Having just celebrated the 10th anniversary at the incomparable Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, FL over the last weekend of October, Hulaween proved a remarkable achievement in a crowded, homogenized industry, and a consistent crown jewel of contemporary festival culture. Benevolently hosted by venerable jam veterans The String Cheese Incident, Hula 2023 was themed “Full Moon Family Reunion.” Sold out before gates opened, the sacred grounds and serendipitous soiree once again provided over 20,000 familial fans with an unforgettable experience precisely as advertised.
From eclectic to electronic with myriad points between, the four-day affair was headlined by two nights of Pretty Lights, Trey Anastasio Band, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Goose, Smino, Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, and John Summit. As is its brand and custom, Hulaween’s musical menu featured a fantastic undercard rich in underground flavors and funky new finds for fans seeking sounds further beneath the surface.
In addition to boasting five unicorn music stages criss-crossing genre and generation, Hulaween’s centerpiece is the peerless Spirit Lake—a mystical psychedelic forest brimming with mind-boggling big art. A natural amphitheater, The Amph, is enveloped in soulful Spanish moss dripping from a canopy of choral cypress and orphic oaks. Outside the festival gates, one stumbles upon vibrantly themed villages and renegade sound camps sprouting deep in the woods as far as the legs can trudge, plus the immortal majesty of the Suwannee River that runs through it. Hulaween is truly a tradition like none other, and ten years—in this economy and ever-mutating festival landscape—is certainly nothing to sneeze at.
To commemorate this monumental accomplishment, Live For Live Music expanded our Hulaween 2023 coverage by offering two markedly differing perspectives on the experience. Returning to document the festival is longtime Hula/SoSMP man on the scene B.Getz, who’s visited Suwannee over two dozen times for festivals of all kinds. Joining the L4LM Hulaween team for his maiden voyage is intrepid reporter Michael Broerman, who followed his own muse down to the legendary music park to make his Suwannee debut and provide his own poignant reflections.
Even still, despite our dogged efforts we simply could not fit every last Hulaween performance into print; as such, what follows is merely our slice of best of the best, as told by MB and B.Getz.
B.Getz: Hulaween 2023 welcomed the debut of a new Spirit Lake Creative Director, Justin Bolognio. His bold vision and tremendous team leveled up the lake situation, expanding the sensory wonderland into an all-encompassing 360-degree experience. Also evolving in a major way was the Oasis healing arts programming, again headed up by NOLA-based Hula vet Joan Isaac. The multi-faceted menu featured a wide swath of illuminating workshops and talks, a fire circle conclave, low-volume musical offerings (Same Star, Toubab Krewe), assorted yoga practices, a comedic BINGO extravaganza, and much more.
Off-the-beaten-path environments hosting intimate (or unannounced) musical performances included Hulaween mainstay Incendia, a fire-dome installation tucked halfway around the lake, welcoming DJs of all styles (John Summit, VEiL, Borahm Lee, Charlie Hustle) late into the night. Ditto for the Silent Disco. Frick Frack Blackjack, the spaghetti-Western psychedelic casino that’s become wildly popular at festivals coast to coast, had damn near their own neighborhood and zip code. Hula newcomers like the festi-high-fashion of SF’s Freeborn Designs, and delectable cuisine courtesy of Denver’s Pierogi Posse and the Juicy Life smoothie bar fit right into the Hula-fam vibe with a quickness.
Another cherished enclave in Spirit Lake is the gothic cathedral House of Lost, brainchild of St. Petersburg, FL-based art collective Lost Creations. Showcasing an occult aesthetic, the venue hosts performance art, memorial services, and small weddings by day and transforms into a medieval nightclub after dark. Performers run the gamut: from Zeta’s punked-up thrash to genre-bending talents of Philly’s Shevonne, and resident DJs Hwoofer and RogerThomas, whose two-hour, festival-closing Sunday Night Mass is tradition.
After official stages begin to peter out, festivalgoers head into the woods for speakeasy afterparties and renegade sets. Low-key jam sessions abound from Florida buzz bands like Sauce Pocket, Cope, and Moonstone Riders. Sound camps like Wooksville, BS39, Camp Reddit, and more consistently throw DJ ragers with rowdy dancefloors. This year’s standout renegade came courtesy of lespecial guitarist Jonny G, who assumed Camp Reddit’s decks at 3:30 a.m. Saturday night and proceeded to mercilessly rinse rugged raggamuffin jungle breaks and diabolical drum ‘n’ bass rollers through the Hennessey sound system with joyful aplomb.
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Tand – 2:30 p.m. Thurs. The Hallows
MB: The long journey, the seemingly endless drive, the even longer circling around Suwannee looking for a campsite, setting up on night zero—it all came to fruition on Thursday afternoon when the gates to the festival finally opened at 1:30 p.m. The first time I walked into the concert grounds, peering out over the sprawling Meadows Stage and natural amphitheater, my initial thought was “I should go to more festivals.” But after spending only a few hours within the confines of the stage compound, I questioned, “Are there other festivals?”
Kicking off the Hallows Stage were homegrown homies Tand. The Florida-bred jam band made a huge leap from playing bars to the biggest stage of the day, with the opposing Meadows lying dormant until Friday. Tand capitalized on the palpable day one excitement with an upbeat set of groove-laden compositions, with the band’s crunchy garage rock showcased in originals like “My Cloud” with Eurythmics‘ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” interwoven in the middle to cap off the pulsating performance (which may or may not have inspired the title of this review).
MZG – 6:30 p.m. Thurs. Spirit Lake
B.Getz: Jacksonville-bred, Denver-based electronic duo MZG has made Hulaween a treasured tradition over the years, annually returning to the site that drew their first big crowds to throw a crunkalogic dance party jammin’ with jubilant hometown vibes. Zach and Charles Weinert’s Spirit Lake set brimmed with bombastic bass, thunderclap-trap, woozy hip-hop remixes, tasty R&B edits, plus a wee bit of untz too.
This year’s trademark “Twinzies Takeover” saw the pair blazing decks all weekend long, tacking on a three-way dance with old friend Manic Focus at the Incendia fire dome installation. Toss in a pair of renegade ragers in the forest too: a “Hotboi” set at Camp Reddit, and another late-nighter way out in Wooksville, where the Weinert bros assumed their tech-house alter-ego Duplex for some furious four-on-the-floor fun.
Snakes & Stars – 4:45 p.m. Thurs. Spirit Lake | Altın Gün – 6:30 p.m. Thurs. The Hallows | Underground Springhouse – 8 p.m. Thurs. Campground
MB: The midday lineup presented a diverse menu of acts, with String Cheese Incident drummer Michael Travis delivering improvised electronic music with his still-nascent Snakes & Stars duo, an endeavor reminiscent of his defunct EOTO project with Jason Hann only more downtempo. Palette cleanser Altın Gün provided a Turkish psychedelic rock appetizer that fused Western indie with indigenous folk music on the Hallows, and Athens, GA’s Underground Springhouse blended prog-rock song structure with easy singalongability at the Campground Stage to become one of my favorite discoveries of the weekend.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead – 8:45 p.m. Thurs. The Hallows | 10:30 p.m. Thurs. The Hallows
MB: Hurrying back from Underground Springhouse, I was lifted up to the front of the crowd in a borderline spiritual experience as Joe Russo’s Almost Dead opened its two-set show with Bob Dylan‘s “Tangled Up In Blue”. The freewheeling composition delivered passionately by Tom Hamilton connected deep down into the soul of all of us with that traveling bone who have perhaps been through a bittersweet goodbye or two (We’ll meet again someday on the avenue).
JRAD understood the assignment of headlining a Halloween music festival, weaving in eerie song choices like “Feel Like A Stranger” and a downright disturbing “Candyman”. The “Stranger” jam exemplified everything ’80s Grateful Dead should be, sleek and powerful like riding inside Don Johnson‘s Ferrari from Miami Vice. In the second set, Scott Metzger bellowed an Earth-shattering “Throwing Stones” that threatened to tear down the walls of the crooked governmental ruling class. All the while, the instrumental masters engaged in a display of artistic one-upmanship driven by a friendly competition toward perfect musical spontaneity.
Kitchen Dwellers – 12:15 p.m. Thurs. Spirit Lake
MB: Emerging from the cosmic soup of JRAD, the hearty strings of Kitchen Dwellers grounded the late-night crowd back to Earth at Spirit Lake. The band’s catalog of murder ballads made them a brilliant Spirit Lake choice, and Joe Funk‘s distorted upright bass bombs made the rave children feel right at home. As KD rattled off song after song from the band’s excellent 2022 album Wise River, it became clear just how downright spooky a lot of the group’s songs are.
Even when banjoist Torrin Daniels—shirtless, clad in a sleeveless leather vest like the late-night hero we all needed—introduced the next number, “Woods Lake”, saying, “This song is about a lake,” we all knew damn well there was a body at the bottom of that lake. The pinnacle of the set came with a haunting cover of Dr. John‘s “Walk On Guilded Splinters” that rose out of the crypt and connected Hulaween to the indelibly linked spirit of New Orleans in a beautifully ominous cross-genre homage.
Zeta – 1:45 a.m. Thurs. House Of Lost
MB: While renegades began to pop up in the campgrounds, some were lured in by the pounding rhythms of Zeta at the pagan temple of the House of Lost. Performing from the holy headbanger’s altar, the band combined percussive elements of its native Venezuela with American heavy psych and a clenched-fist hardcore assault. While it may not sound like it, the hard-hitting psych-rock powerhouse was exactly the necessary comedown to put day one of Hula—and this writer—to rest.
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María También – 2:15 p.m. Fri. The Amph | 3:00 a.m. Fri. Incendia | 10:45 p.m. Sun. Oasis Fire Circle
B.Getz: Fresh off coveted slots at Coachella and Lightning in a Bottle, deep/world-house sorceress María También made her Spirit of Suwannee debut Friday afternoon on what has proven to be many fans’ favorite SoSMP stage: The Amph. Weaving an afghan of organic folktronica, she blended afro, tribal, and ethnic deep house into a succulent stew. This NorCal-based DJ made a bunch of new fans, seen getting busy in the midday sun to tracks like “Tassavur” by Hiss-i-Elektro (Depart remix).
Very late Friday night at Incendia, homegirl threw down a grown n’ sexy serenade, rinsing records to throbbing throngs several hundred ragers deep. Short in stature but swollen with swagger, Maria could barely see over the flames framing the Incendia DJ booth, patiently building tribalized bangers like “Freedom” (Sound Of Mint featuring Samba Diabaté, François Dougère – Abel Ray remix). Sunday just before midnight, María También shut down Hulaween 2023 at the Oasis Fire Circle, a gossamer outpost tucked into Spirit Lake just past the Mural Maze. Serving tasty international plates like ”Bones” (Be Svedsen), and “Willow” (Viken Arman), the DJ collaborated with longtime friend Luke Quaranta (Toubab Krewe) on djembe, while the fire dancers’ conclave did the damn thang down by the dark waters end.
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George Porter Jr. & Friends – 4:15 p.m. Fri. The Hallows
B.Getz: A last-minute addition due to Fernando Rosa’s cancellation, the NOLA legend George Porter Jr. was swiftly tapped to perform on The Hallows late afternoon Friday. Pulling up on short notice to a pretty sizable crowd, the bassist/co-founder of funk pioneers The Meters brought along trombonist Mark Mullins (Bonerama), drummer Alfred Jordan (Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe), and George’s trusty axeman Chris Adkins. Mixing up Crescent City classics, randoms, and rarities, GPJ funkafied lives with Allen Toussaint’s immortal affirmation “Yes We Can”, Jimi Hendrix‘s landmark smash “Purple Haze” (with Mullins on vocals), and a stirring reading of Jerry Garcia’s “They Love Each Other”, the latter which the bandleader remarked was his “second favorite Grateful Dead song to perform.” The set highlight was a gritty romp through The Meters’ “Ain’t No Use”, patiently worked into an emotional climax.
The String Cheese Incident – 5:15 p.m. Fri. The Meadow | 7:30 p.m. Fri. The Meadow
MB: Waking up to the blistering Florida sun on Friday morning, fans continued streaming into the sold-out festival and filling in the seemingly endless spaces in the 800-acre campground. To that end, it became critical for me, a Suwannee first-timer, to find a party of fellow travelers after spending a grueling two hours the previous evening stumbling around alone in the dark searching for the way back to camp. Shoutout to Brandon, the kind stranger who deviated from his late-night river stroll to walk me home.
Just like me, The String Cheese Incident felt compelled to stick with friends throughout the day. During the band’s first of six (!) sets over three days, SCI called up steel guitar wizard Roosevelt Collier to join in on the Allman Brothers Band‘s “Hot ‘Lanta” and “Outside and Inside”. Meanwhile, out in the crowd, being in the presence of my cross-country companions made Cheese’s music all the more jovial as we basked in the sunshine and boogied in the intermittent patches of sand like a heady Jimmy Buffet concert.
The String Cheese Incident w/ Roosevelt Collier – “Hot ‘Lanta” (Allman Brothers Band) – 10/27/23
[Video: Fuzzy Dunlop]
SCI made some more friends during the set break, returning to the stage with members of Goose. The resulting two-song collaboration carried more weight than just some thrilling cross-generational jams, as the bands traded originals with Cheese playing Goose’s “Animal” only to flip the switch on a joint “Texas”. Given Goose’s ever-rising place in the jam scene, the significance of yet another old guard of the culture tipping its cap to the next generation was not lost on the crowd. Read more about the sit-in here.
The String Cheese Incident w/ Goose – “Animal” – 10/27/23 – Partial
[Video: Fuzzy Dunlop]
The String Cheese Incident w/ Goose – “Texas” – 10/27/23
Lettuce – 6:30 p.m. Fri. The Hallows
B.Getz: Future-funk-hop cosmonauts Lettuce consider Suwannee their second home; they’ve performed at this Park as often as any artist in the venue’s storied history, and are graciously invited back to Hulaween year after year. Falling on October 27th, the tenth Hula landed on guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff’s birthday; just as the sextet took The Hallows Stage at sunset, the co-founder was greeted with a throaty “Happy Birthday” song thanks to attentive fans up front.
What followed was a whirlwind power hour, a searing selection of LETT lava, “all killer no filler.” The ominous “Mt. Crushmore”, a thundering opening salvo gave way to the dusty, blunted explorations of “Hawk’s Claw”. The kaleidoscopic crunk of “Vamanos” packed a lysergic thump; swaggering, obtuse “The Lock” took a demonstrative detour through “Schoolboy Crush” (Average White Band). “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (Tears for Fears) got remixed Soulquarians-style, before keyboardist/vocalist Nigel Hall commandeered the vehicle to croon “Open Your Eyes” (Bobby Caldwell). LETT’s best-known number, an ambitious “Phyllis”, took a few instrumental laps through “Ain’t Nobody” (Chaka Khan) and “Hold On” (En Vogue), before returning to the “Phyllis” theme to make Hulaween Lettuce a wrap.
Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade – 9 p.m. Fri. The Hallows
B.Getz: Wacky bandleader and bassist extraordinaire, Colonel Les Claypool led a finely-tuned troupe boasting Sean Lennon on guitar, mad mallet-man Mike Dillon on percussion, and Paulo Baldini on drums, plus the return of sax-psycho Skerik, who’s back bringing the skronk again. The Frog Brigade mixed up idiosyncratic original cuts with other select chapters from Les’ storied three-plus decade catalog. The setlist included servings from Sausage, Holy Mackerel, plus a well-received “Southbound Pachyderm” tease in a not-so-subtle nod to his main gig Primus. Lately touring a two-set performance, this truncated, typically-demented demonstration peaked with Pink Floyd’s “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”, an exercise in moody psychedelia under the magnificent moonlight.
[Video: Casual Media Company]
Trey Anastasio Band – 10 p.m. Fri. The Meadow
B.Getz: For a decade, Hulaween talent buyer/partner Michael Berg yearned to bring Trey Anastasio to SoSMP in late October. Ten years in, this dream was finally manifested under the Friday night lights. The Phish co-founder/frontman/virtuosic guitarist paraded the Trey Anastasio Band onto The Meadow and kicked down a two-hour set that kept revelers sharin’ in the Hulaween groove
As usual, Trey was ably assisted by his super-tight TAB squadron, though I noticed a palpable void in the space where the late saxophonist/vocalist James Casey once shined bright. Since his passing two months ago, Trey added an excellent auxiliary vocalist in Jo Lampert, who phans might recognize from Ghosts of the Forest, The Beacon Jams, or formerly of Brooklyn band Tune-Yards. On The Meadow, Trey & Co. (appropriately) unveiled a gooey arrangement of “Ghost” to open, and a breezy run through “Cayman Review” followed suit; both tunes set a groovy, measured tone for the duration. Other highlights: TAB 1.0 deep cut “Simple Twist Up Dave”, latest Phish wowser “Oblivion” basking in rich, layered vocal harmonies, and an extremely-danceable romp through this writer’s fave: “Sand”.
[Video: runaway jr]
Goose – 12 p.m. Fri. The Hallows
MB: Considering Goose wasn’t hosting its own headlining Halloween show this year, the band took the opportunity to dress up for its late-night Hallows Stage set. A meal fit for a king, guitarist Rick Mitarotonda dressed as a pickle, bassist Trevor Weekz as a hot dog, keyboardist/guitarist Peter Anspach as peas in a pod, drummer Ben Atkind as a potato, percussionist Jeff Arevalo as a sunny side up egg, and stage manager Jon “Coach” Lombardi as a Mountain Dew can.
In accordance with the culinary costumes, the band snuck its eighth-ever cover of Herbie Hancock instrumental “Cantaloupe Island” into the set in a flex of the group’s jazz chops. Goose also had some unfinished business to take care of and circled back to wrap up the “Animals” it had started with String Cheese, with the reprisal finishing a nearly non-stop 30-minute opening segment of “Hungersite” > “Cantelope Island” and “Animal”.
Tearing into a “Creatures” that aligned with the weekend’s spooky Halloween aura, Goose attacked the composition with a ferocity unbefitting of a band starting its set at midnight. Clearly, something from Peter’s proximity to Cheese keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth rubbed off on the young player as he propelled the jam with frenzied runs up and down the electric piano. Anspach continued to shine as he colored the sleek jam out of “Fish In The Sea” with his phasers, followed by a funky vamp on “Pancakes”. Trevor the hot dog poked his head out on “Thatch” with pulsating bass slapping that shook the crowded grassy bowl. Goose kept the intensity up through the entire 120-minute set, all the way until the last notes of the all-too-brief “Arcadia” that closed the show.
lespecial – 2:30 a.m. Fri. Spirit Lake
B.Getz: After debuting on Spirit Lake with a mid-afternoon set in 2021, Connecticut-based progtronic trio lespecial leveled up to a nocturnal transmission. Comprised of bassist/programmer Luke Bemand, drummer Rory Dolan, and guitarist/programmer Jon “Jonny G” Grusauskas, lespecial kicked off with the punishing-yet-pensive “Lungs of the Planet”, from latest LP Odd Times. Several from 2020’s brilliant Ancient Homies followed: an empyreal “The Vessel”, headbanger “Snell’s Fleet”, and the leviathan “Tonberry”, among others.
Midway through the 90-minute tornado of souls, lespecial dusted off the first live “Boundary Dissolution” in roughly half a decade. As Jonny G revealed an emotional plea into the galaxy, the band channeled ghosts of Maharaji and McKenna, punctuated by an improvised coda. An urgent missive for this moment in time, benevolently busted out thanks to a hardcore fan’s passionately-written request note. A set-closing mashup blending Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” with Darude’s equally inescapable “Sandstorm”, “Enter Sandstorm” sent the teeming masses into one last fit of hippie mosh-pit mayhem.
Electric Kif – 2 p.m. Sat. The Hallows | Cadillac Jones – 4:30 p.m. Sat. Campground
B.Getz: Saturday began with an impressive performance on the Hallows from South Florida fusion faves Electric Kif. An old-school Bear Creek-era band, Cadillac Jones returned to SOSMP, inhabiting the musical costume Foxy Jones on the Campground Stage, all pimped-out and performing cuts mined solely from Pam Grier movie soundtracks like 1974’s Foxy Brown.
The String Cheese Incident – 5 p.m. Sat. The Meadow | 7:15 p.m. The Meadow
MB: Hitting the midway stride of Hulaween, Saturday’s three-course Cheese offering was a tale of contrasts. The band’s afternoon set brought out jovial singalongs “Let’s Go Outside”, “Black Clouds”, and the title track to Cheese’s new album Lend Me A Hand which saw considerable love throughout the weekend. Then as the sun set, the infield turned into a pulsating dance club as Kyle Hollingsworth utilized his keyboard arsenal to burst open jam vehicles like “Everything In Its Right Place”, “Big Reveal”, and Keith Moseley‘s set-closing “Sirens”.
Lab Group – 6:15 p.m. Sat. The Amph
B.Getz: A psychedelic bass supergroup founded by dearly-departed low-end theorist CharlestheFirst and friends Supertask and Potions., Lab Group has weathered their grief to forge onward and upward in the wake of their leader’s tragic December 2021 death. At Hulaween 2023, Lab Group was bequeathed a very desirable slot, sunset Saturday on the ever-mystical Amph. Of the three LG OGs, only Potions would take the stage, flanked by co-conspirators Tye Dye Ky and Player Dave. (Just five days later, Supertask announced he was officially leaving Lab Group.)
Piloting a journey in subaqueous soundwaves, Lab Group mined the catalogs of each contributor, taking an enormous crowd to class with them. The sonic excursion began in deep downtempo bass, patiently blossoming with each selection as the Saturday sun slowly said sayonara. Breathtaking in a flowing pastel dress and tiara, the lovely, demure Ruku strolled onstage to sing her Potions collab “Drippin”, and every last beating heart melted with her ethereal vocal and celestial presence. As darkness fell, Lab Group turned up the temp. Emcee Jawzna stepped out for grime-tinged Player Dave collab “HD” that sent folks into a frenzy. Nearing the end of their sunset transmission, Lab Group paid tribute to their fallen homeboy and the crew’s founder, CharlestheFirst, dropping a couple of his tracks, and a few chilling hawk. bars from “Old Ways”, too.
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cosmic collective – 7:30 p.m. Sat. Spirit Lake
B.Getz: On the fortunate end of a last-minute schedule flip, Charlotte’s cosmic collective impressed on the Spirit Lake stage Saturday just after sunset, quite possibly my favorite new find. Drawing an enthusiastic crowd, cosmic collective rose to the occasion with a captivating take on nu-jazz, electro-funk, fusion, instrumental neo-soul, and more. The foursome led by husband/wife duo Nikki (keys) and Tyler Enslow (bass) used their quirky creative chemistry to power this performance. The pair was augmented by virtuosic drummer Trey Tarzia, and multi-instrumentalist David Cooper who added choice trombone to a couple numbers. In addition to dope originals like “autophagy”, “yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”, “chodie banger” and “e-funk”, cosmic collective touched on Herbie Hancock (“Gentle Thoughts”, “Hang Up Your Hang-Ups”), Miles Davis (“So What”), and other pointed references dating back long before they were born.
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Manic Focus Live Band – 8:30 p.m. Sat. The Hallows
MB: Those who made it to Marvel Years’ rock-infused afternoon DJ set at The Amph recognized him as part of Manic Focus’ live band. He bumped up the BPMs in place of DOMi & JD Beck, who were unable to make it to the festival. Amid the bass-thumping ballyhoo, the producer/guitarist executed a full-blown transition into “Tweezer”, complete with live instrumentation and sampled Phish vocals to provide a satiating blend of jams and electronica that was a precursor for Pretty Lights (who lent their lighting designer Greg “LazerShark” Ellis to Manic Focus to run visuals).
The String Cheese Incident “Shebang” – 9:30 p.m. Sat. The Meadow
MB: The anticipation was palpable for Cheese’s “Shebang” set, and it was exacerbated by the lack of any conflicting performances. Looking skyward for inspiration, The String Cheese Incident took the stage dressed as werewolves and encouraged the packed crowd to howl for a “Full Moon Family Reunion.” Relevant song choices like Warren Zevon‘s “Werewolves of London” (altered to “Werewolves of Hula”), Little Feat‘s “Spanish Moon”, King Harvest‘s “Dancing In The Moonlight”, and many more made for a howling good time as we turned feral under the primal pull of the full moon.
A haunting horn section assisted String Cheese in its plenilune palooza, with Hulaween MVP Jennifer Hartswick joining on trumpet alongside TAB bandmate Natalie Cressman on trombone, Jonathon Mones on saxophone, and backing vocalists Cleveland P Jones and Rhonda Thomas. The special guests dressed their spookiest for the occasion, while SCI’s theatrical team involved the crowd with billowing clouds of smoke, giant marionettes of cats and haunting creatures, and human-sized inflatable balls that bounced among the dozens of glowing totems.
Breaking open into a devilish dance party—fitting given the Shebang’s position ahead of Pretty Lights—the group of middle-aged men showed their pop-cultural literacy by peppering in songs from Mary J. Blige (“Family Affair”) and the incendiary conclusion that sandwiched Justin Timberlake‘s “Can’t Stop The Feeling” between Dua Lipa‘s “Levitating” to close the books on another Shebang. Read more about the Shebang set here.
“Can’t Stop The Feeling” (Justin Timberlake) > “Levitating” (Dua Lipa)
[Video: Andy Johnson]
Big Wild – 11 p.m. Sat. The Amph | Pigeons Playing Ping Pong – 11 p.m. Sat. Spirit Lake
MB: Those looking to keep the blood flowing during the changeover from SCI to PL were best suited to beeline to Big Wild. The retro-outfitted live band led by producer Jackson Stell kept the crowd loose with an energetic set that at times felt like an ’80s workout video (in the best possible way). Meanwhile, over at Spirit Lake, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong resurrected ghosts of Halloween past by revisiting their mash-ups of Pink Floyd and Daft Punk. The set included the band’s Dr. Jamenstein creations “Three Pigs Have A Cigar” (“Pigs” and “Have A Cigar”) and “Get Lucky Around The World” (“Get Lucky” and “Around The World”).
Pretty Lights – 12 a.m. Sat. The Meadow
B.Getz: Returning to SoSMP for the first time since a (somewhat shaky) DJ set at Hulaween 2015, Pretty Lights continued their wildly successful comeback, landing the Soundship Spacesystem at Hula for a pair of much-anticipated weekend headline sets. With PL donning robes and accouterments ala psychedelic wizards, underneath a luminous full moon at Saturday’s stroke of midnight, the five-piece live electronic squadron led by producer/arranger Derek Vincent Smith unleashed a multi-faceted, genre-defying, improv-heavy two-hour tour de force to a jam-packed Meadow.
PL night one highlights included brand new joints like the set opening “Wake Up”, built off a Bone Thugs n’ Harmony sample, and “Sounds of Silence”, which reimagines Simon & Garfunkel into an elastic bass banger. Beloved older cuts “Total Fascination”, “I Can See It In Your Face”, “Solar Sailor” (Daft Punk), and “High School Art Class” were like a Hulaween time machine. In a choice nod to the venue’s history, PL reached back for the Allman Brothers‘ “Midnight Rider”, mashed up with Eric Clapton’s “After Midnight”, much to the delight of any Wanee veterans onsite. Other classic rockers given the PL treatment included Jimi Hendrix’s iconic “Voodoo Chile” (which saw co-founder Michal Menert shredding guitar), and “Fly Like An Eagle” (Steve Miller Band), driving party people dizzy deep into the starry night.
Ghost-Note – 2 a.m. Sat. Spirit Lake
MB: Finally, a long day at Hulaween ended with another stellar Spirit Lake late night. While Ghost-Note didn’t exactly fit the ghoulish vibe like Kitchen Dwellers or lespecial, the band certainly fulfilled their obligation to keep revelers moving and grooving into the wee hours with an all-out funk assault. That isn’t to say the band stocked with members of Snarky Puppy was without theatrics, working in relevant covers of Michael Jackson‘s “Thriller” and the Ghostbusters theme in a satisfying end to another satisfying day.
Jon Stickley Trio – 1:30 p.m. Sun. The Meadow | EREZ – 1 p.m. Sun. The Amph
MB: All good things must come to an end, and thus came the final day of Hulaween. After three (or four, or more) straight days of baking in the sun and filling our lungs with dust, laughter, and a fair bit of hooting and hollering, it was time for one last push.
Easing into the day, the healing strings of Asheville, NC’s golden boy Jon Stickley provided a serene setting to power down a one-pound burrito in the shade of the Meadow Stage. Burning off a few excess calories with some house music from EREZ at The Amph, beleaguered bodies utilized the afternoon downtime to rest and recharge ahead of the final Cheese set of the weekend.
VEiL – 2:15 p.m. Sun. Spirit Lake | Sailor Jane – 2:15 p.m. Sun. Campground | Eddie Roberts & The Lucky Strokes – 10 p.m. Campground
B.Getz: Sunday afternoon got goin’ with Street Ritual boss lady VEiL, who brought vocalist Syrenn along for some deep, dark dubstep on Spirit Lake. On the Campground Stage, Sailor Jane channeled her inner Sade inna rub-a-dub style. Late night to close down the Campground, SoSMP OG Eddie Roberts unleashed his latest endeavor, The Lucky Strokes, a bluesy-boogie band that felt at home tearing their way through some classic Black Sabbath as we neared the witching hour.
The String Cheese Incident – 3:30 p.m. Sun. The Meadow
MB: Cheese took “Never Miss a Sunday Show” to a new level with the band’s traditional bluegrass-centered Sunday spectacular. With assistance from Stickley and fiddler Lyndsay Pruett, the set opened with Peter Rowan‘s “Moonlight Midnight”, with Cheese guitarist/vocalist Bill Nershi quipping “It’s still a full moon out there somewhere, right”? as the memories of last night’s Shebang still hung fresh in our minds. Grounded takes on “I Know You Rider” and old-school favorite “Cottonmouth” became progressively more adventurous, with a rambunctious “Shantytown” finally sending the band over the edge in a jam that requires relistening. The ending of a “Joyful Sound” > “Rumble” weave went full dubstep, with Cheese burning off the last of its reserve energy on the closing compliment “Beautiful”.
Mt. Joy – 5:30 p.m. Sun. The Hallows
MB: On the original lineup, indie-rockers Mt. Joy was slotted as the bridge between Cheese’s final set and Rainbow Kitten Surprise. Things don’t always go according to plan, as RKS went on immediate indefinite hiatus back in May. Hulaween pivoted by adding a second night of Pretty Lights, and Mt. Joy leaned into the continuing jam-heavy vibe during its tweener set with a well-placed cover of the Dead’s “Fire On The Mountain”.
Pretty Lights – 6:30 p.m. Sun. The Meadow
B.Getz: To close out the Meadow on Sunday, Pretty Lights returned with a sublime, 90-minute sunset safari that eschewed the previous evening’s rave-up intensity for a more measured transmission suited for the Lord’s Day. The stalwart Pretty Lights band, made up of co-founding producers Smith and Menert, plus keyboardist/programmer Borahm Lee (Break Science), turntablist Chris Karns, and drummer Alvin Ford Jr., continued skyward on their collective search for new land, unveiling deeper cuts, channeling higher vibes, and forwarding an objectively stronger—if somewhat more subdued—Sunday performance.
Mixing trademark PL electro-soul energy with everything from dubstep, dub-reggae, deep house, playa tech, and libidinous lanes between, the quintet defied the possibilities of electronic music live-without-a-net, confidently applying Type II modus operandi to their labyrinthine concoctions. Sunday high water marks included another supernal new song in the opening slot, “The Sun Spreads In Our Minds”, an appropriate “Lord Will Find A Way”, the head-nod rasta-gospel of “New Heights”, seminal “Hot Like Sauce”, the all-gas-no-brakes tech-housequake born out of a blistering “Cold Feeling”, and cherished rework of Pink Floyd’s “Time”. For a gratefully grandiose finale, DVS dedicated the last joint to “the greatest to ever do it,” before detonating PL’s mammoth interpolation of “Shakedown Street”. One last euphoria dart to the jugular, certifying that our Hulaween cups would depart the heart of town totally overfloweth.
Sneezy – 7:45 p.m. Sun. Campground
MB: After Pretty Lights’ final set, it was time to retreat into Spirit Lake for one last night of revelry. Chicago party funk band Sneezy had the run of the festival with no competing sets and took full advantage of the opportunity with one of the breakout performances of the weekend. Frontman Brett O’Connor worked the Campground crowd into a veritable frenzy with a display that went beyond passionate in front of an estimated crowd of several thousand, the band’s largest to date.
Dressed as Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem, the seven-piece party starters bore a striking resemblance to the mop-faced mayhem creators as the friends-since-grade-school group dynamic incited insatiable smiles throughout the audience. The raucous feel-good funk of the band’s originals “Flower Child”, “Fat Girlfriend”, and “Not Sorry” along with a time-tested cover of Chance the Rapper‘s “Church” propelled the beaming crowd through one of the final sets of the weekend, ending with an incendiary climax of “Nautilus” > “Sandwich” and “Gogo”. This is far from the last Suwannee will see of Sneezy, who bookended their festival year with buzzy performances at Resonate in April and now Hulaween.
The Nth Power Presents: Jenth Power – 10 p.m. Sun. Spirit Lake
B.Getz: To close out Spirit Lake Sunday night, Jennifer Hartswick made her fourth separate appearance at Hula 2023 (TAB, SCI Shebang, her own solo band) as part of the debut of The Nth Power Presents: Jenth Power. Hulaween partner Paul Levine acknowledged Hartswick’s omnipresence this weekend as he announced her band on the Meadow, where she led a phenomenal ensemble that included TAB trombone foil Natalie Cressman and bassist Dezron Douglas through a sultry, R&B-soaked set of mostly original compositions.
The Nth Power first came together over a decade ago, ostensibly to be Hartswick’s backing band during NOLA Jazz Fest; the chemistry and connection was too strong to deny, and soon drummer/vocalist Nikki Glaspie, guitarist/vocalist Nicholas Cassarino, and bassist Nate Edgar coalesced as the core of The Nth Power. The friendships and cross-pollinating projects have blossomed exponentially across the interim years, manifesting several supergroups and endeavors between them. Jenth Power at Spirit Lake might be among the most potent yet.
Starting with Nth’s scintillating “Only You”, the quartet stunned every soul at Spirit Lake that night. “Truth” and “Hero” both showcased Cassarino taking total control with lush guitar leads and choice vocals, the seminal “Spirits” was pure medicine. Fellow Vermonter Hartswick dazzled singing her own tunes “Numb” and “For You”, adding terrific trumpet leads atop her grown n’ sexy grooves. Late in the frame, Jenth Power welcomed Ghost-Note drummer Robert “Sput” Searight to sit in on keyboards, including one of his compositions, the set-closing blues “Take My Soul”.
MB: With the music in the rearview, it was finally time to catch a reflective breath and look back on what had just transpired over the last few days. During the harried rush from one set to another, it can be all too easy to get caught up in the desire to do and see everything. Then you blink your eyes, and you’re back at home. Trying to look back on the experience and pull out certain memories, it’s like trying to pull a fish out of a rushing river.
Personally, I had never before stepped foot at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. Lacking any firsthand knowledge, I relied on the glowing words of others who described the venue with an almost religious reverence. Beneath the soft embrace of thousands of drooping oak trees, there exists something that goes far beyond any festival experience. It was something I felt even before the festival started.
On Wednesday night before Hulaween really began, my campsite sat underneath the stars watching the ongoing meteor shower. With no official stages going yet and many attendees still miles or states away, there was a calm before the storm. Instead of turning on music or party lights, we sat in the stillness, listening to bullfrogs and watching the shooting stars overhead. It was during that moment that I formed the connection that generations of friends, families, lovers, and artists have made with Suwannee over the years. Even as the Park ballooned with over 20,000 attendees and 100+ acts, that bond couldn’t be broken.
At Suwannee Hulaween, there was an unshakable sense of being in the here and now that no rush of rhythms, flashing lights, or ingestibles could shake. For four, five, or however many days we stayed there in that swamp, we were all united by that communal bond with the Park, with the festival, and with one another that will keep many of us—including this writer—coming back year after year after year.