Suwannee Hulaween 10.27 - 10.30.16

Spirit of Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL

Words By Julie Hutchins
Photos By Coleman Schwartz

Few would expect middle-of-nowhere Live Oak, FL to be filled with dense forests of Spanish hanging moss, dark chocolate rivers, and mind-bending music. Spirit of Suwannee is a destination camp ground year round, and has become the faithful host for String Cheese Incident’s annual gathering. As a Suwanee veteran, I certainly felt Hulaween 2016 hit the sweet spot. I really admire how Hulaween invites the West coast to the East. My crew had several people who traveled from Washington and Montana to experience Hula’s magic. All around, I could feel the friendly faces of good ol’ Southern hospitality meeting grassy, mountain town vibes. Personally, I’ve grown up in the South my entire life. Feel free to read this with a heavy Southern accent for your entertainment.

The Spirit Lake Trail and Patch Stage additions drastically improved festival conditions. The natural amphitheater nestled within the moss-laden forest is Suwanee’s treasured gem. Last year it was too jam-packed and hammocks were a no-go. Ground expansion massively diffused the over crowdedness of 2015 and expedited the camp-to-stage commute.

Thursday October 27:

Team "No Sleep" arrived with zero complications and set up camp in time to catch Marco Benevento shredding the amphitheater. He is currently on tour with Karina Rykman and Andy Borger. I really enjoyed Benevento’s jubilant singing through a harmonic voice modulator. Rykman’s unique, fuzzy delay added great texture to Borger’s lively rhythms. Next, we moseyed over to the pirate themed Spirit Lake Stage for Grant Farm. The quartet is a delightful mix of Bluegrass, Psychedelic Rock and Soul. They played many songs off their new album, Kiss the Ground. Their songs transported me straight to the Rocky mountaintops.

Our facile afternoon led into the first line-up quandary. Kyle Hollingsworth Band stacked against Broccoli Samurai. With 7 sets of String Cheese to go, we decided we would see plenty of Kyle, and opted for Broccoli Samurai. My, oh my, what a great choice. Revolutionaries of Jazztronica, Broccoli Samurai, has undeniable charisma and confident improvisation. The quartet effortlessly weaves intergalactic synth waves in between snarky Jazz licks. As we approached the stage, they immediately dropped into a cover of Lotus’s “Suitcases,” which fed a dancing frenzy. I was also particularly pleased with their rendition of the Rick and Morty theme song. Their groove was too legit to quit. At one point, they paused between songs and you could clearly hear Umphrey’s McGee’s Brendan Bayliss crooning Toto’s “Africa” during his sit-in with Kyle, providing additional validation to our decision to stick it out with Broccoli.

I’ve never had the opportunity to see EOTO at any time other than 4:00 AM, so walking back to the hammock covered amphitheater was a no-brainer. Much to everyone’s delight, Jake Cinninger of Umphrey’s McGee and keyboardist Borahm Lee of Break Science sat in for the entire set. Cinninger’s heavy shredding on top of Jason Hann’s beat-blasting rhythms created a dark, Electro-Metal vibe.

After refueling on delicious, homemade butternut squash soup and granola, we departed into a grass loving, rage-aholic’s dream. Umphrey’s McGee kicked off the magic with a heartfelt “Rocker pt. II” into an atmospheric “Blue Echo.” They kept the groove flowing, improving extensively on “Resolution” into “Robot World.”

Feeling high as a kite, we floated over to Fruition. This was my first time seeing Fruition, so I was feeling especially fortuitous. Fruition blends Folk harmonies, Bluegrass and Rock into captivating sing along compositions. The crowd joined in at every chorus and I was surprised at how quiet the air became for “Meet Me on the Mountain,” a song dedicated to a deceased friend.

The blissful atmosphere was raged to smithereens by the raw, rage fisting release only Umphrey’s can conjure. The second set featured a mean-muggin “Mulche’s Odyssey” and exploratory “Nothing Too Fancy” and “Ocean Billy” sandwiches. Overall, the sextet was dynamic and balanced between groovy dance jams and face melt shredding.

Greensky Bluegrass closed out our night with a score of crunchy grass tunes. Greensky kept the vibes light and airy with classic tunes like “Don’t Lie” and “Jaywalking,” with the former receiving amazing treatment in a jam filled with “Back That Ass Up” and “Norwegian Wood” teases. The transition from hard rock into lively acoustic music was a great way to simultaneously retain Umphrey’s intense energy and mellow out. The pre-party definitely set the bar high for the rest of the weekend!

Friday October 28:

Kaleigh Baker and The Groove Orient kicked off the main stage festivities. They were truly grateful to be apart of the experience and brought The Meadow to life. Kaleigh’s vivacious soul alongside the high-powered Rock-N-Roll was a great way to start the day.

Next, Mungion took over The Amphitheater. I was stunned by the fearless and imaginative Midwesterners. Their songs included solid vocals, very weird odd-time changes and endless jazzy chord progressions. Nick Gerlach of Turbo Suit wailed on saxophone to close the set. Keep an ear out for Mungion sweeping the scene.

No formal introduction necessary, Russo, Benevento, and Burbridge took the stage and did not stop noodling for 90 minutes straight. The aficionados deeply listened to each other and took chances as if no one else was around. They explored tense, dark realms and let loose on wild solos. Often the trio explored goofy, wacky sonic realms. The highly coveted trio was by far one of my favorite acts.

After a short break, we boogied with Greensky Bluegrass in the Meadow. They played up-beat, high-energy songs like “Burn Them,” “Kerosene,” and
“Just To Lie.” Kyle Hollingsworth hopped in “Frederico” and Roosevelt Collier sat in on “Breadbox” to close the set. I sincerely admire how Greensky can transition from traditional, string picking to a whirlwind of colorful improvisation. Their songs really tug at the heart space. Overall, I am very grateful to have received two sets of Jamgrass from these musical voyagers.

Concurrently with Greensky’s set, Colorado’s SunSquabi rocked the Spirit Lake Stage. Although I couldn’t rip myself away from Greensky, our photographer Coleman managed to catch the tail end of the set, and he said that their hydro-funk music provided some of the weekend’s strongest and most innovative dance grooves. Afterwards, we all reunited at the campsite before the barrage of headliners began.

String Cheese came out strong. Their debut set was all over the place, boasting some heavy dark jams, I believe in tribute to the upcoming Umphrey’s set. In my opinion, Umphrey’s Friday set song selection was fairly standard, with staples “In the Kitchen” and “1348,” but they jammed. I was really taken aback by a newer tune “Attachments.” The lyrics reflect a mature Umphrey’s, singing about patience and gratitude within Van Halen-esque rock melodies. SCI kept the party going with a round of poppy, happy music. “Howard” was the second set highlight that left the crowd roaring for an encore. SCI brought it home with an old school original “Johnny Cash” satisfying the silly, sentimental fans.

We made a point to watch The Fritz. The quintet is soulful and silky smooth. I was really impressed by their funky performance and synth grooves. Across the board, My Morning Jacket was everyone’s favorite set. MMJ transcends all genre boundaries through elegant Rock anthems and Jim James’ heart wrenching vocals. The glittering disco ball shined like a third eye in the sky, encircling The Meadow with blissful vibrations and harmony.

A well-deserved round at camp led us into late night Bluegrass with John Stickley Trio. Hot diggity was I happy I stayed awake. Stickley’s pickin’ is out of this world and Lindsey Pruett’s fiddle chasin’ kept me stomping till sunrise.

Saturday October 29:

Larry Keel and Drew Emmitt kicked off the day with another round of outstanding bluegrass, featuring Andy Thorn and Jenny Keel in their band. We were able to take it easy in the shade, listening to the strings tell stories. Similarly, Florida natives, Post Pluto boosted daytime spirits with their funky jams. After a brief reprieve, Snarky Puppy was jaw dropping as always. They played on the Patch stage, which made for an intimate, rip-roaring sonic experience. String Cheese started off their 3-set shindig with a 7 song set, jamming extensively on “Rhum ‘n Zouc” and “Turn This Around.”

According to the schedule, instinct would suggest following everyone to Lettuce. However, we had been advised by many of our Northwestern friends to check out the Montana based Progressive Rock band, Cure for the Common. The quartet slayed their set as the near-empty Campground Stage began to fill with their regional fans. Towards the end, more folks peeked in and even Roosevelt Collier made time in his busy schedule to join CTFC for a song.

Feeling very entranced after CTFC, we observed the beginning of the “Stringier Things” set from a bird’s eye perspective. The field was a massive, bouncing mob of characters. SCI teased themes from Stranger Things throughout the 80's set. Cheese brought in the big band for the party, including Rhonda Thomas and Tony White on vocals and the Antibalas horns. The special Halloween set was incredibly afro-funky and damn good fun. Confetti, pyrotechnics, acrobats, aerial dancers, and massive inflatable Rubik's cubes amplified the party. The third set of SCI was definitely some of my favorite Cheese. Groove levels skyrocketed during a massive “River Trance” and “Miss Brown’s Teahouse.” String Cheese delivered an incredibly entertaining night of superb jams and ridiculous antics.

We followed the cheesy energy surge over to The Patch Stage to see STS9. Apparently, everyone was on the same wave-length. Hordes of people moved shoulder to shoulder from the edge of the road to the center stage. Absolute madness. I think Hula was going for intimate STS9, but it was a total cluster-fuck and ought to have been on a larger stage. However, as time went on and spunions transitioned to other places, we were able to squeeze our way to the front for the final 3 songs. Sound Tribe Sector 9 sucked everyone, myself included, into an infinite dance loop. The raw energy and kinetic rhythms completely released my tension and even our dancing neighbor’s clothes!

The late night Bluegrass trend continued with Keel and Stickley’s Guitar Freakout into a Grass is Dead Jam. Unfortunately, the sound was clipping and cutting out during both sets, and it was not the best listening experience. However, Stickley, Keel, Pruett, and Grant freaked out nonetheless and no one in the crowd seemed to let the issues bring them down.

Spirit Lake is the ultimate late night experience. There are so many activities! The Lake included prime seating accompanied by an enchanting laser light show. Endless dimensions and apparitions floated above the hazy water. Imagine thirty foot fire breathing sculptures, dozens of hand painted murals, massive mandalas, and more fire domes. The meditation tent covered in cozy carpets and fluffy pillows became my second home. Curator, mastermind Andy Carroll and his team did a spectacular job of inventing interactive space and building upon the last year’s foundation. I cannot say thank you enough to everyone involved in creating this fantastical dreamland!

Sunday October 30:

Sunday our bodies told us it was time for rest. We slept in until String Cheese and joined many others on tapestries. Cheese however had no intention of taking it easy and played an incredibly groovy, jitterbug set. “Get Tight” featured Tyler Grant of Grant Farm and “Rain" into "Bolly Munster” was the perfect funk segue to leave the crowd yearning for one more set.

Rebelution was super fun and a nice Reggae intermission. I loved how everyone in the crowd sang along and kept the doobies burning. String Cheese’s final set was chock-full of sit ins. The Traveling McCouroy’s, Dom Lalli and Jeremy Salken of Big Gigantic, and Motet’s keyboardist Joey Porter all joined the stage to help close out String Cheese’s marathon of music. Much to everyone’s delight, SCI announced Hula would indeed be happening again next year.

The Claypool Lennon Delirium’s original tunes are totally characteristic of a spooky Halloween. Many people around me commented on how “fucking weird” they sounded. The Delirium lifted everyone’s confusion with a dark cover of The Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Everyone dispersed from The Amphitheater feeling perplexed, yet content.

I’m sure Big Gigantic and The Motet absolutely crushed their set, but we opted for Twiddle as our final act of Hulaween. The quartet from Vermont jammed out a five song set, including crowd favorites “Jamflowman” and “Doinkinbonk.” They even played a newer track called “Blunderbuss,” an intensely progressive number that evoked memories of the Umphrey’s sets earlier in the festival. I’ve known so many people to write off Twiddle only to have their faces melted by the quartet’s shredding synchronicity. A perfect choice to finish out Hulaween with a bang!

Hulaween was a total success from start to finish. I have so much gratitude for Suwannee and everyone involved in putting on this unique gathering. It has been really special to see this event grow and transform into one of best festivals of the year. See you next year, Hula!

Coleman's Photo Gallery


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