stage to see Rob Myers center stage, sitting Indian Style on a couch with his Sitar. For me, each time I see Thievery, I expect something exciting and different every time, between their middle eastern influence, affinity to acid jazz, and wide array of synthesizers. However one member of the collective I can never seem to take my eyes off of is bassist Ashish Vayas. This guy, while obviously inexplicably talented as a musician, was simply born to be on stage. A rowdy individual in his own right, he has a mop of wild long black hair, and as he constantly struts across the stage, he is interacting with all the other performers, making eye contact with members of the audience, energizing the crowd and his bandmates like it’s science. Thievery played their well-known track ‘Lebanese Blonde’ as most would assume, but what I thought stood out during their set was the amount of reggae performed. We are all fans of this genre, but for some reason, I feel it is the type of music I get to hear performed live the least for some reason. After some exploring of the incredible Spirit Lake and a lap around the park, it was time to set up the campfire and make some much deserved grilled cheese sandwiches.
Saturday, November 1st
While Friday was an epic marathon while at the same time felt surreal, the music lineup on Saturday was nothing short of stellar. The temperature dropping significantly from the day before, with early afternoon sets by Bear Toe and Strung Like a Horse, and performances by Cope, The Heavy Pets, Nahko & Medicine for the People, and The Suwannee Bluegrass Surprise, Keller Williams, all coming before 6 pm, this was a day chock full of feel good sounds and rock & roll. A celebratory feel was in the air as well, The Heavy Pets playing their 1,000th show ever, a huge milestone in quite a special setting. A personal highlight of the afternoon included seeing the Tampa-based jammers, Cope, for the first time with a unique sound that’s easy to get lost in. The crowd was feeling it as well and it became an all out dance party. There was certainly no disappointment in getting to see the Suwannee Bluegrass Surprise, Keller Williams, who opened with ‘Kidney in a Cooler’ and played a great rendition of ‘Scarlet Begonias,’ a great warm up for the main act of the night.
Cheese killed it as always, with the first set featuring Keller Willams and Nicky Sanders in addition to songs like ‘Search,’ ‘Lost,’ and personal favorite knee-slapper, ‘Resume Man.’ The second set was even more of a journey, opening with ‘Let’s Go Outside’ and ‘Black Clouds,’ and getting more intense and hyper-sensory with ‘Sirens,’ ‘Live Oak Jam,’ and ‘ Rivertrance’ before a ‘BollyMunster’ encore. How can you not be utterly out of breath after this? After taking this all in and letting my jaw rest on the floor for a while, it’s back to the Amphitheater stage for The New Deal, which is a nice little break before heading to either The Spirit Lake stage or Main Stage for Kung Fu or Big Gigantic respectively. One of the few overlapping set-times of the weekend, I am still impressed by the planning and organization that went into this scheduling – Big G and Kung Fu attract very different factions from within Cheesehead Nation, so I don’t think this decision was very hard for anyone. Big Gigantic played the same set they’ve played the 3 times I’ve seen them in the last 6 months, but it was nonetheless a huge party and everybody there had a blast, myself included. Kung Fu on the other hand, was one of the most exciting sets of the weekend – I very much regret missing the first half of Kung Fu to catch a little Big G.
And although Kung Fu absolutely blew my mind with so much craziness coming off that tiny stage, one set in particular stood out distinctly on Saturday and forever won my fandom: Conspirator. I’ve always been a fan of Brownie, and I have long been a supporter of side projects, which allow artists to explore certain elements of the musical spectrum that may not be as acceptable to a widespread fanbase. However,in the handful of times I’ve seen Conspirator, I have been left less than impressed and wanting more. In previous experiences, either the sound was mixed poorly, the artists on stage did not have seem to have good chemistry, or the track selection felt simply monotonous and dull. But this late afternoon timeslot, preceding the second night of an onslaught of Cheese as described above, was one of the high points of the festival for me. The sound was mixed to perfection for this set, with the bass physically moving the crowd, but not in excess. The synths and slight intricacies of the performance were heard loud and clear, and the lighting effects were the perfect compliment to the diminishing natural light disappearing through the trees. Combine this with Dominic Lalli as well as drummer Jeremy Salken of Big Gigantic joining Conspirator on stage…game, set, match. This brings up another one of my favorite elements of Hulaween, in that since it is a festival put on largely by The String Cheese Incident, you end up with artists who have a lot of history with one another, who are good friends, and have experience collaborating and improvising, both in a live setting and in a studio. It gives the festival a vibe which shrinks the disparity between artist and fan, and making all in attendance feel a personal connection to the acts and brings the musicians down a notch from the celebrity treatment one might see at a massive, more commercialized fest. For example, just minutes after finishing up Cheese set number 2 on Saturday night, percussionist Jason Hann could be seen throughout the park chatting with fans, taking selfies those who dared to ask, and taking in the magic at Spirit Lake.
Sunday, November 2nd
The final day of the festival is always a little different in knowing that you have one more day to get your fill before leaving fantasyland for the real world. The weather was cool and sunny, and Ghost Owl opened up the day before a beautiful set by Rising Appalachia, a quickly up-and-coming act led by sisters Chloe and Leah Smith. Their music is a mixture of folk and soul, and they employ a variety of different world instruments, creating an incredibly unique sound. This show was one the most impactful of the entire weekend, completely unexpected and moving. The crowd was entirely captivated, entranced by the beauty emanating from the stage. Their set flowed perfectly with songs like ‘Filthy Dirty South’ and ‘Medicine,’ both clear crowd pleasers.
The day-party continued, with Dean Ween rocking out on the Amphitheater stage, getting everyone ready for the final two sets of The String Cheese Incident to come that evening. I’ve said it before, but one of the great things about Cheese is the evolution to what they are capable of now from their bluegrass roots, and it is truly incredible how they craft each set to showcase so many different talents and musical genres, while retaining that distinctive Cheesiness we all fell in love with. This final Incident at Suwannee Hulaween was definitely one to remember, opening up their first set with ‘Sometimes a River,’ and closing with ‘Round the Wheel,’ which hasn’t been played in at least a year. The second Cheese set was killer as well, everyone in the crowd getting goofy with jam after jam: ‘Song in my Head’ > ‘This Must Be The Place’ > ‘On The Road’ > ‘Bumpin Reel’ > ‘Texas’ (encore). And though there was more music to come that night, I just kept hoping that they would come back on stage for just one more. People all over had the same sentiment, evident by the sporadic shouts of one last song requests: “Jellyfish!”, “Little Hands!”, “Lester!”
With Cheese having ended, I was really looking forward to the rest of the evening, although slightly bummed about another one of the few set conflicts that weekend. This time it was between EOTO on the Main Stage and Van Ghost at Spirit Lake, before the festival finale down at the good old Amphitheater Stage with our friends Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. I knew I would be splitting time between both, but opted to stick around for EOTO first. Unfortunately there were some hiccups getting Travis and Jason’s equipment working correctly and this delayed their start time a bit. Despite this, Hann was all smiles and the duo dropped serious some seriously freaky noises on the crowd. It was definitely the crunch I was looking for all weekend, although I really was hoping they brought their lasers! Oh well…no complaints from me – it was a fantastic display of musical talent, and a snapshot of what it really means to play to a crowd. By the time I could peel myself away from EOTO to head to Van Ghost, there was just a little bit of time left in their set. But I am really glad I made it for a few songs because Michael Harrison Berg was tearing it up on that packed in stage with our girl Jennifer Hartswick. After this ended, all bodies converged upon the Amphitheater one last time for Joe Russo. Man do I love these guys: there really is no music that brings about nostalgia like the Dead and I always cherish every note when I get to hear Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. Closing out the festival, I saw several moments within the set when groups of people huddled together for group hugs, rows of the crowd putting all their arms around one another while swaying to the music, and so many happy couples. Just so much love and happiness and good feelings set to an amazing soundtrack. A part of the night I will never forget is their rendition of ‘Uncle John’s Band,’ which hits a sweet spot for me, in that way that cannot even be described in words. From there they went into a crazy jam on ‘No Quarter’ then back into ‘Uncle John’s Band’ with ‘Franklin’s Tower’ to shut it down. It was a spectacular way to end the festival and the creatures of Suwannee Hulaween were in no way left unsatisfied.
Biggest Musical Surprise
While Conspirator, Electron, Rising Appalachia, and Kung Fu were definitely some of the highlights of my weekend (aside from Cheese of course), there was a very special set played in the park that only those in proximity were lucky enough to experience. With SOSMP so well equipped for large crowds and built for heavy duty camping, there are electrical hookups and water spouts at just every few yards in certain parts of the park. Sitting around our fire listening to music in the wee hours of Halloween night, we start to hear some very powerful blues/folk rock coming from somewhere close by. As a group of us grab our headlamps and venture out into the dark towards the sound, we come upon an impromptu concert, with 4 or 5 musicians playing, instruments loud and deep, hooked up to amplifiers, and a projector emitting bizarre visual imagery onto a screen and the trees surrounding the camp. A crowd of 50 or so had gathered, huddled up to keep warm and sitting on the ground and the music was mysterious and beautiful. The band, who we later found out was Bear Toe, had opted to camp with the fans instead of in the artist area or in a cabin and really connected with their crowd that night. Scheduled to perform on Saturday at the Spirit Lake Stage, I really appreciated them having treated our little community to some bonus tunes. There was something incredibly organic about this experience, and I can only hope to have more similar opportunities like this in the future. Hats off to Bear Toe: certified.
Spirit Lake, an adventure for the senses in 2013, was much improved and way more immersive this year. From mystifying light projections, art installations, to the legendary Jelly Swing, you could entertain yourself forever in there. The landscape morphed throughout the weekend with artists adding to it each day. And with the Spirit Lake Stage right there, you could still enjoy late night live music while exploring all the different areas of the setup. Many took refuge near the 20-foot tall Infinite Infant, famous from Burning Man which warmed all those gathered nearby with its frequent, and rhythmically released flames. My favorite part of the Spirit Lake area this year was what was called the ‘Sonic Forest.’ In here, as you walk through a grid of metal poles, sounds are emitted from behind, in front, and to the sides of you. It really confuses the senses, and you become utterly disoriented, trying to stay focused on where you are going. The lights being projected onto the trees at Spirit Lake, most visible from across the water from the art installations, were mesmerizing as well, a perfect fusion of technology and nature. Another breathtaking installment is tough to describe in words, but my best summary would be projections overlapping on paintings, to make these pieces of art seem almost lifelike. I was very pleased with what the Spirit Lake experience had to offer this year, and hope that it continues to build upon itself as a Hulaween in the Swamp tradition.
Let’s be honest. No one goes to a music festival and has a bad time. But there are those special weekends, when everything just seems to align perfectly. A Halloween camping festival, located at Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, FL, featuring The String Cheese Incident for seven whole sets: this is the type of festival where you leave feeling fulfilled and that by having now attended, it would be a travesty to miss one in the future. I for one had the time of my life at Suwannee Hulaween 2014, made so many new friends and reconnected with so many others. Growing up in Atlanta, the southern scene is one that I feel very comfortable with. Going to festivals in the south just has a slightly higher degree of laid-back, no rush, kind of vibe. A goal I have set for my future self is to spend as many music weekends at SOSMP as possible, but I can wholeheartedly guarantee my attendance at Hulaween 2015. See you in the Swamp!