Co-written with John Anderson
As the changing leaves began to fall and the costume ideas began to flow, Halloween weekend was once again on the horizon. The crisp winds of seasons’ change beckoned us to make the annual pilgrimage back to The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park for The String Cheese Incident’s second annual Suwannee Hulaween. While the festival this year started a day early with a pre-party on Thursday evening, the main focus of Hulaween still centered around The String Cheese Incident’s three headlining performances.
Upon arrival we were greeted by the beauty that is The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park. Nestled along the historic Suwannee River, this unique festival ground provided a premium camping experience unlike any other festival on the east coast, let alone the country. The majority of the park is covered by towering live oak and cyprus trees that provide shade to many primitive and powered camping locations. Given that the park is a permanent fixture, bath houses are scattered throughout the property with showers and flushable toilets. The 800-acre park also provides activities for any attendees who are feeling adventurous, such as canoeing down the river or taking on the full-length disc golf course. However, one of the most unique features of Suwannee Music Park is the ability to have campfires. It is a rarity to be allowed to have campfires at most music festivals, and on this chilly Hulaween weekend we were forever grateful for having a campfire to huddle around.
The festival pre-party kicked off on Thursday as attendees poured in from all corners of the country. Although temperatures were already dipping, a little cold weather wasn’t about to spoil anyone’s good time. We arrived at the park shortly after dusk and breezed right in to meet our friends at our camping spot. We quickly set up camp and headed on over to the amphitheater stage to catch the last bit of Particle before Electron took the stage.
Both bands delivered high energy sets blending electronic with free form improvisation. Electron’s set featured various Disco Biscuits tunes like “Home Again” and “Confrontation” which came to no surprise considering the band includes both Marc Brownstein and Aron Magner of The Disco Biscuits. The highlight of the night came when Electron dropped into a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” to close out their set. Shortly after, we headed back to camp to build the first fire of the weekend and rest up for the upcoming festivities of the next few days.
It was a beautiful day on Halloween with not a cloud in the sky. It was a great afternoon for some bluegrass as our friends Judah and the Lion took the Amphitheater Stage and played some music off of their new album Kids These Days. Greensky Bluegrass was up next on the main stage followed by a early evening Emancipator set. Scheduling for Hulaween provided almost no overlapping sets which made it incredibly easy to see everyone you came to listen to.
Before we knew it, the afternoon had escaped us, and it was time for The String Cheese Incident’s main event. They opened their first set with a jam teasing the Friday the 13th theme before dropping into the classic staple “Restless Wind.” With the first exploratory jam of the weekend coming up next in “ Joyful Sound.” Cheese continued to build momentum throughout the first set with their spin on the traditional instrumental called “Valley of the Jig.” The set closed out with one of their newest songs“Can’t wait another day,” written by keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth about the birth of his youngest daughter. From here, Shpongle kept the party going on the Amphitheater Stage while the Main Stage was prepared for String Cheese’s Halloween themed “After-Life” set.
The spectacle of last year’s Halloween set was one of the musical highlights that weekend. This year’s set proved to be no exception and in true Cheese fashion it was certainly a party not many will soon forget. Jason Hann started the set off on the bongo’s with a simple riff that could only be “Sympathy for the Devil.” Bassist Keith Moseley was on lyric duty for the Rolling Stone’s classic before dropping into the Ghostbusters theme that had everyone laughing and singing along. Frontman Michael Kang then worked his way through Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell” before bringing out the first pyrotechnics of the evening with “Live and Let Die.” Guest singers Rhonda Thomas and Tony White as well as the Antibalas horns kicked it up a notch with a stellar version of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Other highlights of the set included “Don’t Fear the Reaper” “Break on Through” and closed out with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
“Miss Brown’s Teahouse” kicked off the third set and got the crowd in a groove for a fun version of Kool and the Gang’s “Hollywood Swingin.” This set featured some newer dance friendly tunes like “Rosie” and “You’ve Got The World” and closed out with hard hitting staples like “Way Back Home” and “Just One Story.” Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” held down the encore slot sealing the deal on another excellent Halloween performance from The String Cheese Incident. Following a brief stage change, Thievery Corporation took the stage with their worldly sounds blending traditional middle eastern string instruments with laptops and synthesizers.
Saturday started off with a drastic change in the weather. Brisk winds picked up throughout the afternoon causing the park to make the decision to limit camp fires until the wind died down for everyone’s safety. Although the weather was cooling down, the music was just beginning to heat up as Nahko and Medicine for the People brought a fun filled and inspiring west coast vibe to the Amphitheater Stage and Keller Williams hit the Main Stage. Keller served up some grassy renditions of Grateful Dead classics like “Samson and Delilah” and “Scarlet Begonias” as well as originals like “Kidney in the Cooler” and “Doobie in My Pocket.”
The sun was setting behind the trees as String Cheese took the stage for their second show of the weekend. First set featured sit-ins from Nicky Sanders of the Steep Canyon Rangers and Keller Williams culminating in a short but sweet version of “Franklin’s Tower.” Second set hosted a sit-in from Big Gigantic’s Dominic Lalli on the jazz instrumental “Birdland,” while the highlight of the set for us personally was a cover of the Talking Head’s “Swamp” dropped right in the middle of “Rivertrance.” Bollymunster came in the encore slot as it geared us up for The New Deal on the Amphitheater Stage. The New Deal was a special surprise to be added to the line-up as they called it quits after Jam Cruise last year. Pioneers of the jamtronic sound, The New Deal relies heavily on improvisation and building energy in the moment. It was great to see these guys up on stage playing together and having fun again, and we can’t wait to see them again in the future.
Following The New Deal, Big Gigantic took the stage for their late-night appearance on the main stage. This was a highly anticipated set as their set last year was rained out by a torrential downpour that sent campers running for cover and actually flooded certain parts of the park. Big Gigantic delivered a high-energy set with remixes of popular artists like Wiz Khalifa and Zhu. Frontman Dominic Lalli was personable with the crowd speaking multiple times throughout the set and laid down some soothing sounds on the saxophone while drummer Jeremy Salken held down the beat in what looked like a cow suit.
The party kept rolling with The Applebutter Express as they kick up their set on the Spirit Lake stage at 2:30 AM. The late night bluegrass tunes and their cover of Suwannee veterans The Allman Brother’s “Whipping Post” was top notch. As the evening came to a close, we took in the visual spectacle that was Spirit Lake with all its varying art installations ranging from a jellyfish inspired swing set to humongous burning man art car that spit flames and played music. Perhaps one of the most fun installations at Spirit Lake was the Sonic Forest that had poles scattered about that would create various audible sounds as you passed by.
Sunday morning at a festival always brings about a plethora of bittersweet feelings from the joyous satisfaction of all the fun that has taken place to the sobering realization that it is all coming to an end soon; and we will be left with nothing but a memory as we try to enter back into the real world. The wind had died down and the sky was clear, however Sunday wound up feeling like the coldest day of the weekend. Rising Appalachia who has taken the festival scene by storm over the past year brought their organic and uplifting sounds to the main stage while Dean Ween kept the rock n roll alive on the Amphitheater stage.
String Cheese opened their final show of the weekend with “Sometimes a River;” A feel-good tune sung by bassist Keith Moseley that always builds into an excellent jam. “Close Your Eyes” was up next that provided a jam that ran the gamut of various genre’s before ending up as a fast passed version of The Stanley Brothers “How Mountain Girls Can Love.” “MLT” (My Latin Tune) is a instrumental from Hollingsworth was a welcome addition to the set and it was great to see this song show up during this show, as well as on more setlists as of late. The first set closed out with one of Cheese’s oldest and most popular tunes called “Round the Wheel.” This was the first time this song was dusted off in over a year and it certainly disappoint.
After a short break, the final headlining set was upon as The String Cheese Incident took the stage to lay all the cards out on the table. “Colliding” kicked off the set, a newer electronic influenced song that has really blossomed into a fun song since debuting three years ago at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Up next was the Paul Simon tune “Late in the Evening” which was a first time we have seen this song performed. Our favorite part of this song was the a cappella break down ending that saw each member of the band contributing to different vocal themes. Songs like “Look At Where We Are” and “Naïve Melody” reminded us to savor the moment and reflect back on everything that had taken place throughout the weekend while the heavy hitter “Texas” closed out String Cheese’s performance; a song which culminates in arguably the best ending ever.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead closed out the festival on the Amphitheater Stage with a wonderful set of Grateful Dead tunes. JRAD, as it is often abbreviated, is comprised of keys player and long time collaborator Marco Benevento, Tommy Hamilton of Brothers Past on Guitar, Bassist Dave Dreiwitz known most notably from the band Ween and Scott Metzger from Particle on Guitar. These guys cruised through classics such as “Truckin” and “Uncle Johns Band” before dropping into a quick tease of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.” The alarming accuracy and precision of these guys became apparent in the more rare tune “Crazy Fingers” before lighting up the night with a remarkable rendition of “Help on the Way”>”Slipknot”>”Franklin’s Tower” to close out a great weekend of music. This set really shed some light on how timeless the music of The Grateful Dead is and how their spirit lives on in this community nearly 20 years after the death of Jerry Garcia.
It’s pretty apparent that Hulaween may have found its new home at The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. It provides enough space to fit everyone comfortably while still curating an intimate feel, which is a rarity for many of today’s music festivals. While the park plays host to numerous festivals throughout the year with a wide range of musical genres, Hulaween may just be one of our favorite Suwannee fests. Although Hulaween weekend has just ended, we have already marked our calendars and we are counting down the days until next year when we will once again spend Halloween with The String Cheese Incident and about 8,000 of our closest friends.
It all started when a much younger Jackie dove into her parents’ record collection, grabbed that trippy Magical Mystery Tour album, and played “Strawberry Fields” over and over again until it was engrained into her soul. She grew up on the dreams and stories of Simon and Garfunkel, “Bleeker Street” being one of her favorites, the seduction of The Doors, Van Morrison, because “Brown Eyed Girl” is definitely her song, and the likes of Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Jimi Hendrix…you get the picture. It may not show on the outside, but Jackie has a hippie heart, and that reflects in her musical tastes today. While some of her favorites may or may not be jam bands, her taste in music feeds into many genres. From alternative, Brit, and indie rock - OK, maybe all rock - to pop, to rap, to electronic, she loves it all. As a northerner, she thought she would never understand country until she found herself on a Georgia farm in cowboy boots watching Luke Bryan shake it for her- yeah, she got that. She is a chronic wanderluster, she doesn't believe in guilty pleasures, enjoys a great Moscow Mule, and is an absolute music festival fanatic- you’ll find her wherever the music takes her.