Suwannee Hulaween brought together the most eclectic group of music lovers one could imagine in closing out festival season 2016 with a bang. The folks from Silver Wrapper teamed with Purple Hat Productions to transform The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park into a psychedelic imaginarium complete with mind-boggling art installations, a Ferris wheel, timely pyrotechnics and a silent disco which played host to the wildest weekend-long costume party in the east, featuring a star-studded lineup of the world’s best acts.
Without a doubt, the artists, presenters, producers and park staff created a dazzling festival, spectacular for its out-of-the-box design, lively collaborations, and action-packed schedule. But Suwannee Hulaween has also cultivated an efficient and functioning logistical infrastructure that offered attendees a pleasurable and convenient experience built on a system of freedoms and cooperation which eschewed many of the customary delays, shortcomings and traffic jams commonplace at other high-caliber festivals. The park is set up with multiple entrances, free trollies to and from the stage, several bathhouses with showers, general stores, lake and river access, VIP sections, a wide array of food vendors and craft beer by Lagunitas and dozens of other vendors, all conveniently arranged to give patrons equal and open access to the amenities. In lieu of the strict parking policies at many major events, which force campers to set up in order of arrival, thus making it more difficult to get a camping spot of one’s liking or to set up with late-arriving friends, at Spirit of Suwannee one is free to search the park at leisure to locate and carve out a one-off spot among the many acres of primitive forest or field camping.
The real charm of Hulaween, however, is not the grand masquerade of free spirits in costume, but the down-to-earth people who don the masks, most of whom are every bit as clever and farfetched as their various disguises. Among these dedicated showgoers, it was impossible not to learn some minuscule factoid about an artist, relive some major microcosm of a previous set or gain some fresh perspective on the whole scene just by exchanging stories. And it was indeed refreshing to see so many local and regional fans in full-throated support of one of the premiere venues in the South and equally encouraging to learn that thousands of fans journeyed substantial distances for the get-down. Walking from show to show, stage to stage, one was as likely to cross paths with a new friend from Live Oak, Miami or Tallahassee as one was to encounter an old friend from Oregon, New York or especially Colorado, a state so well represented at Hulaween that it deserves its own shoutout for sending such a huge, good-timing delegation of devoted fans and badass performers including The String Cheese Incident, Big Gigantic, The Motet, Sunsquabi and Grant Farm.
The Spirit Lake and Campground stages hosted the pre-party’s first shows. Florida’s own, Grammy-winner, Trae Pierce and the T-Stones, lit the wick on the weekend, treating fans to their fierce style of funk. Meanwhile, Future Vintage delivered a hip-hop set to open the Campground stage. Marco Benevento’s dance rock trio brought out a solid crowd of earlycomers to the Amphitheater, colloquially known to Spirit of Suwannee veterans as the “Mushroom stage.” After three shows, fans had already been exposed to three genres of music, thus setting the tone early as radical genre exploration became an ongoing motif throughout, delighting the audience with shock after surprise in culling notes from the far reaches of artistic possibility.
The next round of shows followed in suit, bringing two more musical perspectives into the mix as Grant Farm, a rocking Americana act with deep bluegrass and country-blues roots, played the Spirit Lake stage while Unlimited Aspect blazed the trail for the EDM acts to follow. Next, two String Cheese Incident SCIde projects took turns prepping the audience for the evening’s headliners. First up, Kyle Hollingsworth let SCI fans sample the funk ahead of SCI’s headlining sets, dropping a full dose of keyboard wizardry on the crowd. Eoto stepped in next, adding Borahm Lee of Break Science on keys and Jake Cinninger of Umphrey’s McGee on guitar, putting the night on the fast track with a crunchy set of improvised jams that left the audience raving and ready for more. Then, the Ohio-based rockers The Werks got in on the action, jolting Suwannee into the right frame of mind with a cover of “Frankenstein” before giving way to the pre-party headliners.