Since 2013 The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park has been home to The String Cheese Incident’s annual Halloween weekend festival, Suwannee Hulaween. This year was no exception, with the festival returning to the amazing venue grounds this past weekend, from October 27-30. Technically, Hulaween is only a three-day festival taking place from Friday to Saturday, but there is an option for a pre party to make it one glorious four-day weekend (which we did). Hulaween is a multi-genre music festival whose lineup gets more diverse every year; as well as more stacked, with bigger and bigger headliners. This year’s line-up saw the likes of all kinds of different genres and artists including but not limited too; seven sets of The String Cheese Incident; My Morning Jacket; Disclosure; Logic; STS9; Big Gigantic; Lettuce; Gramatik; Umphrey’s McGee; Boys Noise; Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals; The Revivalists; and many more. The Thursday night pre-party was the biggest in the festivals history, and included Umphrey’s McGee (2 sets), Greensky Bluegrass, Eoto and Friends, Marco Benevento, and many more.
Thursday rolled in quite auspiciously, with festival goers from all across the country converging on the beautiful swamp land that is Suwannee Music Park. Everyone was eager to unpack and set up their campsites and additions to our new community for the weekend. When you first get to the grounds you are queued into this line to get your wristband and what not in this huge open field, but as soon as that’s completed you are told to hang a left directly into the woods and that’s where the magic begins. As soon as you get through the gate you realize you’re at something that’s like nothing else and completely all its own. The setting is absolutely gorgeous; you are camping in a picturesque southern swamp complete with huge Georgia pines, and live oaks. All of which are completely immersed in Spanish moss that create this natural canopy in the tree tops above the campsites, serving as a shield from the unforgivable Florida sun. In the middle of the property there is Spirit Lake. It’s a small circular lake, that’s in actuality smaller than most ponds, but it is absolutely gorgeous; especially at night. The lake is surrounded by the canopy of trees, and at night there is a laser light show that illuminates the entire canopy around the lake in transcendent neon colors, that one could just get lost in.
Spirit Lake now has two stages in the immediate area around it, and is also full of beautiful fixed artwork and sculptures, performance artists, and interactive things to do throughout. Right outside the Spirit Lake stages is the second largest stage at Suwannee, and my personal favorite, The Amphitheater stage. It’s just like any other amphitheater one would normally go to, in that seating slopes down to the stage from the top of a hill, making it to where there’s really not a bad seat in the house. The Meadow stage, or the main stage, is just past The Amphitheater and past the vendor area, in this huge field that could probably fit at least six or more football fields. This is where major headliners preformed all weekend, including all seven sets of Cheese.
Just to the left of the main stage and a little back up in the woods was the newest and final stage, The Patch. Personally, I loathed this stage for two reasons. One, to get there you had exit the center area of Hulaween, meaning you were searched again, and any food or drink had to be discarded before entering or leaving, even if you got said food or drink from a sanctioned vendor. Two, it was a super small area for patrons to see a show; especially for the size acts they had there, so it would get absolutely jammed packed during sets. Not to mention, to get back to the main area you had to walk down this make shift alley that would bottle neck traffic, and back it up for damn near twenty minutes. On top of that, the whole path was lined with port-a-potties that weren’t cleaned out until Sunday, so you can imagine the smell in that twenty-minute wait. There were a good bit of artist I wanted to see at The Patch (as well as Butthutt Jax, my favorite festival food truck) but due to the inconveniences caused by the set up, I only made it to that stage twice.
I lucked out in that my group had gotten to Suwannee on Wednesday night to secure a solid campsite. Especially since the year before saw such an influx of patrons to the park, and inadvertently such a shortage of campsites and parking locations. Music started on Thursday a little after one in the afternoon, but due to unforeseen circumstances I wasn’t able to get to Suwannee and set up until about five in the afternoon, so the first set I caught was EOTO and Friends. EOTO, is an improvisational electronica band that consist of Jason Han and Michael Travis; both of whom are drummers for The String Cheese Incident. They had both, Borahm Lee, from Pretty Lights and Break Science, and Jake Cinninger, the guitarist from Umphrey’s McGee, sitting in with them, and it was pretty damn good. I had never seen EOTO before, but they made it known at the beginning of the set that they play to the crowd, and that’s exactly what they did. The crowd got most into it when the drums got heavy, the keys got funky, and the guitar started to shred. After about 15 minutes, it turned into the craziest guitar solo/funk jam I had ever seen at an electronic show, for the remainder of the set.
EOTO was followed by 2 sets Umphrey’s McGee that were, to say the least, ridiculously jammy. Each song seemed to last fifteen plus minutes at least, and there was never a moment of chill during any of them. Just high energy, ramped up jamming for the entirety of each set. Set one was highlighted by an incredible rendition of No Diablo, that had the entire amphitheater rocking and singing their hearts out. Set two’s high point was during the super tripnotic, extensively jammy cover of David Bowie’s song, Let’s Dance. However, my favorite set of the evening, and surprise set of the weekend, was the late night Greensky Bluegrass set in Spirit Lake. I had heard a few of their songs, and was definitely a fan going into the show, but this band live something else entirely. They have a traditional bluegrass style mixed with a jam band aptitude, but it’s almost like they are playing in a different key entirely than standard bluegrass; making the music sound so much different. That music style, mixed with low melodic voice of the lead singer, makes it hard for anyone not to get into the music a little bit. Anything they played was good, even though I didn’t know the majority of it. My two favorite parts of the set were when they covered Back That Ass Up by Juvenile, and Money for Nothing by Dire Straits. They weren’t my favorites because I necessarily like either song, but seeing this style band preform those two completely different covers and kill it, just made me smile. After the set ended, the night continued to roll on, with the newly expanded silent disco kicking it off and running until 5 am. There seemed to be a consensus that this had been the best pre-party to date, and it definitely set the tone for one hell of a Hulaween.
FRIDAY: DAY ONE
Friday morning came a little too early for everyone I presume, because it damn sure did for me. I woke up in fog, to the sound of a distant sound check, and high-pitched giggles right outside my tent. Hulaween was officially here, and there was an excitement that took me a little while to grasps that morning. After I got a great pulled pork sandwich in me from Butthutt Jax food truck, I found my festival legs and we got going. The first set we caught on Friday was Russo, Benevento, and Burbidge at The Meadow Stage; which had Joe Russo, the drummer from Joe Russo’s Almost Dead; Marco Benevento who is front man for the self-titled Marco Benevento; and Oteil Burbidge, the bassists for the Allman Brothers, as well as Dead and Company. This was literally an all-star jam for a little more than an hour. Not a single word was sung that I can remember, but these three jammed like there was no tomorrow with a drum kit, a bass, and key board.
Next, was back to Spirit Lake for Sunsquabi. They are a future funk band, kind of along the same lines as The Floozies, and they got the funk down to say the least. They are a part of GRiZ’s label, All Good Records, and were one of the only artist to represent All Good, but they definitely did the name proud. The whole crowd was vibing and bobbing to the heavy bass lines and funky keys. After that was Future Rock at the Amphitheatre Stage. To be quite frank, I was little disappointed in their set because last years was so good, but it still wasn’t bad by any means. It just wasn’t as amped up as I remember the show being. It was almost like an ambient rendition of the band for that set. Once that had ended we made over to the first of seven sets, of The String Cheese Incident for the weekend, and it was really twangy and super jam heavy. They ended it with a cover of Lonesome Fiddle Blues by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; which rolled perfectly into an all-out jam for Lets Go Outside to close out the first set.
Right before that ended, I made my way to The Patch stage to catch one of the most high energy sets of the festival, Gramatik. His set has never disappointed me before, and this was no exception. It started out bluesy as all get out, then got a little funky; all right before the heavy drops came with all the old Grizmatik tunes. He may have had a broken leg, but that didn’t stop him from getting into all the energy the crowd was putting out; and let me tell you, they were going absolutely bananas. That small area for The Patch stage was packed from front to back, and every single person was raging their funking hearts out. He closed it with the dirtiest version of Pay (For What) of all time. In the words of the homie Jeff, “He played that dirty ass trap music!”. His set was so perfect for that moment in time (aside from him not hitting the Stevie Wonder, Superstition remix).
Immediately after that was Slow Magic, who turned out to be an incredible performer. I went in with high expectations because of how good the music was, and he surpassed everything I had hoped for. The music is such ambient electronica, mixed in with funky bass lines, and then all intermingled with him playing a key board, sounding like an electric organ, and beat pad live. The crowd was in the palm of his hand the entire set, and feeling every second of the music throughout their bodies. It closed with a great remix of Say My Name, by Destinies Child, that was most likely about to faded into a version of his most popular song Girls. Unfortunately, we will never know, because the sound board director cut him off since he already gone over on the set time.
Following Slow Magic was one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend for me, in Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals. Their album Malibu is arguably one of the best alternative hip-hop albums of 2016, and his live performances have become renowned throughout the festival circuit this past season. The Amphitheater wasn’t as filled out as I had expected for the set, but that didn’t stop the entire place from rocking with every song that was played. The place was out of control the entire time music was actually playing. It just seemed to be hit after hit the entire time, and the crowd knew every single word. The band just ate up the energy and fed off of it, getting down even more than they already were with every roar of the crowd. My only gripe with the preformance, was Anderson .Paak talked a little too much about nothing in-between songs, but other than that it was a magnificent performance. Highly recommended if you get a chance to see them.
Utterly exhausted after so many good sets back-to-back-to-back-to-back, we meandered back to camp for a minute to refuel on a few beers and other vices, trying to get ready for My Morning Jacket. It was a struggle to get some of the crew to get over to the set, because they hadn’t really felt any of the studio stuff the band had put out. I’ll admit I’m not the biggest fan of the studio stuff either, but that band live is something magical. The lead vocalists and guitarist, Jim James, is one gifted dude; both vocally and on the axe. The set was so groovy and melodic, mixed in with some of the most transcendent guitar solos ever played, that I couldn’t help but simile. The set was highlighted, for me, by three covers that almost brought tears to my eyes; Rocket Man by Elton John; Easy (Like Sunday Morning) by the Commodore’s; and Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd. The entire crowd, even if they had no clue who MMJ was, were belting their hearts out for every single one of these covers, and it was one of the most beautiful sites I’ve witnessed at a festival to date.
That was the final set of the evening but the night was still far from over. Late night Spirit Lake was just getting weird and good. There was plenty to do for the freaks like me that just wanted to wander throughout the late night. The Silent Disco started getting down around 2 am, and it was newly expanded so at any given time there was 250 plus people rocking with late night DJs. Last year’s disco was kind of annoying because the area was so small, it was damn near impossible to get in and get a pair of headphones. That issue was definitely addressed this year, and everyone seemed pleased by it. If you didn’t want music made on a laptop (not a dig, just a fact), there was also a late night bluegrass set every night starting around 3 am on the Spirit Lake stage. We ended the evening, or started the morning rather, with a nasty set by Vlad the Inhaler that had everybody moving into the early hours of the morning.
SATURDAY: DAY TWO
Saturday morning, and pretty much throughout the entire day, I was in state of foggy nausea due to the previous night and days fun. I woke in my tent around 10:30, again to the sounds of giggling, and a discussion of the previous night’s acid trip from my neighbors; who obviously had a little better time than I did by the sound of it. It took me an hour or more just to muster up enough energy to get off the air mattress and do something resembling the start of my day. Finally, after about three hours on the struggle bus, I felt ok enough to see some music and it started off with Antiballas; a Latin funk fusion band that can get down. Their horn section is second to none, and sets the tone for entire bands performance by just giving it everything they got, every song.
After physically suffering through that set due to the night before, I went back to camp and just posted up in a hammock for a bit before all the night-time festivities began. We caught a bit Manic Focus on the way to first Cheese set of the evening. They are another All Good Records artist, again utilizing funky bass lines, that are then mixed in with soulful and blues filled electronica, to create a sound all their own, that nearly anyone can seem to get down too.
Once we had our share of Manic Focus, we ran to The Meadow to get a great spot for Cheese’s first set of the day, and damn was that a good decision. Originally I was bummed to be missing Washed Out, who’s like chill wave version of Tame Impala, but once Cheese got into the meat of the first set all was forgotten. Half way through the set the boys busted out a cover Stevie Wonder’s song, I Wish, which sent the whole crowd into a roar of approval, and plastered ear-to-ear grins across everyone’s face. They closed the set at sunset, by pulling out two huge crowd pleasers; Joyful Sound and Can’t Wait Another Day. The whole field erupted into song and dance like you hadn’t seen all weekend; during each songs chorus, every single person started screaming the words at the top of their lungs in approval. There wasn’t a more beautiful sunset in the world at that moment, because nowhere else was it mixed with the pure joy of 20,000 beautiful people grooving to great music, in a place as amazing as Suwanee.
Unfortunately, we had to miss Lettuce playing in-between the first two sets, because it was time to get ready for the Halloween cover set. It is a themed set, usually in line with the holiday and a particular decade of music, which happens every year during the second set on Saturday. This year’s theme was “Stringier Things”, after the smash Netflix series of the summer, Stranger Things. All the music to be covered was strictly 80’s; 80’s dance party to be specific. A huge part of this set every year though is the crowd, because if you plan on dressing up in a costume at all over the weekend, it has to be for this set, or don’t even bother. I was the DJ Marshmello, and even though he had nothing to with this festival once so ever, it seemed everybody I encountered knew him and loved the outfit.
The set started just as its name sake, with the screen behind the stage projecting “Stringier Things” in the same style as the show; the same ominous intro music played with the projection. The extended band for the set filed onto stage, and included the horn section from Antiballas, along with many others. Cheese got right into it from the start, playing that classic 80’s funk rock with a cover of The Clash’s song Should I Stay or Should I Go? After that the hits just kept rolling in, and the crowd was eating up every bit of it. They covered so many amazing hits that you couldn’t even keep up. They covered She Blinded Me with Science by Thomas Dolby; White Wedding by Billy Idol; Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns and Roses; and so many more, that they never allowed the crowd to stop moving and dancing the entire set. During a cover of Queen’s, Another One Bites the Dust, they released these twenty by twenty-foot inflatable Rubik’s cubes that bounced around the whole field, from front to back, the remainder of the set. My favorite two song of the set had to be when they played Love Shack, by The B-52’s, and then when they closed the set out with the best cover of Burning Down the House, by The Talking Heads, I think anyone has ever seen. Along with the Rubik’s cubes already bouncing around, for the final song they released a huge inflatable Stay-Puff marshmallow man over the crowd (you know, GHOUSTBUSTERS!); as well as, fired off at least a half a dozen confetti cannons, and the only “sanctioned” firework show of the weekend. The production for this set was completely out of a dream, and was astounding to witness in person. That show was something no one there will ever forget; it would be impossible too.
Somehow, after that incredible set, Cheese came back out to play their third and final set of the evening. Granted it had nothing on the set before it, but honestly nothing ever will; that being said it was still great. They opened it with one of my favorite songs they have, Colorado Bluebird Sky, and then later closed the set with an incredibly funky version of, Miss Brown’s Teahouse. The final set of Cheese for the day was over and everyone was filing out of The Meadow, when out nowhere the entire extended band for the “Stringier Things” set came running back on stage to do one last song. They officially closed the night out with one encore song, and it was probably the best cover of the night. They played Signed, Sealed, Delivered by Stevie Wonder, and they sure did the song proud. Everybody that had already started to leave, including us, sprinted back down to the hill to get as close as possible for this one last dance fest of the night, and it was worth every second. Those three sets together culminated into one of the best, most fun nights I’ve ever had at a festival, and I highly doubt I’m the only one who feels that way.
Due to how hard we danced during the three Cheese sets, none of us really had the energy to go catch Logic, or STS9 unfortunately, but that’s how it goes sometimes. You can’t catch absolutely everything at these things or you would run yourself into the ground. The final set of the night for me was later on, and the time conflict forced to miss Disclosure; but there was no way in hell I was missing a second of The Revivalists. They are New Orleans style rock band, who have really blown up in the past year with the release of their third, full length album, Men Amongst Mountains. They only played an hour, but they poured their souls out on that stage for entirety of it. Giving every song absolutely everything they had from start to finish. Even if you had no clue who the band was, it was impossible not move and bang your head a little bit during their astounding performance. Definitely a must see if you ever get the chance. Once that ended the crew and I try to bounce around Spirit Lake for a little bit to enjoy the last night in Suwannee, but the exhaustion caught up to everyone real quick. We decided to call it semi-early, like 3:30 or 4:00 am, to rest up for the next and final day.
SUNDAY: DAY THREE
The final day was by far the most relaxed of the four-day weekend. I finally awoke to the sound of nothing; except people packing up campsites all-round me, and preparing for the festival to be over so they coukd trek back into the real world. I did the same. Before we went to a single set that day, the crew broke down and packed up essentially the entire site. For the first set of the day we caught The Motet, who came on right before Cheese. It was the perfect style of chill, soulful, funk to start the day off with. The front man is a hell of a performer, and kept the struggling crowd into the show entire time, so kudos to him.
The mid-afternoon Cheese set that followed was probably one the most laid back and chill sets of the weekend. They opened it up with Song in My Head and it only got better from there. Usually the Sunday afternoon set is heavy bluegrass, but they switched it up this year and really chilled it out, which seemed to be perfect for the mood that afternoon. Following that was an incredibly funky reggae set by Rebelution at The Amphitheater. They had the whole place vibing along the entire time. I had never really given them the time of day until seeing them here, and I’m so glad I did. The funky beats, mixed with the island style brass section of the band, creates for unique fusion of reggae and classic American funk, which is sure to not disappoint. That horn section was something else altogether, they alone made me a fan.
Once that ended, I got exclusively into the EDM for the remainder of the festival. Illenium played directly after Rebelution, and it was just as good as I had hoped for. It’s almost like melodic trance trap or dubstep mixes, that you can’t help enjoy if you’re a fan of EDM. He’s been running through the festival circuit all summer and is definitely a must see for an EDM fan, but honestly just a music fan in general will find some enjoyment in it. Just think San Holo meets Porter Robinson, and their music had a baby. It’s a great show, and I highly recommend it.
After that was What So Not, and that was a little too heavy for me at the time. It wasn’t bad by any means, it was just deep EDM and I wasn’t feeling it right then; but the crowd was for sure getting into it from beginning to end. Following What So Not, we made the hike back to The Patch stage one last time for Louis the Child, and this was my second most favorite surprise of the weekend behind Greensky Bluegrass’s Thursday night set. Louis the Child is multi-genre-multi-style EDM duo (kind of like when The Chainsmokers started out) that have gained a lot of respect this past year due to their live shows and two killer singles. The group consists of two brothers that haven’t graduated high school yet, but are they are arguably better than most of the EDM artist out right now. Each drop was its own secret surprise; as soon as you think you understand the structure of a song, they would throw a curve ball into the mix that would completely switch it up, making the crowd go wild every time they did it. Definitely a must see.
Finally the last set of the weekend came from the fathers of future funk themselves, Big Gigantic. They closed out The Meadow stage, and the festival for that matter, with super intense, high-energy set. Big Gigantic came out featuring The Motet, so everyone knew they were in for something extra funky and extra special. They started out real funky, hitting some of the classics and a lot of the new bangers from the new album, Brighter Future. About half way through the set, a couple of members of Cheese came out to help Big G and The Motet get down with possibly the best remix of Michael Jackson’s Thriller ever preformed. Artist had been teasing it all weekend, but had never pulled the trigger completely on the song. Big G did, and it was well worth the wait; the crowd was absolutely elated. They closed their set getting super raw at the end with some live mixing, that then faded right into the crowd pleasing, Touch the Sky to officially close out the weekend.
Hulaween 2016 was definitely one for the books, and in many ways seemed to somehow top 2015; I never thought it would be possible after that Odesza set (if you were there, you know). Suwannee is just such an amazing venue, it would be damn near impossible to ever have a bad experience there, but the Hulaween 2016 staff made sure this year’s festival would be an event nobody would ever forget. The production was out of this world; behind every corner there was something that caught your attention and made you stand in awe. From the beginning to the end of each day, there was nothing but good music, great vibes, and beautifully weird smiling people as far as the eye could see; making every moment of the weekend one of pure joy for those in attendance. It was nothing more than a temporary community made of tents, but it was filled with nothing but love and great souls. Granted, that can be said about any festival to certain extent, but there is just something about Hula that seems to facilitate that feeling of awe, oneness, love, and joy more than any other one I’ve been too. I know I’m not alone in saying I can’t wait for 2017, because even though Hula seemed perfect this year, it’s a fact they will undoubtedly find ways to make next year even better. At this point I can’t even comprehend how, but I’m so excited to find out. To say anything about this year’s festival would be a drastic understatement, but in the words my Hula crew, “It was not chill, it was f**cking HEATED!”
Written by Truxtun Umsted
Photography by Truxtun Umsted and Josh Fitts