If Frank Zappa was right when he said that writing about music was like dancing about architecture, then what in the world can be said of the otherworldly assault on the senses that was 2017’s Suwannee Hulaween? While the festival, now in its fifth year, continues to evolve, one thing has remained true - The String Cheese Incident knows how to put on a party for some of the most colorful people on the planet.
The major differentiator between this year’s festival and years past wasn’t even included in the three-day ticket. Thursday’s pre-party saw a night full of bands that headline festivals by themselves and have followings all their own. With that sort of staggering firepower, there were bound to be some hiccups at the gates. Entrance to the fest was smooth early at the 8AM opening, but bottlenecks did occur when the Internet went out late it in the morning. Waits as long as three hours were reported.
All was well once the music started though.
Nth Power’s recent transition into a power trio has put renewed focus on guitarist Nick Cassarino, whose relentless playing is a perfect complementary to Nikki Gillespie’s charisma behind the kit. The band put on a wailing set that proved gospel and soul could have a ferocious edge.
The tunes of one man band Zach Deputy were the first draw to the re-designed Patch Stage. Last year’s Hulaween was the debut for the stage and was a bit of a failed experiment, with overcrowded dance space and ill-conceived paths to the stage. One of the great things about this festival, though, is that founders and organizers Paul Levine and Michael Berg listen to feedback. This year’s edition saw the stage flipped to better utilize the slope of the land, and walkways to the stage were shortened and made more clear.
Up next was the much-hyped Spafford, who draws the obvious comparison to jam macdaddys Phish, but can stand on their own. This dusk set was the perfect intro to what the band is capable of. They’d follow it up later in the festival by succeeding in the heavy task of following The Disco Biscuits. More on that later.
As night fell, we got what we really came for - back to back Umphrey’s McGee and JRAD sets sandwiched between Lettuce and Greensky Bluegrass outings. Standout segments of this madness came from a 12-minute ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ from Umphrey’s, a mind-bending and improvisational-filled second JRAD set that closed with ‘Playin’ in the Band’ -> The Other One -> Shakedown Street, and a genre-smashing Greensky Bluegrass set that saw JRAD guitarist Tom Hamilton sitting in. Paul Hoffman remarked on the absurdity of the night by proclaiming, “Well, we just saw all our favorite bands in one night.” He was only kidding though. He could be seen bouncing around the amphitheater crowd the following afternoon.
Never has the phrase “it’s a marathon not, a sprint” rang more true than after this string of music. We crashed well aware of what was ahead of us for the weekend.
One of the best things about any music festival should be the discovery of new music. This happened immediately Friday morning with Lemon City Trio delivering the tightest set of funk of the weekend not named the New Mastersounds. Even though there were as many people doing yoga in the crowd as were bopping to the Charlie Hunter-inspired tunes, the band delivered a smooth set that was a huge takeaway from the festival. They’re worth keeping an ear on.
Michal Menert assembled his Pretty Fantastics band to combine his production skills with live instrumentation. The set also featured a rapper dressed as a pizza slice. If that’s not your thing, lighten up. It’s fun.
The first sounds from the main Meadow Stage came from Dumpstaphunk. The rock edge was more obvious than the usual funk fare from the double bassist band.
Marco Benevento worked the poppier angle of his repertoire with his solo band as Greensky Bluegrass somehow emerged with just as much energy as they had in their set just twelve hours previous.
One of the most looked forward to sets was upon us, with Phish bassist Mike Gordon and his band ringing in the amphitheater as the sun came down. While Gordon’s tunes aren’t the psychedelic balls to the wall frenzy of a Phish show, it’s still musicianship in high form and features something you rarely see in those Phish shows - Gordon smiling. The addition of guitarist Emily Elbert and keyboardist Madi Diaz gave the set a special St. Vincent and Talking Heads vibe.
Many times on a festival lineup, fans will speculate for longshot collaborations to happen, but leave disappointed when they don’t. In looking at the Hulaween schedule, it became obvious that organizers Levine and Berg were willing a Benevento/Russo/Gordon collaboration to happen, as their scheduled slots were strategically placed back to back on the amphitheater stage Friday evening. That collaboration did in fact happen, in a definitive nod to a simpler time in jamband lure.
Then Cheese time came.
The highlights of these two sets came in the opening segment of the second set. When ‘Howard’ opens a set, you know it’s bound to get dirty and heavy in a way Cheese typically doesn’t reach. The sets also featured Billy in a hooded sweatshirt, flatbill, and sunglasses the entire night. While cynics could point to this being a play on the Bassnectar crowd, my money is on Nershi being proactive with the symptoms of vertigo he’s experienced and that kept him from a recent show for the first time in the band’s history. Here’s to hoping these issues stay away. His playing was unaffected the entire weekend. The band brought out world music and bellydancing group Beats Antique for a first-time live collaboration to close the set.
Bassnectar presented the most controversial set of the of the festival. The music will forever remain different strokes for different folks, but it’s impossible to deny the brunt force of this audio and visual assault. Concerns about the crowd the act would bring to the fest were largely unfounded, despite a bottleneck in the walkway between Meadow Stage and the Spirit Lake Stage. Fear of trampling was a legitimate concern, but once the funk of New Mastersounds was reached, smiles ensued. The set featured a guest slot for keys player Chris Spies. He and New Mastersounds guitarist Eddie Roberts, Soulive keyboardist, and longtime Col. Bruce Hampton Bassist Kevin Scott have a new band called Matador! Soul Sounds that’s worth a follow.
Saturday at Hulaween is always a special time. Where else can you see a bearded man in an Alice in Wonderland tutu rubbing elbows with an old school military type at an all you can eat country breakfast? And them enjoying one another’s company.
Mobile-based Yellowhammer brought an early set of jam cover staples to the Campground Stage. Band founder Ben Jernigan is making large strides in making Mobile a music city on the rise. He’s at the forefront of the Outsider's Ball featuring Phil Lesh, George Porter Jr., Ivan Neville, Eric Krasno, Marcus King, and more happening later this month.
Perpetual Groove brought the Athens love and the most school pride of the festival. It was Saturday in the South after all. UGA was everywhere.
All sorts of unlikely relationships are forged at Hulaween, both between fans and bands. There’s not a better example of this than the partnership that’s happened between modern jazz powerhouse Kamasi Washington and String Cheese Incident. Washington’s huge band and stage presence made its place know, both during his set and with a later guest spot with ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’.
At the same time, upstarts Aqueous were filling the jam void. Check out our recent review of Aqueous' Halloween show in Birmingham, AL here: Aqueous Makes Powerful Alabama Debut On Halloween Night.
The three-set extravaganza that is a String Cheese Incident Hulaween Saturday began in the sunshine at 5:15. Heavy on the newer and less exploratory songs, the opening set was lackluster by the band’s lofty standards.
The crowd was split between downtempo electronic/disco producers Poolside in the gap in Cheese sets. While the buzz was all about Poolside, Beats Antique proved to be the bigger party. It’s a sight to behold every time this crew gets on stage.
Back at the Meadow Stage, String Cheese was back in fine form, with a set that included a rousing Tom Petty singalong tribute in the form of ‘You Wreck Me’. Roosevelt Collier was welcomed for ‘Outside and Inside’ and ended up pushing the band to further and further heights.
The Night of the Loving Dead theme set had a whole lot going on, as always. Conventional wisdom said the Grateful Dead would be all over the set, and although the band sound checked a full ‘Deal’ during Thursday’s prep, the jam forefathers were nowhere to be seen. Instead, we got a slew of songs with ‘love’ in the title, from the 60’s soul of Bobby Bland to Al Green to Sublime to Beyonce. Yes, you read that right.
No rest for the weary, as The Disco Biscuits went full throttle on the post-Cheese crowd. The set delivered the most energy of the weekend and included a great tease of The Exorcist theme song.
The crowd full of costumes bumbled over to Spirit Lake for what may have been the breakout set of the festival. Spafford followed their daytime set earlier in the week with a segment that left jaws on the floor and fists in the air. Aaron Magner made his way from the Patch Stage to help close the set of a fast-paced rework of ‘Mad World’. Extra props to the guy handing out mandarin oranges to strangers throughout the crowd. Only in Suwannee.
What’s a cap to a Saturday night without a random stumble around with a bag of wine on the hunt for the ever-elusive renegade sets in the campgrounds? The best one we found was by Tampa-based funktronica outfit Displace. Sax blowing at 3AM is always welcome in my book.
Sunday saw some much needed rest and an embarassing sleep-in time. The day started with what’s become a tradition for String Cheese - the Sunday pick session. This year’s edition featured dobro legend, whose band delivered a wild mix of bluegrass, jam, jazz, and funk earlier in the day. This set was the highlight bluegrass fans of the weekend. It was also obvious it re-energized Nershi for the home stretch.
Levine and Berg have done a great job in finding the middle ground between indie rock and jam genres in their booking in past years. My Morning Jacket last year remains a huge memory for many in the festival’s history. This year, Portugal. The Man delivered the most anthemic 90 minutes of the festival. Fans belted out the lyrics the entire set, as mind-bending visuals filled the amphitheater.
The final Cheese set of the festival was a classic, with standbys Restless Wind and ‘Round the Wheel sandwiching the gypsy rave fiddle of ‘Hi Ho No Show’. It’s a vibe that only sunset Cheese on their home turf can pull off. Smiles were everywhere.
The biggest conflict for old school jam fans came from the same time slot set of Lotus and Ween. Both sets delivered in entirely different ways.
The crowd converged onto the final headlining set of the evening with GRiZ. The saxophonist/producer spent halkf of his time on stage alone and half with his guitarist. Their bond is obvious, but it’s GRIZ who steals this show. The mix of ultra-heavy electronic mixed with smooth and funky guitar and sax work put an interesting juxtaposition throughout the crowd.
All in all, Suwannee Hulaween has done the unthinkable. It continues to evolve and change, but in a way that keeps an ear to the ground of what its fans crave. This isn’t an operation that seeks growth for growth’s sake. It’s an event obviously created by fans for fans, and as the theme explained in a word, its foundation will remain love - love of music, love of art, and love of community.
Photo by Keith Phierce