Photos by Shari Hartman and Jamie Kastriches
This past Halloween, we saw the first Suwannee Hulaween. With over 20 bands and DJs, including seven sets of Cheese, hundreds of hula-hoopers and a transformed Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, String Cheese Incident worked some of their Voodoo magic in Live Oak, Florida for 7500 wickedly happy fans from all over the US and abroad.
In addition to the music, SCI and the team of Paul Levine, the festival’s promoter, threw a party that was far different from anything regular SOSMP festival-goers have yet seen. And instead of going for an expected haunted house or forest with mummies, werewolves and frankenfigures, the festival had a Voodoo theme that was carried from
As soon as you entered the park to exchange your tickets for your armbands, you could feel the magic in the air. I arrived Thursday, Halloween night, during SCI’s first set,
which I heard from the check-in, sadly missing Larry and Jenny Keels opening set as well. Standing in line I actually felt awkward being one of the few NOT dressed in some sort of costume as I waited with a dead pirate, a “tribe” princess, and a banana, and those were the ones I could recognize. But wait… where were the vampires? Where were the witches? Where were Jason and Michael? No, there would be nothing quite so ghoulish or trite here. And with all the mysterious forest nymphs, I regretted not wearing my woodland elf costume after all.
Driving through the park to my favorite campsite, I could see the Ferris wheel and Starship 2000 (the Gravitron)
illuminating the dark sky in a rainbow of color and flashing light — a first for a SOSMP festival. I was like a giddy child at my first carnival as I could hear “Let’s Go Outside” booming through the air. I was ready to go outside my mind and play! And as I was setting up my tent, bouncing around to the distant beats of “Valley of the Gig,” I screamed out “I can’t believe I’m missing this!” No worries though. There was still plenty of Cheese to eat up and they did not disappoint!
The second set started off with the slow, steady ringing of a bell, teasing the crowd, who yelled louder and louder with each strike until Cheese came out
in full Voodoo costume and launched into AC/DCs “Hell’s Bells,” sending the crowd into a rockin’ frenzy. The band was almost unrecognizable in their macabre makeup and twisted, gris gris adorned, witch doctor costumes that could send the worst spirits back into the ether! But it was Michael Travis’ horns, worthy of the devil himself, which gave me chills. The set consisted of all voodoo themed covers, including the Neville Brothers “Voodoo,” and Jimi Hendrix’s” Voodoo Child.” The Antibalas horns and singers Rhonda Thomas & Tony White joined them, spicing things up on Fela Kuti’s “Zombie,” which included a Daft Punk tease. Jason Hann stepped out from behind his drums to rap on Kanye’s “Monster.” Giant pumpkin beach balls were tossed about the crowd, and as I was grooving with my friends, I realized I was being covered with a white web that was stretching slowly over the mass of zombies, fairies, witch doctors other colorful creatures. Dancers joined the band on stage in traditional voodoo ritual dress performing a trance dance that sent the spirits soaring throughout the field of festies. They closed the set with what was arguably the best cover of the weekend, Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.”
Cheese kept the party going with a third set Thursday night that featured fire dancers and would continue to bring it with two more sets Friday and two on Saturday, occasionally giving a shout out to the people on the ferris wheels. Their light shows were among the best I’ve seen with an interplay of lotus-like effusions of colored lights and trippy kaleidoscopic displays. There wasn’t a set I didn’t enjoy with favorites, smoking jams and exceptional sit-ins in each, but the favorite complete set of the weekend for me (aside from the “Voodoo set”) was Friday’s set two, (which really began at the end of Friday’s set one with a 30min “Big Shoes”>”Just One Story”). This was the most psychedelic of the sets, no matter what the base genre, and had the most interesting and intricate improvs.
Other musical highlights included :
Thursday Set III – “Rosie” with the Antibalas Horns, “Spirit of the Suwannee Jam”>”Joyful Sound,” “Sledgehammer” with the Antibalas Horns
Friday Set I -“Freedom Jazz Dance” with Steve Kimock and Bernie Worrell,” Big Shoes” (18 min)>”Just One Story” (14 min)
Friday Set II – “Give me the Love”>”Piece of Mine”,” Bumpin’ Reel” with Dominic Lalli (Big Gigantic)
Saturday Set I – “One After 99” and “Zombie Jamboree” with Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt and Andy Thorn (Leftover Salmon), “Windy Mountain”>”Shine”>”Colliding,” ”Drums” with Jeffrey Lerner (STS9) and Luke Quaranta (Toubab Krewe)
Saturday Set II – “Best Feeling”>”Howard,” Michael Jackson’s ”Shake Your Body Down to the Ground” with
Thursday’s night late shows with Van Ghost, featuring Jen Hartswick and a sit-in from Natalie Cressman, and
Larry and Jenny Keel were the main reason I headed out to “Spirit Lake.” I can’t say I knew any of the Van Ghost songs, but I do know what I heard was incredible. No one sings like Hartswick and her powerhouse vocals and sultry trumpet playing along with the bands, funky rock summoned voodoo priestesses, squirrels, and walking cannabis plants to them en masse. I was thrilled too at another chance to see the Keels, having missed the first, and was treated to “John Henry,” “Coconut,” and “420 Blues.” After singing on about some moonshine, of which I think some zombies and giraffes and a blow-up doll had partaken, they closed out the night with a lightning-fast Bill Monroe tune that also featured sit-ins from Brett Bass and Fil Pate of Grandpa’s Cough Medicine.
Equally impressive was the ”Spirit Lake” area. Stepping through the crimson curtained gate to enter this area is as if you are stepping into the magical fantastic world of the theater where you become an artist right alongside the performers. Although I had seen pictures all week, the spectacle exceeded all expectations. The forest was alight with bright colors turning the trees all shades of blue and pink and orange. Mini laser light shows glistened across the lake and around the stage sending gazers into trance-like states. Everywhere you looked was something to behold: the thirty foot metal fire pit sculptures of an owl wind chime or a variation of a Trojan horse, trees lined with wooden scrolled pallets, some with painters already at work, giant black light mobiles, fluorescent-painted creatures — “Nyquilers” artist Bean Spence calls them — lining the path to the lake. During the day would be hooping lessons and yoga sessions, but now there were fire dancers and a snake charmer. I needed a moment to take it all in and a brief rest under a large glowing mushroom. But in case you were nostalgic for something a little more traditional at Halloween there were also plenty of bales of hay nestled amongst Day of the Dead guitar players and zombies (wooden figures of course) and a hay labyrinth. For those looking for something a little more “Cheesy,” there was the giant white jellyfish swing set! The stage décor was also Day of the Dead with the Mexican streamers over the dance floor and a massive shrine with framed pictures, candles, flowers, skulls and trinkets. They created an enchanted space at the lake and everyone in their costumes, raging became a part of the magic as well.
Though SCI was the host and main draw there were plenty of other incredible musicians and bands, something both SCI and SOSMP are known for adding to
their festivals. Friday was another opportunity to check out Van Ghost , who opened with “One You’re With,” and was joined by Natalie Cressman and Nick Cassarino for the entire set and Jeremy Salken on indie-rock tune “Fool For The Pain.” Steve Kimock and Friends were at the top of my must see list. Friends included John Kimock on drums, Ron Johnson on bass and the legendary Bernie Worrell on keys. I think I spent half the set gaping blissfuly. When you get to hear the masters, you tend to want to take in every note. They took the crowd on a jamming journey through originals and covers from a jazzy, calypso flavored “Africa” to a funky Beatles’ “Come Together” to a cool “Red Hot Mama” with Bernie Worrell taking vocals. Jen Hartswick and Natalie Cressman lent their vocals and scorching horns on “Butter” as well as the set closer, Talking Heads’ “ Take me to the River,” that included some audience participation and a change of lyrics to “drop me in the Suwannee.”
Nashville rock band Moon Taxi was “All the Rage” with their mix of high energy, evocative melodies and meaningful lyrics. Look for them to explode with their
latest album, a first appearance on Letterman on November 11, and upcoming tour with Umphrey’s McGee. Set highlights included new tunes, “Change” and “Suspicious” along with favorites, a crushing “Mercury” and soaring “Cabaret.”
The Main Squeeze may have been the big surprise of the festival. They were that band. You know, the one
that a lot of people had never heard of but will now never forget. I was among them too and when I asked who they were, the answer I got was “They are the shit and they should be starting now!” No joke. They blew everyone away. The Chicago area based funk band came out all in orange with lead singer Corey Frye in a pumpkin costume. But it is the raging music and booming, alto vocals of Frye that everyone will remember. They exploded on stage with their song “Ebenezer” winning over the crowd immediately and they sealed the deal with hard-hitting “Tank X-ing,” an outstanding funky cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” and “Dr. Funk.” I’m hoping for a return visit SOSMP! Bear Creek perhaps? You can check them out at http://mainsqueezemusic.bandcamp.com/album/the-main-squeeze.
The only disappointment over the weekend came Friday night when Big Gigantic, Conspirator and the Silent
Discos were cancelled because of the night’s deluge which also took out some of the installments at SpiritLake on Saturday. Big Gigantic and Conspirator both posted on Facebook about how disappointed they were and Hulaween was quick to reschedule the DJs , doubling up late night Saturday and taking full advantage of the extra hour afforded by turning the clocks back at 2AM
Saturday saw the sun return and the slight nip in the morning air didn’t seem to bother anyone. Brock Butler gave a sublime performance playing and looping acoustic solo guitar, drums, and ukulele. Doing mostly covers, he brought his own cool stylings to Travis’” Why Does It
Always Rain Me?” — a perfect morning after the rain wake up song — Phosphorescent’s “Song for Zula,” DMX’s “Crime Story,” and Cage the Elephant’s “No Rest for the Wicked.” Oh, and of course, there was Sublime. Joined by Ty Mann on acoustic guitar, he finished out his set with a cool “Jailhouse.”
The Heard was another Chicago-based funk band. I caught these young musicians as they were covering Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache.” What a blast from the
past! But they certainly breathed new life into it. This is another band I predict we’ll be hearing a lot more of in the future. Lucas Ellman’s down and dirty sax thrilled the crowd on “Garbage Juice.”
Personal favorites of mine, Leftover Salmon took over the main stage with their “EthnicCajunSlamgrass” as Bill Nershi called it. LS can do no wrong for me and the only thing better this afternoon was some Salmon and Cheese when Vince Herman, Drew Emmitt, and Andy Thorn took to
the stage with SCI. Full of energy and laughter, Salmon’s set included some of my favorites including “The Other Side,” “Gulf of Mexico”, and “Breakin Thru.” Before long I found myself dancing “way up on the hill where they do the boogie!”
STS9 closed out the big stages Saturday night keeping the dreamlike festival atmosphere alive with a set that included “Really Wut?,” “Move My Peeps,” and “Golden Gate.”
The party continued throughout the night with Emancipator, Applebutter Express, Elliot Lipp, and all
The crowd roared hearing Vince Herman say that SOSMP was one of his favorite places to play and Bill Nershi that he was happy to be back. Many festies I spoke with over the weekend, or even just overheard, having never been here before, agreed this is one of the
best music festival venues they have been to. I have to concur. The folks at SOSMP have this festival thing down. Beautiful campgrounds, plenty of space, warm and free showers, very few overlapping sets if any, great food vendors, well organized, friendly staff, reasonable security and police presence. And the Cheese tribe seems a perfect fit for this place. Hulaween attracted some of the most pleasant, courteous and beautiful festies. Not to say there weren’t some unpleasant incidents, but they were few and far between.
Suwannee looks to be the new home for String Cheese Incidents Hulaween. It is already confirmed for 2014! Lucky me! Start making your plans now and we’ll see you next year!!