Words, Images and Videos by: Charles Izenstark
Suwannee Hulaween :: 10.27 – 30.16
The Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park :: Live Oak, FL
The Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park :: Live Oak, FL
Check out a full photo gallery and plenty of videos after the review.
What happens when you mix purple and silver? When it comes to the music festival scene, the answer might just be “too much of a good thing.” When Florida’s Purple Hat Productions and Chicago’s Silver Wrapper teamed up to create Suwannee Hulaween in 2013 it was an immediate success and in the intervening years the success has continued and the festival has grown considerably. Certain aspects of this growth have enhanced the fest greatly such as the expansion of the mind-bending art installment at Spirit Lake, the addition of new stages and a pre-party. But with the increased popularity and corresponding bump in attendance, a few, relatively minor, issues have arisen at what still remains one of the best musical festivals in the land.
The pre-party music began at The Amphitheater, which is normally the event’s “second” stage, but it served as the main stage on Thursday. The stage – at the foot of a tiered, tree-laden bowl – creates an intimate environment that enhances that listening experience and Marco Benevento exploited that advantage with his set. Fronting a trio featuring drummer Andy Borger and bassist Karina Rykman, Benevento started the party properly with an enthusiastic set which saw him climb atop his keyboard rig to incite the weekend’s musical riot. Boulder based Grant Farm was first up on the Spirit Lake Stage and delivered a nice high energy set of rootsy music. The stage itself was decorated as a pirate ship which was immaculately detailed and visually beautiful but created several issues in that it narrowed the performance area. This caused some bands to adjust their stage plot and others to have a band member or two hidden by the stage décor and made the normally popular front rail a spot from which actually viewing the band was difficult at best.
Next up at The Ampitheater was Con Brio, a seven-piece outfit that dished out an excellent, up tempo dancey set that accelerated the party atmosphere. Fronted by the soulful voice of the kimono-clad Ziek McCarter, accented by a killer horn section and spiced with a pan-ethnic musicality, this band actually lived up to its own billing as a sort of new age Sly and the Family Stone. The Kyle Hollingsworth Band kept up the momentum with a solid set that served to whet the appetite of the early arriving Cheeseheads. The run of SCI side projects continued back at The Amphitheater with a set by EOTO & Friends with the role of friends played by keyboardist Borahm Lee (Break Science) and guitarist Jake Cinninger (Umphrey’s McGee). This wholly improvised set was electric, with Jason Hann and Michael Travis relying heavily on their talented friends to lay the foundation, a task that Cinninger seemed to relish as he relentlessly probed for new grooves and fed off Lee’s aggressive fills to help create a very satisfying set that was heavier and less dancy than the normal EOTO offering. The musical intensity continued with a fiery set from The Werks. The Ohio based rockers dropped a set full of their signature extended jams that included a very cool, modern take on the classical piece “O Fortuna” that highlighted the keyboard wizardry of Dan Shaw.
The evening’s main event was two sets from Umphrey’s McGee. It was instantly clear that this band was far too big for The Amphitheater with the six-piece grouped overly close as the small stage also had to accommodate Jefferson Waful’s massive light rig. The audience was also tightly packed together in a way that allowed little room for dancing, a scene that would be repeated throughout the weekend. Despite this claustrophobic feel, the band delivered two sets filled with dark melodic jams that had a very old school feel and was highlighted by an excellent “Wife Soup,” a crisp take on the Bowie classic “Let’s Dance” and a bifurcated “Ocean Billy.” The evening’s entertainment concluded with a return to Spirit Lake for a set from Greensky Bluegrass, the jamgrass outfit that is currently touring in support of their new album Shouted, Written Down and Quoted. The too-brief set included exemplary takes on “Windshield” and the new “Miss September” but was most certainly highlighted by Paul Hoffman’s humorous insertion of Juvenile’s “Back That Ass Up” into both “Don’t Lie” and “Jaywalking” as well as the first taste of the weekend’s ’80s theme with a very nice version of Dire Straits “Money For Nothing.”
Friday began with host Paul Levine introducing Kayleigh Baker And The Groove Orient, a band that seemed very close to his heart. They responded to the love by dropping a set full of bluesy rock with a very southern feel that was a delightful introduction to a band which was unfamiliar to many in the audience. First up at The Amphitheater was Chicago based quartet Mungion, a group that is quickly building a loyal following. This is a band that delivers intricate grooves which are fresh but are clearly drawn from an appreciation of their musical forefathers. It would come as a surprise to no one to see them on a much larger stage in the near future.
Next to The Meadow main stage was the type of set that makes Hulaween exceptionally special, a rare collaboration. In this case it was Marco Benevento participating in another trio, but this time his bandmates were Oteil Burbridge (bass) and Joe Russo (drums). While Russo and Benevento have shared the stage many times in various projects, the addition of Burbridge to The Duo for just the second time brought a sense of exploration to the set. As each musician took their turn to build a groove they were greeted with a wide encouraging smile from the other two that seemed to contain a simple message “keep going, we need more of that.” The result was a set that had the just-awakening crowd pleading for more.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe’s stellar set had the distinction of being attended by more people bearing “All Access” credentials than any other set. While it was rumored that the set coincided with an “important production meeting” the amount of dancing done by those attending said meeting seems to indicate that this was the set that had been designated for the staff to have some funk-based fun. Greensky Bluegrass was next with their second set of the weekend. This set had less enthusiasm that the previous evening’s, but still had several standout moments such as Kyle Hollingsworth joining on keys for a jaunty version of “Frederico” and when Anders Beck called on his “slide brother” Roosevelt Collier for a joyous take on “Ain’t No Bread in the Breadbox.”
Friday evening’s featured entertainment was two sets of The String Cheese Incident sandwiched around Umphrey’s McGee’s third set of the weekend. Cheese’s first set was full of older tunes and included nice versions of “So Far from Home,” “Dudley’s Kitchen” and “Lomesome Fiddle Blues” but as a whole never took full flight. It could not have helped the band to see more than a few fans choose to leave the set early, or even forego it completely, in order to secure a good spot to watch Umphrey’s. SCI’s second set had considerably more life to it and the jams in “It Is What It Is” and “Shine” were particularly tasty and the “Johnny Cash” encore had the crowd two-stepping to their next destination.
For most that next destination was The Amphitheater for the set from Anderson .Paak And The Free Nationals. The buzz in anticipation of this set was palpable and in this case justified as the band delivered a fierce set of hip-hop stylings that saw Paak deliver staccato lyrics as the Free Nationals laid down the groove. But the performance really took off when Anderson sat behind the drum kit to basically set his own beat while letting his lyrics flow gracefully over the top of the beats to create one of the most memorable sets of the weekend.
The final set of the evening at The Meadow was from My Morning Jacket, a band that seems to have multiple personalities as they jumps randomly from pop to psychedelia to classic rock seemingly at the whim of lead singer Jim James. MMJ’s extended set (they overran their allotted slot by more than 15 minutes) was somewhat disjointed as it was a mélange of James’s unique vocals and an exotic assortment of exceptionally good
guitar licks that ran the range from crunchy to melodic. Highlighted by the poppy “Off The Record” and a beautiful, slow and soulful take on Elton John’s “Rocket Man”, the set built in musical intensity until it exploded with a wonderful version of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall (Pt. 2)” that turned into a late night sing-a-long.
Saturday dawned with the promise of some morning picking courtesy of Larry Keel and Drew Emmitt. But as the crew set the stage, it was clear that more than two musicians were on the menu. This thought was confirmed when Levine announced that the duo would be joined by Emmitt’s Leftover Salmon band mate Andy Thorn on banjo and Keel’s wife Jen on upright bass (an assemblage that Jen had dubbed “The Shit”). The quartet delivered a top notch set of acoustic goodness that was highlighted by Thorn’s twangy vocal on John Hartford’s arrangement of a song Janis Joplin popularized, “Piece Of My Heart.” Next to the main stage was Antibalas, a band whose horn section has been a staple of The String Cheese Incident’s “special” Hulaween set. The multi-ethnic, Brooklyn based troupe treated fans to a signature set full of textured rhythms that ran the full gamut from Afrobeat to Latin Jazz, which left many in the audience wondering why it took four years to bring the entire band to the Hulaween stage.
The centerpiece of Hulaween is The String Cheese Incident’s three-set night which is, in turn, highlighted by the middle set during which the band assumes a musical persona reflective of the evening’s theme. But the centerpiece started with the crowd still flowing in as many had made the trek to the new remote The Patch stage for Snarky Puppy’s set. While the set had several newer tunes the best moments came from the well- worn tunes “Restless Wind” and “Joyful Sound,” though the singular highlight of the set undoubtedly was when the amazing Jen Hartswick joined the band for a spine tingling version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.” As Cheese retreated in order to change into costumes, too many of the crowd tried to fill the void by attempting to take in Lettuce’s smoking set only to find The Amphitheater to be overflowing onto and across the road at the top of the bowl.
SCI returned to the stage dressed in ’80s attire that had to have more than a few in the audience questioning some of their own wardrobe choices from three decades earlier. The ensuing set, which saw the band reinforced by vocalists Rhonda Thomas and Tony White as well as the Antibalas horn section, was very fun and contained more than a few guilty pleasures but paled in comparison to the theme sets from previous years. The first standout moment was when Michael Travis disappeared from behind his kit and took center stage wearing a labcoat and a pair of Thomas Dolby’s signature spectacles to lead the crowd in a spot-on version of “She Blinded Me With Science.” A take on Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” included a white-veiled aerialist and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” saw Axl Rose lookalikes on sway poles swinging over the crowd and the ensuing multi-song medley saw the introduction of enormous inflatable Rubik’s Cubes as this year’s crowd toys. As the medley ended, Michael Kang made a point of acknowledging the multitude of behind-the-scenes production staff that helped make the spectacle possible before the band launched into a searing version of “Burning Down the House,” complete with on-stage pyrotechnics, to end the set.
The String Cheese Incident’s third set of the evening was devoid of guests and saw the band feature newer tunes such as “Believe” and “Colliding.” But the highlight of the set was when the band returned to its roots with an almost thirty minute jam that started with “Way Back Home” and evolved into a top shelf version of “Miss Brown’s Teahouse.”
Hulaween’s final day began with the acoustic pickings of The Travelin’ McCourys. The band unleashed a wonderful eye-opener that was highlighted by two trips into the Grateful Dead songbook. The first of these was the set-opener, a joyous take on “Cumberland Blues” but it was the slow, soulful rendition of the Jerry ballad “Loser” that was the unquestioned gem of the set and had more than a few wondering if they should get tickets for the band’s upcoming Grateful Ball. The Motet’s set was greeted with much anticipation as many fans had not seen the band in its current incarnation with Lyle Divinsky assuming the front man role. Yet any doubts were soon laid to rest as Divinsky delivered the vocal tour de force required and the realization set in that any band which features Joey Porter (keys) and Garrett Sayers (bass) simply has to be great.
SCI’s first set of Sunday was their least memorable. The set featured a sit-in by Tyler Grant on “Get Tight,” but the only musical magic was during a very nice “These Waves.” As the band re-assumed the stage for the final time, they were sans Moseley on bass and joined by all of The Travelin’ McCourys for a raucous “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” a more sedate “Shady Grove” and a jumping “Do You Wanna Dance” that had the crowd howling for more as the McCourys left the stage. The set progressed with “Bumpin’ Reel,” “Sometimes A River” and “You’ve Got the World” before the band invited Big Gigantic saxophonist Dominic Lalli and The Motet keyboardist Joey Porter to the stage. The ensuing “Freedom Jazz Dance,” always a great vehicle for a sit-in, saw Porter shine brightly while Lalli’s contribution seemed to be lost in the mix. This was followed by a beautiful “Round The Wheel” before Lalli’s band mate Jeremy Salken (dressed impeccably as “Ali G”) was called up to join Hann and Travis for a killer percussion jam. The set ender, “Beautiful,” left most a little flat especially since it finished well before the designated end time and no encore was forthcoming.
Post-Cheese, the festival’s attention was focused squarely on The Amphitheater stage for the prog-delic project known as The Claypool Lennon Delirium. Seemingly the entire festival had descended into this too small space creating an atmosphere that was claustrophobic and uncomfortable. The protagonists took the stage in almost identical outfits and Les Claypool announced that he had dressed as Sean for the evening which prompted Lennon to note that he had dressed as Les. The duo, augmented by a drummer and keyboardist, then delivered the best set of the weekend. While most of the music was unfamiliar the juxtaposition of Claypool’s proggy bass lines with Lennon’s psychedelic riffs (including several Indian motifs reminiscent of George Harrison’s contribution to his late father’s band) was pure magic. And there was some familiar music including a take on Primus’s “Southbound Pachyderm” and a spellbinding version of King Crimson’s eponymous classic “The Court of the Crimson King.” But the transcendental highlight of the set, and perhaps the weekend, happened after too many spectators had chosen to flee the confined quarters and head to the main stage for Big Gigantic’s set. After a brief lull Claypool strapped on a four-string and dropped into a bass line that, for him, could only be described as pedantic, but was quickly recognized as coming somewhere from within Sir Paul McCartney’s songbook. Lennon joined with an ethereal riff and the recognition was complete: “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Somewhere John (and George) had to be smiling as Sean cast a spell over the crowd, with his guitar and voice, that held them completely entranced until the moment that Claypool calmly tipped his hat and left the stage.
The final set of the weekend belonged to Vermont jam quartet Twiddle, who are riding high following Page McConnell’s sit-in in Burlington. The foursome filled their allotted hour with a mere five songs, including longtime staple “Doinkinboink,” that provided plenty of room for guitarist Mihali Savoulidis and keyboardist Ryan Dempsey to lead far flung jams that had the crowd bouncing through the Spirit Lake art installation.
Suwannee Hulaween has definitely become a destination festival. It has grown in stature and impact yet this growth has created some issues. The idea of no overlapping set times is nice, but when so many people need to move from one stage to another the lack of downtime unnecessarily forces attendees to choose between acts instead of being able to enjoy them all. Also, some of The Amphitheater sets, particularly Lettuce and The Claypool Lennon Delirium, were uncomfortably crowded. But, despite these growing pains there was a singular sentiment that seemed to be shared by all: “Same Time Next Year.”