Hulaween 2023: How String Cheese Incident Brought Home the Championship | JamBandsOnline.com

Hulaween 2023: How String Cheese Incident Brought Home the Championship

December 4, 2023
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Review by Ely Yarborough

Photos by Lori Sky Twohy

After driving all night to arrive at Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park by around 11:00 AM on Thursday, we drove through miles of the most pristine camping sites with builds out of your fantasies. I’m talking wooded North Florida heaven with massive Live Oaks, tall pines and mossy cypresses stuffed with what I can only describe as professional camping setups. Arriving when we did though, all of these spots were well full as we descended deeper in the maze looking for a spot to assemble our modest setup. After an hour or so of driving, we got looped to the aforementioned Fishbowl, an open field with about 5% shade coverage and absolutely none where we were.

After a snack and a nap, we stir up around 6 to cook dinner and head into the festival, in higher spirits for sure, but not quite in the zone yet. We made a simple but effective meal, so we would have plenty of energy to rage JRAD in the meadow.

Before I continue, this review should be broken up into multiple sections that cover the sets, the festival in general, SPIRIT LAKE and all the other stuff that make the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park the FINEST festival site in the country. Mine is going to be a little less structured, focusing on my crew’s observations and our experience through the adventure known as Hulaween.

Something I love about this festival is it feels like a “choose your own” adventure where you can self curate exactly the experience you want. For example, if you want Hulaween to be a jam band festival, that’s what it is. If you want Hulaween to be an EDM festival, guess what, you can suck down those bass drops all weekend long. For me, Hulaween is a String Cheese Incident festival with all the other acts simply being gravy on top of the heady jam plate. 

A moment I will never forget is our first steps in the magical area known as Spirit Lake. Fire exhibits burn off as the sounds of the smaller stages blend together adorning the spooky art builds which dotted the lake in an eerie sonic bliss. Seriously, this is one of the coolest places I have ever seen, especially at a festival, with the consensus in my crew that it alone is practically worth the price of admission. We were told by Hula vets that this was the first year that the experience stretched the full 360 around the lake and given how perfect it was, it is hard to imagine anything less. Every night we set up our chairs somewhere around the lake to watch the lights and lasers go off to the ambient soundscapes as various projections were cast in this like, water mist in the middle of the lake showing scenes of the seasons such as spooky bats, black cats and pumpkin heads. They also shone more complex geometric shapes through the mist that added greatly to the already psychedelic vibes of the site. Part of me wishes I could live in those wide eyed moments forever as the stress from earlier in the day melted away and the reality of our situation set in: we made it to Hulaween and we were about to get down. 

After we took a lap around the lake, we found the way out towards the amphitheater and two main stages in the meadow. As we made our way out, we could see the open field in the distance basking in silver moonlight and the high energy dead themed jams from JRAD. I thought this area was set up really nicely as one stage was cooking with music, the other was getting set up for the next act, creating seamless transitions from one set to another. We get out to the middle of the meadow and bask in the glory as Live Oaks frame the stage to create a magical field in the middle of the swamp. We set up towards the back so we could see the crowd boogie and appreciate how much effort every person on site brought to create a truly magical experience. One of my favorite aspects of the festival, especially on this night, was the metallic ghost balloon that somebody was making dance and flow through the moonlight. JRAD is rocking, the moon is bright, and we see this ghost undulating through the sound waves. It was so perfect, like this meadow is where all the ghosts groove, we just happened to be there to see this particular moon dance.

After JRAD and a another walk around the lake, we decided to head back to the site to eat and rest up for the next night. We were told, given the labyrinthian nature of the grounds, that we would get lost once or twice, but we took great heed to note our surroundings so that we never ended up on the wrong side of the park. We made it back no problem that night and got into bed, dreaming of the wonderful Cheese sets that were ahead of us. 

We awoke early the next day as the sun was turning our tent into an easy bake oven, though with our experience the night before, I can’t say we were exactly in the dumps about. Coolers were opened, coffee made and we prepared to take on the day. To reiterate, Hulaween to me was a Cheese fest, so we kicked it around the campsite until it was time to head in for their first set around five. I think we only beat their start time by a few minutes but that put us there with plenty of time to snag a super great spot stage left behind the VIP area. Really from what I could tell, there were not any bad spots in the meadow, especially in terms of sound quality. It was immaculate throughout. We loved the first set especially when the band dropped that Rollover with a groove that would not quit. Higher, faster, stronger it grew until they ran through the final reprise, “Rollover, Roll Over You and Me. Rollover”. Such a beautiful song. So honest. So pure. Another aspect I loved is as soon as Cheese was finished, we set up our little chairs right in our spot and kicked it while still listening to the B stage. Unfortunately for us, we had a minor emergency before Cheese’s second set so we had to miss the “Gooseident”, which I’m assured was great fun for all involved.

Luckily, we got our shit together just in time to still pay our respects to Col. Claypool and his flying frog brigade. I saw this group in my home of Raleigh earlier in the year and absolutely loved them with Claypool’s Massive bass lines blending with Sean Lennon’s inherently psychedelic guitar work. They rocked through some originals before playing the classic Pink Floyd cut Pigs (Three Different Ones). Really a great set that had us all rocking out. After Les, Trey Anastasio Band bopped the main stage for a two hour headlining set that again, had the crowd bumping. This was the first time I had seen the band since original Bassist Tony Markellis and sax man James Casey had passed away. That said, the new players that Trey recruited for TAB certainly held their own with the bass especially on point. When we at JBO put our heads together, we came to the conclusion that it was as fine of set of TAB as we have ever heard and could walk away with that warm fuzzy feeling that Trey’s Band would continue in good hands.

Admittedly, after TAB, we were wiped out, so we set up around the lake for a while to vibe out before heading back to the site to get ready for what we knew was going to be an absolute Saturday shebang throw down for the ages. After peeling ourselves out of our tent in the morning, rinse and repeat with the food and coffee to prepare for the day. Funny enough, we decided to take a shower right as somebody broke the waterline. While walking back to the site now even dirtier, soap and towels in hand, we saw a golf cart taking somebody to the river. We quickly jumped on the back with barely enough time to say “kick it maestro” before boogieing down the road. The beach by the river is another aspect of the Park that leaves us at JBO saying that this is the best site in the country. Bonnaroo could never. Electric Forest? Never. Spirit of Suwannee? Yep, let’s have a beach party at a music festival! I gotta say that if we hadn’t caught a ride, it would have been a hell of a walk, but totally worth it to make it down the graded beach to jump in the cool, healing waters of the Suwannee River. We hopped in for a while just hanging out with other festival goers, cheering madly as each personal watercraft floated by. Maybe it’s just the water baby in me but y’all, I can really get in my Z O N E after swimming and this day was no different. A point of note, next year I will be camping much closer to this area so that swimming can be a daily occurrence.

After catching a quick ride back, we made some Jambalaya and headed down to catch the first of three Cheese sets. What a dream? While the sun was too much for us to be close for the first set, we moved back to hear our heroes deliver a pristine set with the finest version of Black Clouds that I have ever heard live. Everything the band threw at us, we mirrored right back creating a love bubble that for sure covered the American southeast, and later in the night, the entire world. While there were some people dressed up throughout the whole festival, this night was the official costume party with all sorts of great get ups.

My favorite off the top of my head were the two luchadores, comically chasing one another around the meadow. We even saw South Park’s own “Towlie” who of course asked us if we wanted to get high in his distinctive falsetto. My only complaint is that I saw way too many clowns, which are beneath my least favorite. Though we saw a few funny ones in front of us that were in full character, goofing around while simultaneously getting down to the end of the set. They ended up running an amazing depth art booth by the main stage that had pieces of all sizes covering all subject matters. We purchased a beautiful jellyfish painting where the tentacles blended into the grateful dead lightning bolt. Such a beautiful piece that ended up being our souvenir from Hulaween and will hang on our walls forever.

After set one, we quickly got a bite to eat, filled our water jugs and headed to the rail spot to set up our chairs and wait for what was primed to be another smokey set from the gouda boys. This is when my brain started ticking on the magnitude of Hulaween and how proud I am of the band, the site, and literally every person behind the scenes to make such a special event. It is never one person, it’s an entire organization that leans in together to make that push to the top and I just couldn’t help shaking that we were about to view an iconic moment for our own personal lives. 

Back to viewing Hulaween as a Cheese event, we never had to fight to get the spot that we wanted. The crowd started filling in as neo soul band “The Dip” finished out their muscle shoals sounds on the B stage while we were set up on the rail for what was to be the finest set of Cheese we had ever heard. If anybody is on the fence about this band, you can throw this set on and smile wryly as they slowly come around to the groovy persuasion of Colorado’s Own, The String Cheese Incident. Just one story was my favorite with all six of the band members in total harmony with themselves on stage, the crowd out front and the nature that surrounded. We danced, we cried, we got down with 20,000 of our closest friends as our favorite band did the things that made them our favorite band in the first place.

After Cheese wound down their set with the relatively new instrumental “Hi Ho No Show”, which has a moment in the middle with Billy picking on a textbook Cheese groove that is my happy place. More than a happy place. I consider sections of music like this to be my family, like a finished Down With Disease (Phish) or the transition into “I Know You Rider” from China Cat. I am of it like I am of my ancestors and I hope to pass down similar passages with my own band (Lazaris Pit) as time goes on. Any how…sets over, so I quickly ran to the bathroom to get more water and to hold down our spot for the “Full Moon Family Reunion” set. As I reached the top of the hill overlooking the meadow, I saw a sight that I will never forget and honestly, is giving me chills reliving it now. A sea of shapes and figures with every light up item in the book. The sight of 20,000 people bathed in love and harmony filling the bowl was more akin to the rarest of swamp jewel illuminating the ever misty meadow, or like, the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of the Moon happening simultaneously throughout the field. Rainbows as far as the eye could see. Given the mist holding in the light, I’m sure this party could have been spotted from miles away given the right vantage point. Maybe even from space, I am not a scientist though, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

Let’s set the scene here? The full moon is steadily gaining across the sky, the field is bumping with more people than I have ever seen my favorite band with and the vibe was high. As the house lights dropped the all time classic seasonal anthem “This is Halloween” played eerily over the house system. Being a 90s kid, I really love Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, which is where the tune originated. I could feel myself bubbling with anticipation in a way that I don’t believe I have since, well, probably the 90s. Then when we thought our barefoot boys, Colorado’s own The String Cheese Incident were to grace the stage, we found out that we were in for quite the frightful surprise. The full moon had turned Cheese into a vicious pack of werewolves, and I could tell by the deranged look in their eyes…they were out for blood!  

After a group hoot to get the crowd unified, our wolves dove in the classic Warren Zevron tune “Werewolves of Hula”. I’ve heard bands pull this one out before, but between you and me, most times it falls flat. You gotta really be feeling it to belt out that ‘aaaaaWHOOOOOOOOO” which often times people are simply not. Not this band, not this night. We all gave it our honest effort and filled the bowl with a true call of the wild straight through the night to her silver guardian, the full moon. After that we got settled in with another banger, Sly and the Family Stones “Its a Family Affair”. Here is where the guests of the evening really started to get their chance to shine, first and foremost Ms. Rhonda Thomas. If y’all have ever heard her before, my girl has PIPES. And she took us all for a spin with them on this night. I don’t remember what song it was but at some point she did this hybrid scat thing that boggled the mind with the amount of vocal control one needs to be able to accomplish such a task.

Next up was the Pharell classic “Happy” which I’m not 100% sure how well, thematically, fits in with the set but was no doubt a welcome addition that indeed had the crowd in unison with the line “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth”. TAB member and absolute QUEEN Jennifer Hartswick led the charge for this one and, as you can probably already guess, brought the house down again with her soaring vocals and pristine horn lines. The following number brought smiles and hugs throughout the meadow, King Harvests “Dancing in the Moonlight”. Everybody I know loves this song and the vibes were immaculate as Kyle started it off with that iconic key intro. “Everybody here is out of sight”, yep, we were doing great out there getting down with our favorite band playing our favorite songs.

After the Talking Heads “Moonrocks” and the Classic Little Feet tune “Spanish Moon”, the boys dove into an all time classic, The Allman Brothers “Revival”. Being a southern boy and a huge Jam band fan, I love ABB and always regretted not going to the park for one of the Wanee festivals featuring the band. I can’t say this exactly made up for it all, but my goodness, it is as close as I’ll ever get (RIP Gregg). “People can you feel it? LOVE is everywhere”. Yes, yes we can. At our full moon family reunion no less. Where all of us have gathered from all over the country to celebrate a night of love, family, and outright unity together with not just our friends, or fellow fans, but our soul family who, like me, finally made the trek down to the Spirit of the Suwannne. Thanks for showing me a real good time y’all, sorry I have missed so many.

The next frame is where things started to get zany. During their performance of the Neville Brothers “Yellow Moon”, the werewolf boys were accompanied on stage by two larger than life cat puppets manned by people in a bodysuits underneath. As we were so close, we could see the inner workings but I’m sure farther back, all that could be discerned was this funky ass cat absolutely getting into the grooves. My girlfriend pointed out at the time that the performers here really nailed the mannerisms of cats with the slinky movements only felines can really do.  After the 90’s hip hop anthem “Family Affair” by Mary J Blidge  got the crowd rocking their chains, the final frame of the evening began.

Cheese then started a classic cover of theirs with drummer Michael Travis on lead vocals, The Police’s “Walking on the Moon”. The low key, subdued reggae groove began and all I can really remember to this section was the rhythmic wooshing and slow motion movements akin to the moon landing footage of the late 60’s. No problems here Houston. No problems at all. When all of a sudden, a Vampirish Jason Hann came out from behind his percussion kit to lead us through my personal favorite song of the night, a ska’d out rendition of the jazzy Van Morrison tune “Moondance”. What a marvelous night for a moon dance it was. I will always wonder whose idea this was as the whole vibes was textbook “String Cheese Incident,” even more so with Jason crooning like Count Dracula. “Can I just HAve one more moonDAHNce with YOuuu”. Seriously, read that in your best vampire voice and it will close to what we experienced. I have always thought that the band should give Jason a little more leeway towards vocal segments, even going so far as to give our guy some “front man” action. He has a knack for hyping the crowd, as evidenced by his raps in “Sirens” so when given the platform, I knew he would absolutely nail it. By far my favorite songs of the night that I really hope ends back up in the set list one of these nights.

The final frame of the evening is where all our Cheesy moon dreams came true. In my honest experience, most times these third set extravaganzas are total letdowns. Maybe it is the hype that I put in them, maybe it is the band not living up or playing a nasty prank, but in any case, this was not an issue on this night. Not by a long shot. So they started with the Dua Lipa hit “Levitating”, which as I’m thinking now, is so appropriate for this frame of the set. We started on the ground howling to the moon, steadily getting higher and higher until we reached Luna, did our best weightless moon dance before simply levitating through space. The final segue> into the Justin Timeberlake tune “Can’t Stop The Feeling” was where the bubbling love cascaded down through the bowl creating the most touching frenzied mash of dancing, smiles and laughter….maybe even a few tears sprinkled in for good measure. 

Our Boys are rocking, the horns are going off, giant moon balloons start getting thrown in the crowd and we have officially left gravity firm earthly grasp. Given that we were in the blast zone so close to the rail, we had to quickly get in defense mode to prevent us from ending this set with a concussion from the giant balloons pin balling around us. Even in my heightened state, a few of these bad boys flanked me from the side and knocked me straight in my noggin. Everyone is jumping up and down. I am talking mass euphoria here. The cat puppets came back with a few more of their friends and I got this shiver down my spine that the band nailed it. I have the horn line in my head now as the crowd generally started to freak out in a beautiful expression of love. I look behind me to see a large group of fans chanting “CHEESE CHEESE CHEESE CHEESE!” It was such a simple, pure voicing of admiration. I’ll never forget the moments after this set. I turned around to my friends, “Look what they just did, look at what we experienced together?” Our boys brought home the trophy, the proof is right here in our hearts and I guarantee there will be a banner to commemorate such a monumental achievement.

After this set we had to take it easy for a while though the majority of the crowd was getting ready for Pretty Lights’ triumphant return. We ended up sitting around the lake, within earshot of heavy jam band LeSpecial rocking out with their unique sounds. We did walk out to the field one more time to catch a few minutes of Pretty Lights, who sounded pretty cool and to appreciate the rainbow crowd again before walking through the thick mist back to our campsite. I’ll never forget that mist, so heavy, so low, like we were in our own little dream, a dream that we could have stayed in forever.

Alas, Sunday morning came as we cooked up the last bits of breakfast and coffee to prepare for the final SCI set of the weekend, a total Sunday vibes afternoon set complete with sit ins from personal friends, Linz Pruitt and Jon Stickley, who opened the main stage that day. When I think Sunday vibes, I think a little softer, often a little more acoustic, with an almost gospel feel to it; Sunday Service at the Church of Cheezus. They save folks, just open up your heart and tell me I am wrong.

They did end their set with a few of the “bass drop” tunes to get the Pretty Lights fans super stoked before saying goodbye, preparing to take the train to Austin for their Stubbs shows. When their set was over, we got some food, walked back to our campsite to jump on the trampoline and admired the legions of dragonflies that dotted the peachy October twilight. My girlfriend and I also finally made it to the bat house to watch all the tiny sky pups awake from their daily slumber to go bug hunting through the night. Really a thankless task if you think about it but what a job they do. You can smell how effective they are from over 100 yards away. All the old heads will tell you that the main reason bugs aren’t a huge issue in the park is because of these bat houses that dot the park. After one more promenade around the lake and a final walk to the meadow to hear Pretty Lights rendition of the Grateful Dead classic “Shakedown Street”, we walked back to the Fishbowl, only this time, satisfied that we got everything we wanted out of Hulaween 2023.

We woke up the next morning, packed up our camp and said goodbye to all our wonderful neighbors, still in awe over the beauty of the festival and the experiences we shared together. Basking in the Majesty of witnessing a true championship run where the good guys won and brought us all to the top with them.

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