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Hulaween: Where you can expand your mind as well as your group of friends.
This festival is huge! 20,000 people, 5 stages and the ultimate art spectacle: Spirit Lake. Come with me as I navigate this huge festival day by day!
TUESDAY (yes, Tuesday)
The park fills up fast, so if you want a good spot at this party, you must arrive early. Tuesday afternoon I pack the new whip with a friend and we drive to the happiest place on Earth: The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida. This place has everything. Big stages, tons of art and lights, awesome amenities, and even an ice cream shop. We set up camp right behind The Amphitheater and put up huge tapestry walls for privacy. We have a large group and everyone brings something to the table — food, walls, candy, and decorations, no one comes empty handed. Camp starts to take shape as the sun sets on our first day in the park.
So after a day setting up (and drinking), the sun begins to set and we hop in the golf cart to take a ride. Oh yeah, did I mention this is the only festival in the country that allows the patrons to drive golf carts? Well it does! We arrive at the river to enjoy its calming sounds before the event gets into full gear. Toes in the sand, Applebutter Express turned all the way up on the speaker, but we can still hear bass off in the distance. So, we mount up and ride out into the darkness. Not far away, we find a small road behind the cabins that leads down to the river. Here, Positive Collaboration from Tallahassee has set up a beautiful, small stage with precision landscaping and projection mapping on the structure itself. The chaos has already started tonight with Joshua Purves, Spence Garrity, and Suki Chan putting on a party for the people.
Sleeping in late is hard to avoid with the weather being so nice. Not long after we wake up the music starts and that’s our cue to get out of camp! Walking through Spirit Lake for the first time is awesome. Amazing art and interactive installations are peppered into the park next to the lake. These seasoned artists have created a mural maze, smoldering teeter-totters, cool photo spots to stop at with your friends, as well as a two stages for your ears to enjoy.
We are only passing through right now on our way to see Kyle Hollingsworth Band (the keys player for The String Cheese Incident). I can’t help but beam with excitement as we walk into The Patch and hear them covering “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel. Next they play “Can’t Wait Another Day,” where guitarist Dan Schwindt (The Motet) shreds. Kyle is wearing a colorful cat shirt and is very animated on stage. “Let’s Go Outside” is the final song of the set with Rage Against the Machine’s “Killin’ In The Name” woven in the jam fabric. They finish “Let’s Go Outside” and then go back to finish the Rage! Headbanging at Kyle’s set is unexpected but awesome! From here I have a bunch of camp time. I get to reel in my gorgeous girlfriend and a few others as we fill up our saved camping space. I miss some great sets, including Circles Around the Sun of which I heard many good things. The late Neal Casal has been replaced by Lettuce’s old guitarist, Eric Krasno.
Chicago’s Umphrey’s McGee is the main course for me this evening and I am salivating on my way to The Patch. They jump right in with “40’s Theme” and have the fans jumping and shouting immediately. They play my new favorite songs, “Night Nurse,” and “Slacker” for the packed house. Huge solo during “Wife Soup” for lead singer and guitarist, Brendan Bayliss who has grown back his mustache for the event. They are trying out a new light guy and I have to say that Ben Factor is knocking it out of the park. I can hear people around me gasping and pointing at the lights on stage as he moves from pulsing lights to beautiful scenes in great balance. They finish the set with a fiery “Jajunk” > “Ringo” > “Jajunk.”
We progress to The Amphitheater where Greensky Bluegrass is set up for a heater. Another great intro song as I arrive to them covering Prince’s “1999.” They make it their own, think Prince in overalls drinking moonshine. Their slower song “In Control” is twangy and full of feels. Anders Beck is so good on the dobro it has me floating. His sweet playing in combination with Paul Hoffman (mandolin/vocals) is simply divine. It’s no wonder why these guys are on top and I’m am so stoked to get my first experience with them. They pass the baton so well it’s seamless and their flawless play builds mountains of momentum as they climb tonight’s set list. “Kerosene” and Springsteen’s “Wings for Wheels” help my already floating body to take flight! It’s about this time that I realize that Beck is wearing an Afro wig on the dobro. David Bruzza (guitar) shines bright on the dark stage with a long skillful solo during “Leap Year.” He shakes the beat and goes off to do his own thing before slowly joining back with the band on their way out of the jam. You can tell these guys know and trust each other. The set ends and I refuse to leave, hoping for an encore!
After a moment at The Complimentary Bar inside Spirit Lake I get a chance to see the Polyrhythmics from Seattle. Their sound is similar to new Lettuce and I love every minute of it. I arrive to see them mashup Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” with I assume music of their own. They are funky and fun!
The powered music is over for today, but that doesn’t mean the party will stop! I stop at camp before heading over to a friends for late night powered jams. I am enjoying my friends and the scene, but did stop to watch Ella Jet and friends cover Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West.”
Today starts with a surprise birthday cake for my friend in camp. We sing and cheer to celebrate our friend. He’s actually one of two birthdays in camp this weekend. What a way to celebrate! We finish our community gathering with hot biscuits and gravy. I didn’t make it to the set, but Brandon “Taz” Niederauer is special. Playing The Beatles’ “Blackbird” into The Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain,” back into “Blackbird.”
I get to my first set of the day with The Motet in The Meadow. This funk collective from Colorado is one of my favorite bands. The crowd gets movin’ and groovin’ with”The Truth,” where trumpeter Parris Fleming lets loose a huge solo. Keys player Joey Porter won’t be left behind as he dazzles with an electro-squealing solo with plenty of wubs and dubs. It’s at this moment that I see Ryan Stasik, bassist for Umphrey’s McGee, walking through the crowd. I spring into action and bounce over to him and give him a big HULA high five. I’m never washing this hand again …
The Motet continue their set with a cover of Next’s “Too Close” and has the funk-mob singing along to the 90’s R&B hit. They keep with the theme, jumping into “Return of the Mack” as well as “This is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan. This disco-funk band finishes the set strong with “Jokes On Me” and we dance all the way back to camp singing their songs. A short time later and we’re back in The Meadow for more funk, this time it’s Lettuce!
I’m in the back of the field, enjoying a chicken gyro with a ton of lettuce, while the band plays “Purple Cabbage.” This and other songs have long jam sessions for these guys to show off their elite improv skills. I can see a guy throwing heaps of lettuce onto the crowd from his giant suitcase. Fans are getting down as they approach the end of the set. “Phyllis” and “Trapozoid” finish this late afternoon set with power!
I head to The Amphitheater for another big set. Rage Against the Machine’s guitarist Tom Morello is backed by a DJ for his debut to The Spirit of Suwannee. He starts by playing in the middle of the crowd and solos for a while before moving to the stage. The pipped in music is EDM centered and an interesting crossover. I could maybe compare the sound the Conspirator or maybe even Marvel Years. I’m glad I saw some of it, but I moved on pretty quickly to The Patch for a bit of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. I catch all of “Poseidon” and Greg Ormont’s enjoyably wacky voice. Jeremy Schon plays a mean guitar and has such a sweet tone. The whole band is in matching jumpsuits and they are totally in sync. They play their newest single, “King Kong” during which they have a feature moment for drummer Alex Petropulos. He mixes things up and shoots the dice back on the table where everyone feels like a winner. At this point it’s time to hit camp again and sit and eat before the evening run begins.
The break isn’t long, but luckily I can hear the Spirit Lake Stage from my camp and listen to a bunch of the Tauk set. My recent run in with them at Jam Cruise has made me a die-hard fan. They play a bunch of favorites including “CMF 9000.” When we arrive to the set fans are fire breathing above the crowd with a Chinese dragon. It floats and weaves above the crowd to the music.
We take a tour through Spirit Lake on the way to The Patch for Sound Tribe Sector Nine. Colors flood the stage as they inundate the crowd with their own brand of “livetronica.” The drummer, Zach Velmer aka Mac from Always Sunny, is the hardest working man in the park. His emphatic, marathon drumming is amazing and he seems to love every minute of it. They have him up on a platform right up front so everyone can feel his vibes. They have a rapper join them for a song and a singer as well. The hip-hop flavor fits well and the whole mass of fans bounces and moves together to the music. I love how they build up to a drop and instead of doing the norm, they space out to a light and fluffy plateau that feels so good and welcoming. I can hear people around me breathing “ahhhh” as they enjoy the composition of the music. No long build ups, only strong bass lines! We leave the set early to catch a little of Clozee in The Amphitheater. She is an French producer drawing creativity from non-musical things like art or weather. Her sound is very bass heavy and The Amp is filled to capacity. She covers “Loud Pipes” by Ratatat while a guy twirls his color changing fiber optic whip next to me.
Then we arrive at The Meadow for The String Cheese Incident’s second set of the day. Earlier in the day they welcomed members of The Motet for “Get To You” and the Meter’s “Hey Pocky Way.” Now in this set they start with “Valley of the Jig” while I sit in the back eating food with my friends. There is giant yellow “HULA” in the meadow that is being projection mapped with changing shapes and colors, really making those letters pop!
Suwannee Hulaween has a ton of awesome music tonight, so we can’t stay long. Instead, we back track to Spirit Lake and see some of Break Science (Live Band), which is essentially Lettuce with Borahm Lee on keys and samples. Paired with aerial performers, they are a great appetizer for tonight’s Umphrey’s McGee set. We couldn’t have been standing there for long before a group of our friends appeared out of nowhere to rally us to the UMPH set. At The Patch Stage, Umphrey’s plays the huge rock number “1348” as well as “Higgins,” and a really fun “Wappy Sprayberry.” They launch into “Remind Me” and I have to stop some friends from leaving the set so they can see the end of this song, dubbed “Sex Metal.” The thrash and headbanging section allows everyone to let out their inner beast at this Halloween extravaganza.
The entire set it seems like Jake Cinninger (lead guitar) is a force to be reckoned with. Like a twister he solos outside of the framework of the music. On the left side of the stage is an F-5 that rips everything he touches to shreds. Umph finishes the set with a killer mashup of the Beatles’ “Come Together” and Nine Inch Nails “Closer,” called “Come Closer.” I was hoping for a Tom Morello sighting at this set but was disappointed to find out that he helped STS9 with their closing three songs, which I missed. With no time for a camp run we head straight to The Meadow for one of this weekend’s headliners, Bassnectar! The biggest producer on the planet starts his rager with “Chicken Dippaz” and also plays “It’s About To Get Hectic,” “Upside Down,” and “Duck Trumpet.” There are glowing signs and poi everywhere. Not a free step to walk around so I have to bounce off of people to get where I’m going. Fans “ohh” and scream as he unveils the next section of music in the set. The lasers and bass are more than the folk in my group can handle and split for camp. I take this time to dance my through the mob and people watch. The hype is real and I feel like this was a set that could convince someone on the fence to enjoy the B- B- B- BASSSSSS.
One last stop at Spirit Lake Stage for the YouTube sensation Marc Rebillet. He’s a looper/producer who made it big by making videos in his living room while wearing a variety of comfort-wear. The set is fun, until someone in the pit has a seizure. The music stops and Ribillet organizes the crowd to make way for emergency workers. After they get him up and walking to Spirit Care, I head to camp to meet up with my friends. We hit some late night jams and even make it back up to Spirit Lake for Jon Stickley Trio. They are a progressive bluegrass three-piece chalk full of talent. It’s not long though, until I can’t stand any longer. My bed is calling me …
Getting out of bed is difficult today … The miles and lack of sleep are starting to calculate. After a hot shower and hot food I think I have successfully tricked my body into thinking that it can make it through another day at Hulaween 2019.
The first music of the day for me is an afro-cuban band from Jacksonville, FL by the name of LPT. These guys fuckin’ jam. Their sound is a welcome break from the same ol’, same ol’ of the weekend. It seems like every member has a set of congas or some percussion near them so everyone is playing at all times. Couples dancing breaks out all over the place and I am smiling big while watching my festy fam get down to salsa.
I head from there to The Amphitheater for a taste of CharlesTheFirst. He plays his heavy bass music to a large group. Heavy dub on his layered patterns of bass. Fans are enjoying “Step/Time” and many others at this afternoon EDM set. From there I head to The Meadow for The String Cheese Incident’s first set of the day. They begin with “Dudley’s Kitchen” before moving into the popular “Get Tight” which transitions to Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” in the jam portion. I love this! The weather is breezy and the music is on-point! “Miss Brown’s Teahouse” and “Colliding” round out this delicious set. I hit camp again to recharge (I’m struggling today) before heading back to SCI’s second set. Entering The Meadow I have hoopers and jugglers all around me. Music fans are with their friends, laughing and enjoying each other at the set. This is what it’s all about. I’m having a blast as they play the afternoon away. The set ends with a whirlwind of songs, “The Wheel” > “Drums” > “Birdland” > “Wheel Hoss” > “Birdland” > “Howard.” You should know that Nershi (guitar) got his exercise during “Drums” by wildly running around in circles on the stage. LOL!
Thundercat is next and man is it weird. This 80’s synth jazz set is way off the beaten path. Plucking and slapping his bass while the drummer speeds things up in the background. He even sings in falsetto for a period. It was good, but not enough to keep my attention.
We frolic over to the Campground Stage for Orlando’s Shak Nasti. We arrive right as they are finishing “Monster.” Which is fitting considering their bassist, Matt Lapham, is playing wearing a Grim Reaper hood and cloak. They have guitarist Syoma Klochko playing with them. He’s a killer musician and is only 22! From there it’s a race to get back to The Meadow in time for SCI’s 90’s theme set. This year the title set is “Smells Like Teen Spirit of the Suwannee!” Their theme set music is great but, it’s even more amazing to all of the festival is in one place. The String Cheese Incident takes the stage to the theme song from the hit 90’s movie, “Men In Black.” The gather in the front of the stage for a photo before taking their positions for this anticipated third set.
“Give It Away” (Red Hot Chili Peppers), “Santeria” (Sublime), “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana)> “Loser” (Beck)> “One Hand In My Pocket” (Alanis Morissette)> “The Wedge” (Phish), “Creep” (Radiohead), “Even Flow” (Pearl Jam), “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls*” (TLC), “No Diggity*” (Blackstreet) > “California Love*” (Tupac) > “This Is How We Do It*” (Montell Williams) > “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It*” (Will Smith) > “U Can’t Touch This*” (MC Hammer) > “Groove Is In The Heart*” (Deee-Lite)
*features vocal performances by Rhonda Thomas & Tony White.
As the music begins sparklers appear in the hands of dozens of people in the pit. It’s so awesome to hear this massive crowd sing every word back to the band in “Santeria.” People assume the characteristics of their costumes here: I was just given candy by a man dressed as Willy Wonka. During “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” performers reenacted the music video in cheerleader costumes of that drab dark colors and yellow pom-poms while the band grunges out. Rhonda sings with power and accuracy during “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls.”
Earlier in the day I’m walking through Spirit Lake when I’m gifted a wristband by an old friend. Just moments afterward I ask a friend if they know anyone who wants to attend the festival and they tell me they have a friend who is packed and ready to go. So without hesitation I hand her that wristband so she can “miracle” her friend into the park for this once in a lifetime party! During this set is when I receive my thank you hug.
Cheese finishes the big set a dance party, “Groove Is In The Heart.” Huge streamer cannons fire during the big finish. We follow the mass of the crowd to Flying Lotus. He’s a jazz/hip-hop experimental trance EDM producer who takes the expected Hulaween-weird to the next level. He’s standing on a platform on stage mixing in front of a screen with a cube corner shape in front. The screens are projected on by two different visual artists for a full psychedelic affect. This dark, exploratory set was fun, but it was difficult to dance to, so we migrated to The Campground Stage for a group I haven’t heard of before: The Travers Brothership. I like them right away walking into an extended and well executed solo by drummer, Eric Travers. His twin brother Kyle Travers is a pure terror on guitar with his hot licks at full volume guitar make him scary good. Their music contains hints of reggae, blues and other styles as they play songs off of their new album, “Let the World Decide.” A set full of soul and funk keep us dancing until we have to depart for camp. Getting off of our feet is now a top priority as the miles of this marathon weekend add up.
A wayy too short break laster and we are back on the prowl for the party. We head to Anderson .Paak, but first get a taste of Doom Flamingo at Spirit Lake Stage. Starring Ryan Stasik of Umphrey’s McGee on bass, this 80’s-styled synthwave rock band also features powerful vocalist, Kanika Moore! We stay for just their cover of “Love is a Battlefield” by Pat Benatar, but I heard later many good things about this rising act. Arriving at The Meadow for Hulaween 2019’s headlining act we were in awe of the bright lights. He’s teasing Kanye, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and people are getting their boogie on. We weave through the crowd to the front just in time to see .Paak jump into the crowd and dance among the fans for a few moments.
His set includes:
“Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” “Saviors Road,” (.Paak howls at the Moon), “Come Down,” “Tints,” “King James,” “6 Summers,” “Glowed Up” by Kaytranada, “Smile,” “Reachin’ 2 Much (Keyboard solo into “Cant Tell Me Nothing”-Kanye “Pony”-Ginuwine “California Love”-Tupac “Old Town Road”-Lil Nas X) “Make it Better,” “Put Me Thru,” “Suede,” “Bubblin’,” “Milk ‘n’ Honey,” “Jet Black,” “Am I Wrong,” “Lite Weight,” “Dang!” a Mac Miller Tribute
Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals are all dressed as the iconic rock band, KISS. Shirtless and wearing a huge dark, curly wig as well as white face paint, Anderson delivers hot and fresh for this hungry Hulaween crowd. At the end of his set he moves back to the second set of drums in the center of the stage. Here he leads the band with his outstanding beats. It’s been a great dance party and the mob of music fans is ecstatic in its response to this big time set. Our group of friends break up as the crowd disperses. We can hear the end of Doom Flamingo’s set on the way back to camp as they cover Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Game.” I’m exhausted from the days activities but muster the last of my power to head back into the venue for some freshly cut bluegrass with Grass is Dead. Billy Gilmore (banjo) and his band are a welcome change with their skillful pickin’ across Grateful Dead tunes and more. They also cover Little Feat’s “Skin It Back,” and “Spanish Moon.” That’s it. I’ve had it. Must Sleep.
After sleeping as long as humanly possible, I get up and take a hot shower at a friends camp. I feel somewhat recharged but still need to eat as much healthy food as possible to recharge my depleted batteries. I’m tired but can’t be lazy today, the music is too good to miss!
First up is Billy Strings at the main stage. He’s a young up and coming bluegrass guitarist who has created quite a stir in the strings scene. His version of jamgrass or acidgrass is everything you could want from a flat-picker. His songs are warm and meaningful as well as great for a sing-along. But, that’t not why he’s so popular. He’s rising to the top because of the exploratory approach and his wicked chops on that six-string. I arrive to the set to hear him covering Widespread Panic’s “All Time Low.” He’s got his long hair braided into cornrows and I have to admit: this is my first ever bluegrass in cornrows set I have ever been to. I was tired before I got here and now I can’t stop dancing. I have a big smile on my face as this kid leads the full Meadow to the promised land. The breeze blows and the cool air gets a big reaction from the crowd. Arms up and heads back as the band moves into “Old Folks at Home (Way Down Upon Swanee River)” by Stephen Foster. After filling my heart to the brim they play “Dust in a Baggie.” Here Billy Strings solos with impressive awareness. Like a fan moving to the front of the crowd, he knows right where he wants to go. Not only that, but he has the ability to skip, jump, and dance along the way to his destination without mistakes or hesitation! “Turmoil & Tinfoil” closes this amazing afternoon set. Don’t miss this guy. He and his band are on their way to the top. I recommend seeing him before the crowds get too large!
Sunday afternoon continues with the last music from The String Cheese Incident. Cheese has Billy Strings and the boys join them for a tunes at the top of the set and man is it impressive! Easily handing the solo from one musician to another, they flawlessly move through “Walls of Time” by Bill Monroe. They also play “Rivertrance” together with amazing musical etiquette. After Billy Strings leaves the stage SCI continues to wow with “Bolly Monster,” and Keller Williams’ “Best Feeling Ever” which contains an “Exodus” tease in the jam. Kyle on keys takes a moment to get the crowd to choose a new hat for him.
After a large selection, the crowd chooses the taco hat and they start playing a big, beautiful “Colorado Bluebird Sky.” What an awesome weekend of music from the band that brought everyone here: The String Cheese Incident who is celebrating 25 years together in 2019! We catch the end of Bisco offshoot — Star Kitchen before calling it quits for the night. Exhausted I hang out at camp with friends as we laugh and have campfire jams.
I love Hulaween and think you should too! It’s a festival for everyone! Come here for the killer musical lineup, but get charged up with new friends, amazing art and this special feeling you’ll never forget at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, here in North Florida.
Suwannee Hulaween 2019 Review by Spencer Storch.
Suwannee Hulaween 2019 Photos by Richie Williams and Carmelo Conte III.
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