The Spirit of Suwanee Music Park’s 5th annual Hulaween festival innovated and expanded upon the String Cheese Incident‘s evolving yearly tradition in truly impressive ways.
With multiple sets of Cheese & my beloved Lettuce, it was a pleasure to revisit and see how the previously magical Spirit Lake area had developed along with the rest of the festival. Arriving on Thursday for the pre-party, it was as though marinating for the super-savory times to be had ahead.
Elohim crafted intelligent rhythms and melodies before Umphrey’s McGee filled the main Meadow stage. Joined by Mike Gordon, the groovy, danceable chill set enticed for the evening ahead. Russ Liquid Experiment‘s sounds seemed “too intense” for a young lady, calling back to her friends after not-long-enough recuperation at her camp, just right for your intense narrator’s sonic-party tastes and perfect prelude to Big Wild‘s wild dance party. String Cheese Incident‘s 1st of seven sets filled the field before the main stage. Dancers illuminated the night with LED-toy-laden gyrations, funky jam fun for everyone. Savory bluesy ribs nibbled at ears and souls alike. Creepy, haunting chords of Sirens stalked our delights, as Cheese harmoniously warned of Halloween hijinks ahead.
Manic Focus‘ electro-infused set got dirty, as we regrettably headed to camp to fill our bellies with more than sweet and savory sounds. A reason to budget more for festival food, if ever there was. After dinner, Cheese‘s second and last set of the night (5 more to go, the 2 full days ahead) blew our minds, with Sweet Spot sung as friends found a sweet spot of our own. Lettuce’s second and final performance of the weekend is exactly what made me a life-long mega-fan of the group, a most mightily transcendent of sets.
Afterwards Bassnectar‘s defining volume shook the ground itself. As Paul Levine, Spirit of Suwannee ‘native’ had said of the mixture of old and new fans and music, there were a bit of apprehension of expanding the festival over such a diverse musical terrain, but thankfully, “the world didn’t end” when Bassnectar played. Indeed, he served as a light in the night for ‘bassheads’ who wanted to lose theirs. Those that couldn’t handle his wicked and viciously high energy set had many other adventures to explore. Hulaween deserves credit for exposing ‘jam’ crowds to more technologically dependent ‘electronic’ crowds and vice versa. Not only do both ‘sides’ have much to appreciate from each other, but the innovative ways musicians may incorporate different musical techniques into their craft only opens doors for the future of music.
Next, The New Mastersounds jams were a splendid, fun time as they always are. Insisting on playing a full 3-minutes longer than ‘permitted,’ those gentlemanly rapscallions are dear to my ear-heart. The John Stickley Trio‘s instrumental finesse surprised, getting astoundingly loud and intense for so few traditional instruments as violin, bass and drum kit, still, lifting back to delicate delights. A quick walk to the ‘Infernus’ mini-stage for some fiery DJ jams, then to the ‘End of Time’ chill-out area and coffee bar (out of coffee, so late at night), Mellow Marsh wove a beautiful MIDI set, fit to chill or dance to, then back to hear the John Stickley Trio finish their set. As the music ended for the night, as a sign of how well produced the festival was, art installations and interactive activities kept nearly the entire crowd around the Spirit Lake stage, long after the music had ended at the ‘Silent Disco’ and ‘Campground’ stages. Despite rumors of a late-night secret set by Bassnectar at the tiny ‘Infernus’ stage, I had to retreat to sleep, not beaten by beats, but to party harder another day.
Starting Saturday with a press brunch with some of the creative minds behind the production of Hulaween, it was clear- music lovers themselves- that they are driven to improve upon the customer experience. Incorporating criticism from social media and other feedback to broaden value each year, weaving participant artists into the fabric of the festival, the organic growth of Hulaween revolutionizes what I thought possible from Spirit of Suwannee Music Park. Such creative and community focused ambition will ensure I return to see what happens next year, but I still had two full days of musical adventures ahead.
Big Something jazzy funk served to jazz them funkers on up. As coffee brewed back at camp-side brunches, the crowd at Amphitheater’ Stage percolated on the dance-floor to the tones Big Something fiercely brewed up. Kamasi Washington‘s legendary, near painfully jazzy, horn and key-laden jams were followed up by the sexiest sounds one man could make, of course he’s a Frenchman FKJ (French Kiwi Juice!) gonadally engaging multi-instrumental soundscapes sharpened salacious senses of the costumed (and oft revealing) dancers on this most temperate and beautiful day of Hula.
String Cheese played their third, fourth (a mind-melting example of ‘shredded’ Cheese) and fifth sets of the weekend, the final time being accompanied by Kamasi Washington and others in a cover-studded set featuring the departed legend, Tom Petty, and other luminaries lost, but not forgotten, as Sublime and Nirvana. Between these, Frameworks got introspective at the Spirit Stage, Beats Antique amazed with fire and music of mystics and machines, and the most engaging set of my night: Nick Murphy at the Amphitheater. They gave a drenching, soul-wrenching vocal performance with instruments riling the crowd into primal movements. Immediately following this set, a ‘hidden’ performance to the back right of the Amphitheater surprised with a small crowd flitting to an unannounced Dispatch performance- one of the many gems, hidden about the festival, throughout the weekend.
Having seen the Disco Biscuits enough to investigate other music, for my final act of the night I had the pleasure of Run the Jewels. Shaking the ground with dirty beats to get the crowd moving. Socially conscious, Killer Mike gave an impassioned shout out for the end of racist divisiveness and a brave call to mental health awareness to combat the scourge of suicide and suffering in silence. We are here to help and hear each other out, he emphasized in a crowd that came to fill their hearts with what we shared through the weekend. Weary, I regretted lack of endurance to investigate rumors of an unannounced Antennae set… hearsay? Given previous night’s wonders, I can only wonder what I missed…
Sadly, due to no fault of Hula’s, I found myself much depleted by the final day of Hula. So much fun, so little energy left as Sunday’s events. Tauk‘s playfully rocking jam ballads served to warm the 50-degree afternoon, our last full day. Stick Figure’s dub-reggae afternoon grooves suit the mood, as we moved towards our last night of music. Cheese sixth and seventh sets earmarked them as paragons of the jam-festival scene while Portugal the Man‘s performance did not impress as much as some years ago, not adding much beyond what could be heard from recordings. Missing Space Jesus, Goldfish and Tokimontsa served as sincere digital music regrets, though seeing Ween perform was a phenomenal treat. With a long drive to work on Monday, we had to leave before Lotus and Griz, though the variety of styles, magnitude of skill and array of artists (certainly more than anyone could see) surely encouradge this journalist to plan for next year’s Hulaween, where many others will be sure to return to as well.