Of Coffee and Contemplation: A Stringier Look Back at Suwannee Hulaween 2016

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.

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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.

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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.

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Thursday

 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.

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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.

Umphrey’s McGee wasted no time and unleashed a first set loaded with classic cuts and rarities that had to satisfy at least some of the jaded Umphreaks out there chasing songs. Highlights included “Rocker 2,” “Blue Echo,” “Resolution,” “Robot World” and “Wife Soup.” Fruition, the almost acoustic and always soulful grass band, and Florida jam favorites The Heavy Pets kept the people dancing and/or otherwise raging before Umphrey’s returned for a second set of face melting funkmetal. The whole set flowed seamlessly, beginning with the dance track “Bad Friday” which transitioned into the headbanging anthem “Mulche’s Odyssey” that was followed by a raucous rendition of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” As the show progressed, people continued to stream in, joining the growing ranks at the Amphitheatre and filling the tightening space with an edgy, intense energy that seemed to feed into the band’s playing which took on a sinister tone and ferocious tenacity. Jake Cinninger’s ninjaesque guitarwork was on full display on “Nothing Too Fancy” which segued into “Speak Up.” Another fan favorite, “Ocean Billy,” allowed Brendan Bayliss to show off his vocal prowess and then went back into the end of “Nothing Too Fancy.” Umphrey’s then wowed fans with the encore by dropping a breakneck version of “Slacker” which went on to segue back into the finish of “Ocean Billy,” leaving fans awestruck, impressed and primed for the weekend. Check out fan shot footage below.

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqhX1BZePV4[/embedyt]

Greensky Bluegrass brought Thursday’s live action to a close with yet another genre-bending set of tunes, twice fitting a “Back Dat Ass Up” jam into their set which also featured a cover of Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” as well as fan favorites “Train Junkie” and “Windshield.”

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Friday

Friday was easily the busiest day of the festival, offering attendees a more-than-you-can-eat buffet of performances collected from every corner of the musical universe. J4CK D4NK led off the afternoon with a DJ set, the first performance at the Patch stage, then Orlando locals Kaleigh Baker and the Groove Orient broke in the Meadow, Hulaween’s main stage, by effortlessly weaving rootsy grooves and soaring vocals into the placid breeze and pleasant afternoon vibes. Next up on the Meadow stage was the reunion of superband Russo, Benevento and Burbridge, featuring three of the tastiest players on the circuit, all of whom were coming together following deep water dives in the Grateful Dead tank with JRAD and Dead and Company, respectively. The set was essentially a master-level workshop of raw improvisation and complex musical expression.

Friday’s schedule was stacked high with major national touring acts, but organizers left plenty of room for a number of the up-and-coming groups that are well on the way to becoming household names in the near future. Mungion, a guitar-driven band hailing from Chicago, and their Windy City cohorts, the electronic rock group Future Rock, both impressed with sets at the Amphitheatre. The ascendant jamtronica trio Sunsquabi played a highly anticipated set to a packed house at the Spirit Lake stage which then went on to host the futuristic soundscape artist Slow Magic. And while Hulaween gave a plethora of new artists the chance to attract new fans, they had to earn it as many of them were in conflicting time slots. Live hip-hop/RnB group Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals, master beatmaker and dance engineer Boys Noize and progressive jammers The Fritz all had to compete for their share of the audience in the 11 PM timeslot. But there’s nothing wrong with a little competition, especially since festivalgoers were free to navigate Hulaween’s choose your own adventure-style throwdown with relative ease and a little light walking.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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The second set started with Michael Kang taking up the fiddle to lead the band through “Hi Ho No Show” and handling lead vocals on “It Is What It Is.” The real story of the set, however, is the three monster jam vehicles that were rolled out in quick succession. “On the Road” clocked in at just under twenty-five minutes while “Shine” and “Howard” both topped the fifteen minute mark. Then, much to the trippers’ delight, the guys encored their wacky mushroom boogie “Johnny Cash.”

Long after the headliners had packed it in, the party raged on. Quixotic threw down a late night set at Spirit Lake, giving partiers all they bargained for and more with their exotic concentrate of drums, violin and EDM, then the Jon Stickley Trio closed it down with one last genre-bending performance of jazz-tinged Americana instrumentals. But the silent disco stayed open as the party animals soldiered on deep into Saturday morning.

Saturday

Much like Friday, Saturday’s lineup offered no respite for the weary and more than enough action to keep the hardiest partiers lit. Nashville rapper MZG fired up the next one at the Spirit Lake stage only hours after the silent disco had cleared out, ushering in another full day of farflung performances. The de facto battle-of-the bands created between the Amphitheater, Patch and Campground stages gave Hulaweeners endless chances to see a broad variety of the most dynamic young acts on the scene, just not all at the same time. Come Back Alice, a fiddle-funk outfit from nearby Sarasota, FL, shared the noon-thirty timeslot with the electronic artist Artifakts; Louis Futon and Marvel Years split the crowd with dueling electronic sets at 2:30; and Manic Focus brought the live band to the Amphitheater while Brooklyn born Snarky Puppy treated an oversized crowd to an artful set of improvised jazz fusion at the Patch. Enjoy footage Snarky Puppy’s set below.

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzWS67bgH3Q[/embedyt]

Later in the evening, Rüfüs Du Sol, the chart-topping dance trio from Sydney, Australia, excited fans at the Patch with their sultry vocals, daring leads and exotic beats, while Spirit of Suwannee mainstays Lettuce pumped out the funk for the booty shakers at the Amphitheater, then brought out Alecia Chakour to add her towering vocal talents to “What Do I Have to Do?” and Syl’s Johnson’s “The Love You Left Behind.” The 11:00 time slot hosted simultaneous dance parties sprung from entirely different ethos. Logic laid bare his verbal acumen over a bed of club beats, while frequently engaging the people in amateur-hour stage banter. Then there was STS9, who uttered hardly a word, electing instead to immerse their rabid fan base in deep waves of dope grooves and dense clouds of supersonic subtlety, delivering a relentless set of Tribe favorites, from the opening track “This, Us,” which segued into “When the Dust Settles Reprise,” all the way through the “EHM” encore.

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With so many electro-tinted perfomances taking place, the rootsier offerings at the Meadow stage made for a palatable juxtaposition. Iconic picker Larry Keel joined forces with Drew Emmitt, of Leftover Salmon fame, in keeping the grass growing thick and blue, unraveling a set of melancholy mountain music that included covers of Janis Joplin’s “Take Another Piece of My Heart” and Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” Next up, Brooklyn product Antibalas, an afrobeat jazz ensemble, invigorated listeners with a sunny, swinging show that primed Suwannee for the String Cheese Incident, who then took up residency on the Meadow stage for three full sets.

The revelry began with SCI cutting loose on a relatively new tune, the disco-flavored “Stop, Drop, Roll.” The fellas traded off vocal duties throughout the first set which saw them trot out a pack of fan favorite jam vehicles including “Restless Wind,” “Turn This Thing Around” and “Joyful Sound.” Cheese brought the first round to a close with “Can’t Wait Another Day” which had the audience discombobulated with anticipation for the carefully calculated “Stringier Things” themed set of covers that would follow.

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The “Stringier Things” set was an over-the-top production designed to be the climax of the weekend’s festivities. The stage featured the ominous “Stringier Things” text blazoned across the screen, peals of sinister laughter blaring from the speakers, a fireworks display and the whole band in costume, plus SCI invited guest vocalists Rhonda Thomas and Tony White, as well as their friends from the Antibalas horn-section, Martin Perna, Jas Walton, Jordan McLean and Jeff Pierce, to lend a hand on some hits from the 1980s. The show attracted the weekend’s largest crowd and despite a shortage of open space, it was evident that nearly everyone had a costume and an inability to resist the urge to Cheese out. Some of the highlights were “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” The Clash hit central to the first season of the television series Stranger Things, Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science,” GnR’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” the B-52s smash hit “Love Shack” and a medley that began with Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” They tricked fans with a “Thriller” tease that segued into “Never Gonna Give You Up,” thus signaling to the Hulaween faithful that they had been Rickrolled, before finishing with the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.” Lastly, Cheese encored the only song appropriate to cap off their “Stringier Things” set, the Talking Heads’ anthem “Burning Down the House.”

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After a much deserved break, the sextet returned for a third set, jumping immediately back into standard Cheese fare with 2014’s instant classic “Colorado Bluebird Sky” which was followed by a fresh one, with the always smooth Keith Moseley taking the lead vocals on “Sweet Spot.” The next sequence began with “Rivertrance,” then moved into a “Believe>Way Back Home>Miss Brown’s Teahouse” combo complete with a Rubik’s cube jam which saw the audience passing around several giant inflatable Rubik’s cubes, pressing SCI’s authentic improvisational and songwriting chops to the forefront. Another one from 2014’s Song In My Head, “Colliding,” gave the crowd one more well executed jam, then SCI asked their guests back onstage and sent the people into the night on a high note with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.”

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While the String Cheese Incident took center stage on Saturday night, organizers did keep the options open for festivalgoers in search of something different. Washed Out threw down a chilly set of ambient jams that won over the crowd at the Spirit Lake stage as did Vancouver-born livetronica band Bob Moses, performing in costume as Guns n’ Moses. And after SCI finished, the Meadow hosted Disclosure’s DJ set. Hailing from Surrey, England, the Grammy-nominated electronic duo kept the heads bobbing late into the night. Meanwhile at Spirit Lake, New Orleans rockers The Revivalists dropped in with one of the strongest performances of the weekend. Their set was funky with a twang, kept up a stomping groove, included original, deliberate lyrics served up in grave rock n’ roll vocals and garnished with two Nine Inch Nails covers, “Closer” and “The Hand That Feeds,” which brought the stew to a hard boil. After The Revivalists, Spirit Lake housed the evening’s final live air performances as Larry Keel and Jon Stickley collaborated for an Americana styled guitar freakout, then South Florida natives Grass is Dead brought it all to a finish with a set of bluegrass-leaning Grateful Dead arrangements.

Sunday

Hulaween’s final day, although a much shorter affair, stayed in sync with its predecessors, providing a bevy of diverse performances across the several stages. The Travelin’ McCourys initiated the early afternoon action on the main stage, bringing their storied bluegrass chops to the Meadow, while El Dub impressed at the Spirit Lake stage with his hip-hop infused one-man band project. Spirit Lake also welcomed a full roster of arists of the rise, including reggae funk rockers Spritual Rez, San Francisco-based electronic artist Illenium and experimental Australian DJ What So Not, all of whom added their efforts to Hulaween’s burgeoning pool of creativity.

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Once again, the Patch, Spirit Lake and Campground stages split up the audience with a variety of peak performers. Standouts amongst the numerous options were The Motet, who crafted a designer set of Rocky Mountain funk for the Amphitheatre, while Thriftworks followed the previous night’s fire-domed set with an afternoon jump-off at the Patch. Adding yet another layer to the mosaic, Rebelution administered a dose of roots reggae that had everyone swaying in unison. Meanwhile at the Patch, the Brit-pop duo Oh Wonder stitched yet another genre into the Hulaween quilt, giving fans a taste of their catchy originals. The final round of shows on these secondary stages pitted up-and-coming Chicago electronic duo Louis the Child against newly instated superband The Claypool-Lennon Delirium who mesmerized a hard listening audience with a brooding set of feverish psychedelic sludge, one that included the uncanny pairing of Primus’ “Southbound Pachyderm” with the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

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As they did the two evenings prior, the String Cheese Incident put on their big shoes and held down the Meadow for the bulk of the day. Taking the stage a little earlier for a 3:00 set, the battle-tested jamsters got down to brass tacks once more with “Song In My Head.” On a night when SCI enlisted a number of friends to lend a hand, Tyler Grant of Grant Farm was the first, helping to nail down “Get Tight,” a new tune he co-wrote with SCI bassist Keith Moseley. The first set ended with a blistering “Rain>BollyMunster” pairing that had the battle-weary crowd bouncing like astronauts to Michael Kang’s cosmic fiddle work.

Paying tribute to their bluegrass backstory, SCI invited the whole Travelin’ McCoury gang up for the start of their seventh and final Hulaween humdinger. They led off with the oft-covered Stanley Brothers’ classic “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” dusted off the traditional folk ballad “Shady Grove,” then tackled the Rusty Wier tune “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance.” More rousing jams and sit-ins followed as Dominic Lalli, of Big Gigantic notoriety, and Joey Porter, from The Motet, joined SCI for a sexy strut through “Freedom Jazz Dance,” then Jeremy Salken, also from Big G, came out for the “Round the Wheel > Percussion” segment before Dom Lalli returned for the String Cheese Incident’s final sendoff, laying down sax on the boundary-defying rager “Beautiful,” a fitting finale as the tune perfectly encapsulated the eclectic Hulaween adventure in one nugget.

After Sunday headliners The Claypool-Lennon Delirium and the String Cheese Incident tore through Hulaween, it was up to festival closers Twiddle and Big Gigantic, featuring the Motet, to clean up the debris. Vermont trailblazers Twiddle packed it in for the final time at the much beloved Spirit Lake stage, opening with “Subconscious Prelude,” a lyrical, piano-led ballad which bled into the saucy reggae-dressed number “Jamflowman.” The alchemic foursome tested their improvisational limits, only walking out five songs for the entire set which also included the uptempo “Doinkinbonk,” guitarist Mihali Savoulidis’ vocal romp “Every Soul” and one of 2016’s trippiest new releases, the no holds barred headbanger “Blunderbuss.”

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Meanwhile, over at main stage, Boulder-based livetronica duo Big Gigantic, featuring members the Motet, was busy taking the opposite approach as Twiddle, helicoptering through a dizzying magazine of new material, standard jams and radio hits that had the Meadow breathing hard and screaming for more. Highlights from the set included a combination starting with a remix of Kanye West’s “Get Em High” which moved into the new song “Highly Possible” and was followed by 2014’s “Blue Dream” and a soaring take on Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s “All the Way Up.” Big G also paid homage to SCI’s Rickroll prank by wheeling out Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” but instead of merely teasing it, they let it ride and added a drum jam to boot. In bringing it to a smashing finish, Big G whipped the audience into a frenzy one last time with new songs “Miss Primetime” and “All of Me,” then closed with the always raucous “Touch the Sky,” sending the cast of Hulaween characters out of the upside down and back into the real world again.