Stashed between the emerging artists and the headliners were four of the tightest, big energy shows of the weekend. Coast-hopping funkateers Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe brought their talents from San Diego to Suwannee, packing the Amphitheatre full of shuffling feet for a mid-afternoon set; then Greensky Bluegrass blazed through a ripping list of bluegrass tunes on the Meadow stage, inviting Kyle Hollingsworth up for “Federico” and Roosevelt Collier up for the closing number, “Ain’t No Bread in the Breadbox;” then Gramatik set up shop at the Patch, hitting listeners with a lowtemp set that had the neighbors chirping all weekend; while Umphrey’s McGee returned to the Amphitheatre for a follow-up and uncorked a furious one-set heater that had the sextet going ham on catalog classics “In the Kitchen,” “Prowler,” “Cemetery Walk II” and “1348,” leaving their devotees waiting in vain for an encore that wasn’t to be.
My Morning Jacket, having already stolen the show, not to mention the hearts of hundreds of concertgoers at festivals all across America this year including Jazz Fest in New Orleans, Austin City Limits, Lockn and the Bridge School Benefit in California, drifted through Suwannee Hulaween on a magic cloud, enlightening and invigorating the massive crowd of animated characters, homemade cartoons and masked ghouls with a subtle, visionary, baleful blend of dark, delicate ballads. The opener, “Wordless Chorus,” set off a harmonious chord that would carryover into the uplifting but foreboding “Compound Fracture.” Then, under the direction of bandleader Jim James, MMJ slipped into more sinister territory on “Evil Urges” and “Lay Low” before caressing the fearful energy away with a moody take on Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” Medicated versions of “Steam Engine,” “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)” and “Tropics” anticipated the resounding, joyous combination of “Circuital” and “Easy.” And, as Jim James led the audience through a singalong of the Commodores’ classic, he bared his hopes for the Hulaween gathering, saying “…I hope you love each other, I hope you tell your friends and your neighbors and your family how much you love them, how much you want us all to be free, to be equal, to treat each other with respect and dignity, everybody, with love, we can never have enough love…” before imploring the people to vote. Cloven-hoofed versions of “Run Through,” “Highly Suspicious” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. II” followed, then, invoking a wretched electoral prescience it turns out, MMJ sent the crowd into hysteria with a cutthroat rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. II.” They finished the stunning performance with their hit “One Big Holiday.”
All that and no mention so far of the belle of this strange ball, The String Cheese Incident. The energy was tangible stagefront in the buildup before the first SCI set of the weekend. A mob of purple costumed Cheeseheads had the whole Meadow abuzz with anticipation by the time the guys came out, led by Bill Nershi in goggles and glistening turquoise who hit the stage running before quarterbacking a handclapping intro to “So Far From Home.” SCI standards “Rhythm of the Road” and “Dudley’s Kitchen” had the crowd amped before the sixteenth ever performance of “Love is Like a Train.” Lengthy takes on “Betray the Dark” and “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” showed everyone in attendance that the String Cheese Incident has a tendency to set the bar high for themselves, even given the fact that they had six sets yet to go. In true Hulaween fashion, SCI boarded the genre-jumping shuttle and closed their first go-round with Kyle Hollingsworth’s funkrap favorite “Let’s Go Outside.”