Speaking as somebody who’s lucky enough to attend and review music festivals as part of his vocation, I must acknowledge that Suwannee Hulaween bursts through the stratosphere into rarefied air, it’s own ebullient brand of epic. The massive jamboree takes place in the breathtakingly beautiful environs of the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida, at the end of every October. It falls as close to All Hallow’s Eve as possible while still landing on the weekend, and this year saw the festival reach the highest and most exalted heights in its glorious six-year run in the swamps of Northeast Florida. Through the years of festivals at SOSMP, many have written of the towering oak trees, the whispering Spanish Moss dripping from the sky, and the stoic, proud river that runs through it. It is nothing if not a majestic natural kingdom of iridescent wonder, the ultimate organically psychedelic playground, of sorts.
Hulaween sets up shop in this fantasy-land, combing the cutting edge in jam, electronic, roots and underground music cultures with the finest and most picturesque festival venue in the continental U.S.. HULA has already risen to the top of the mountain; in 2018, tickets sold out well in advance once again, though the fest did not sacrifice its soul, mojo or artistic integrity to achieve its phenomenal success. The event draws a peculiar cross-section of classic hippies, hyper-kinetic club kids, and neo-tribalized millennials into a whirlwind danceteria that inclusively welcomes the ghouls, ghosts and goblins of contemporary psychedelic sound, art, and culture.
Hosted by Colorado jamband The String Cheese Incident, who perform seven full sets annually, Suwannee Hulaween represents the creme de la creme of festival lineups and diversity. This year, the festival delivered on a dream by booking UK electro-funk icons Jamiroquai, as well as the return of Odesza, and the red-hot femme fatale Janelle Monáe to round out the headliners. Most notably, there was a premium placed on featuring women on this year’s lineup card, and Mavis Staples, Rezz, Lizzo, Bishop Briggs, CloZee, Jennifer Hartswick were just a few of the phenomenal female performers that graced the various stages at SOSMP. Hulaween has always struck me as a forward-thinking organization/organism, and 2018’s collection of artists, and the intention behind them, only served to bolster that notion. Suffice to say I’m not the only one pickin’ up what they’re puttin down, either.
Leading the Hulaween charge is Purple Hat Productions’ Paul Levine, the Chicago-based cross-pollinating promoters at Silver Wrapper and their leader Michael Berg, and a third managing partner Leif Moravy. Along with longtime SOSMP production manager Michael Allegretto, these men have spent years and many trials and tribulations pulling together an assertive, motivated, and responsive squadron to implement and execute their ever-grandiose plans. Levine has always placed a laser focus on creating the ultimate experience for at once the fan and the performing artist, and his reputation in that regard precedes him. Berg’s multifaceted role speaks to his devotion to a dream, his personal and professional missions to inspire, entertain, and emotionally connect with thousands of festival-goers are worthy of all of our admiration, within the industry and beyond. Both men are cut firmly from the cloth of the late Bill Graham and follow in the path of Pete Shapiro; they both work tirelessly with their dutiful teams to make sure that we continue to return to the Suwannee for Hulaween, a spiritual church for some, a place many affectionately call “Home.”.
If that sounds familiar to another alternate universe “home” out in the Black Rock desert, that’s because in many ways, HULA has taken a cue or three from the mother of all big art music parties, Burning Man. The heart-stirring and spine-tingling art installations that pepper a wicked garden named Spirit Lake can trace their energetic and intentional DNA to the Playa, and many of the artists (and some installations themselves) make the pilgrimage to Black Rock City and SOSMP within a ten-week window. Art director Andy Carroll, along with Joan Isaac and their tremendous team continues to do impressive work in curating the artistic experience, as one lives in wonder when they step into the surreal and stimulating Spirit Lake.
Akin to the Burn, there is a lot of fire, LED lights, explosions, and performance art, not to mention an ever-evolving activities program that includes all sorts of workshops and community building sessions, nutrition classes, and even sacred breathwork. Some of this writer’s personal favorites included Path to Panacea’s “Self Care Sunday” and “Connection as Your Birthright” with Erica Bernal. A Gold Rush-era cowboy casino was consistently brimming with gamblers at the always exciting Frick Frack Black Jack. There is so much exuberant creativity and imagination being empowered at Spirit Lake, with little of the pretentiousness of the West Coast transformational scene, or the preening of Instagramming Burners. HULA really strikes a lovely and invigorating balance between the jam scene and Playa culture, a matrimony that I’ve personally been seeking for several years.
One thing that Hulaween as a festival must devote more attention to is the waste management situation. I know that the staff at SOSMP and the HULA brass care deeply about this issue and are motivated toward solution-based strategies. More importantly and more specifically, those who attend this event need to start picking up after ourselves. In an understatement, it’s safe to say that we must do better. The amount of refuse that was left at the stages and around the campground was infuriating, and that’s putting it mildly. How people can have such a beautiful life experience in such magical and jaw-dropping environs and still leave garbage strewn about everywhere is beyond me. There has to be a concerted effort in 2019 from both the festival and attendees to improve this markedly.
Suwannee Hulaween delivers three full festival days plus a Thursday “Pre Party”, which is, in essence, another full festival day schedule. The event has five main music areas, from the humongous Meadow Stage, the legendary Amphitheater Stage, the prismatic Spirit Lake Stage, the sprawling Patch, and the cozy Campground Stage. Add in countless detours, from Yoga domes to Because of the Lotus; the Incendia fire domes, where you can stumble upon all kinds of unannounced performances, sometimes from major artists already playing at the event. This year our favorite Incendia secret set was some super late night chill-house from Jason Rault of Florida’s Nomad Crew. Walking around and hanging out inside cryptically-fascinating netherworlds like Lost and Duendebuilds feel almost like being in a real-life Disney movie.
Then there are the renegade sound camps, another nod to Burning Man culture, where the music often goes until the sun comes up. Full bands set up at the longtime staple Camp Funky Love, while some of the finest selectors on site came through Fam Camp for some proper late-night raging. Naturally, one could not possibly take in the surplus of unbelievable music made available at HULA 2018, so this review will not cover anything close to a majority of the performances. Still, this writer was a madman at the park, trekking all over the place in a genuine effort to take in as much art and music as humanly possible over four-days of Suwannee adventure time. This feature looks at some of the paramount performances we were lucky enough to catch, with a deep dive on the best of the best, and a rundown on what music really moved our feet and got up in our feels at Suwannee Hulaween 2018. Better yet, I invited a couple of guest reviewers to cover some extra-special sets that I was forced to miss.
Without any further ado, these are a few of our favorite things from Suwannee Hulaween 2018:
Thursday, October 25th
Thursday began with a tremendous showing from newcomers Ghost Light, featuring Tom Hamilton, Scotty Zwang, Holly Bowling, among others. Their muscular brand of traditional psychedelic jamrock mixed with Seattle-tinged grunge vibes made for a very unique sixty minutes on the Amphitheater Stage. Marco Benevento played a spirited trio set on the spunky Spirit Lake stage, and bassist Karina Rykman continued to wow with her youthful exuberance and punked-up energy. In back-to-back performances on the Campground Stage, local vixen Kaleigh Baker and Asheville’s femme fury of The Broadcast provided. Vulfpeck sideman Cory Wong offered some comedic red herrings and elastic-FM funk, STS9 axed the cables and also went electric, and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead took over the Amphitheater and dropped two behemoth sets of adventurous Grateful Dead peppered with a plethora of bedrock references.
The Silent Disco took over the Campground Stage each of the first three nights for late night raves. Sets from Marvel Years, Bit Deff, Ill-Esha, and Charlie Hustle were all well received. An extremely special occasion saw Jamiroquai drummer Derrick McKenzie team up with Steve Taylor for a b2b session of soulful house, but there were simply not enough headsets to satisfy the demand of all who wanted to hear the funk drummer get busy on the tables. One of the very best sets of the Silent Disco was the first one on Thursday at just after 2am, when SOSMP favorite son Vlad the Inhaler stepped to the plate. Vlad is the only other artist besides SCI to play all six Suwannee Hulaweens, and on this night he showed everybody just why he is a fortunate son of the Based God. Vlad dropped cuts from the likes of DJ Rashad, Joker, DJ Spinn and Manny, Taso, and even a slice of Kaytranada, so by the time we’d inhaled for sixty minutes, best believe anybody with a pair of cans on their head knew the score.
LETTUCE- Amphitheater Stage – Thursday
Future-funk-hop cosmonauts Lettuce are quite literally the house band for SOSMP, having played Purple Hatters Ball several times, dating back to their halcyon days runnin’ tings at the legendary funk carnival Bear Creek Music & Arts Festival, which lived for eight glorious years on these same hallowed grounds. I am a firm believer that the heartbeat of Bear Creek is alive and well inside of Suwannee Hulaween, and that is never more evident than when LETT assumes their throne on the Amphitheater Stage. Blessed to be back at HULA for the fourth consecutive year, Thursday night found Lettuce closing out the Amp pre-party after two fantastic sets from Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, dropping a cataclysmic bomb on revelers that were teaming out the Amphitheater and into the road. Frankly, one must be grateful that EOTO was playing simultaneously on the Patch Stage, or we may have had a situation on our hands, because Lettuce leveled the Amp like only they can, continuing on their shape-shifting Wavelength Tour with a vulgar display of power.
The talented Michael Smalley handled Lighting Director duties, and cast the boys in the vibiest of tones for the entire seventy-five-minute sojourn in sound. Opening with a new joint “Larimar” interspersed with elements of Miles Davis “Jean Pierre”, the Dominican funk made it clear from the very beginning that on this night, there would be no prisoners taken. “The Force” and “Phyllis” followed, the two psychedelic thunderclaps from Crush ushering in chromatic textures and lysergic aromas, all the while quoting A Tribe Called Quest, flirting with muscular grooves ala The Meters and entering the Zoid Void with eyes wide shut. “House”, which was first unveiled last year at this very same HULA set, saw drummer wunderkind Adam Deitch throwing down the furious four-on-the-floor housequake while Eric Benny Bloom quoted “Pump Up the Jam”, sending the ravenous crowd into a dithers. Keyboardist Nigel Hall belted out Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up” like many Amphitheater moons ago, while Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff (guitar), Jesus Coomes (bass), Ryan Zoidis (sax) got the vibe up and the “Squadlive”. “Gang Ten”, the intergalactic, thirteen-minute plus Type ii centerpiece/opus of their (still untitled) forthcoming album, has grown leaps and bounds since it too was first unveiled (in full) to us on this very same sacred stage some seven hundred and thirty-ish days ago.
But I’m not sure anything could have prepared us for yet another song anniversary, this in the form of “Trapezoid” which closed the same HULA Amp set last year (sense a theme yet? It’s only been happening like this for a decade!). In 2017, “TRAP” was an idea, four minutes of gully with a bulbous brass head and too much swagger for its own good. A year later, after ridin’ around shinin’ in hoods across America, it’s become a surly and uncompromising beast of unrepentant proportion. On this night, the 808s would eschew any sort of heartbreak or hotel, and instead take up residence with one Michael Myers. The ghosts and ghouls of Halloween horror were summoned by the ominous pianos from Hall, the brooding and tantalizing leads from the Shady Horns, and a bombastic slab of crunkalogic science from the boy wonder behind the kit. The resulting sum of this uniquely-formulated alchemy was simply a band beyond description; if you don’t know, you’d better ask somebody. But if you were there, then you must remember what it felt like when the earth rumbled and the mighty Amphitheater Stage’s foundation was shaken to its very core. Radiate LETT.
MZG-Spirit Lake Friday & FamCamp – Saturday, late-night
To some, MZG appears to be a brand new artist, and Zach and Charles Weinert are only in their mid-20s, yet they are already legends of the Suwannee. The handsome monozygotic twins hail from Duval County in Northeast Florida, and have a storied history in the region, as well as at Hulaween. Over the past decade they’ve sewn their seeds in the culture, Zach played in Greenhouse Lounge, and Sir Charles was a rising cat in the bass music tank. But it wasn’t until they stopped bullsh*tting themselves and each other and artistically joined forces, that they began to really unleash their seemingly limitless potential. By this point, MZG has cultivated a dedicated following and are slowly but surely finding their lane, and defining their sound, with increasingly phenomenal original music and a bevy of choice remixes. Last year’s HULA report I featured their Silent Disco set–which was bananas, however, in the interim revolution around the sun, the brothers have finally closed up shop in Jax and brought the Twin Pack out to the Front Range. Not only have they relocated to the current cultural Mecca of both cannabis and electronic music, but more importantly, they were scooped up under the tutelage of manager Whit Hawkins. His steady hand and decade-plus in the game has already begun to pay major dividends, a gang of which were on display at Suwannee Hulaween.
For their Spirit Lake set on Friday, which caused me to miss (much of) a fiery MMW set on the main stage, the twins pulled a pretty huge crowd considering the 3:30 pm start. MZG pulled out the Twin Pack EP and “Swung” for the fences, the duo continued to go yard and go hard for the entire power hour. “Wait a Minute” had the people getting lit as the sun began to come out after a rainy twelve hours upon arrival. MZG previewed tracks from their forthcoming release MemeZG, and their original art just keeps getting exponentially doper by the minute. The twins are a marvel to watch perform, their infectious energy and Hi-Fi sibling connection shines blindingly bright, and that reverberates thru the music. The Spirit Lake set was a rousing success, however late on Saturday, local cats in the know were treated to an absolutely blistering MZG homecoming sesh from 3am-sunrise, on a renegade DJ rig in the camping area.
A Burner-esque soundcamp called Fam Camp, this nightclub in the woods was a partnership with the Florida Bacon Krewe, and this spot raged loud and proud, all night, each night, with relatively no interruptions (one helluva feat, given SOSMP’s propensity to shut this sort of thing down. Kudos to the park for the hands-off approach. Noted and appreciated.). On Saturday late-night, Zach and Charles brought the thunderous bass tombs and uber-sexy deep house vibes. DJing from the inside of an old car’s front end, this rage popped off into one of the best sheer dance parties of the entire festival. Starting things off with some crunk like “Howyoufeel” (ASHVIN) and “knowone” by Herzeloyd, as the night wore on and the people got loose, the twins reached way into the deep house crates for Horny Dave’s “Work for Me”, Golf Clap’s “Shake It”, and if memory serves, a Shaggy joint. Somehow we serendipitously stumbled into our own little Jax Beach reunion, hosted by the ever-hospitable FamCamp, with music from the young lions MZG. The perfect ending to one of the best nights of our lives.
Friday, October 26th
Friday saw Medeski, Martin & Wood return to Suwannee and provide a proper Friday afternoon in the park, while LIZZO stepped into herself at the Patch. The ethereal Emancipator Ensemble returned to the mystical Amphitheater as nightfall crept, while JRAD morphed back into its former Zoso as Bustle in Your Headrow at the Patch. Meanwhile, the Dirtybird takeover was well underway at a reverberating Spirit Lake, and first up was a raucous set from Ardalan. Everybody knew that the champ was here, as Justin Martin took the decks at 10:30 pm and uncorked a lusty and demonstrative set of aggressive deep house, with an occasional detour into drum & bass. Speaking of jungle, later that night both Ardalan and Justin Martin brought the Dirtybird steez out to the campground for a renegade set, where the latter laced up two more hours of ferocious dnb. Local cat Charlie Hustle then jumped on the decks for some super vibey deep house til the very wee hours.
Headliners Odesza drew the largest crowd of the weekend at the main stage and unveiled a gargantuan spectacle and eye-popping production. But it would be the sorcerer Fareed Haque (guitar) and the warlock Kai Eckhardt (bass) who’s reconstituted Garaj Mahal would return to the ghosts of Suwannee and steal the hearts of the huddled masses assembled at the Spirit Lake Stage. The following evening, also pitted against a humongous headliner, French producer and rising star CloZee drew a sizable audience to Spirit Lake, in spite of the scheduling. Flanked by fire dancers and aerial artists, CloZee delivered a solid hour of her colorful creations that straddled the lines of glitch and West Coast bass, consistently trafficking in melody and musicality.
Break Science Live Band featuring Chris Karns – Amphitheater Stage – Friday
The futuristic sounds of Break Science have always had a home at the SOSMP, dating back to their first appearance at the Music Hall nearly a decade ago, and at AURA 2015 they debuted their live band with members of Lettuce. Three years later, that project has evolved in a variety of ways, not the least of which is the LETT players familiarity with the unique textures and sonics inherent in the BrkSci DNA. Drummer Adam Deitch and keyboardist/producer Borahm Lee have harnessed a certain chemistry from one another that is infectious, and Deitch shares that with his Lettuce bredren, so the blueprint and foundation for greatness is already there, as these cats are all virtuoso musicians. It was just a matter of putting it all together. Enter Chris Karns, world champion DJ and also in this case, the Crazy Glue too.
Karns plus Jesus Coomes, Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff, Eric Benny Bloom, and Ryan Zoidis coalesced around Borahm and Deitch while the duo propelled the collective skyward. Opening with “Cruise Control” from their latest LP Grid of Souls, Break Science Live Band wasted no time getting the Amphitheater excessively crunk. The team threw a curveball next, surprising the Amp massive with a Reggaeton-style jam. The krewe touched a couple hip-hop breaks, and unreleased Borahm joint, and the “Hip Hop Junkies” (Nice & Smooth) sample that is “Funky Style” (Manic Science). Borahm even reached back for the ever-popular Tycho/K.Dot mashup “Vibe Walk”, before blasting off to 2011’s rudeboy anthem “Zion Station” from the PLM era. Speaking of the color map, Chris Karns ups the ante something serious when he joins Deitch and Borahm; no matter the circumstance, he acts as a “Guiding Light” so Borahm can focus more on playing keys in the live band element. To finish strong, Break Science dropped a double shot of Redman-assisted bangers, as “Who Got It” and Brain Reaction” transported us to Brick City as the inimitable tones of the Funk Doc channeled everybody’s inner-hyphy. Break Science was going so ham for so long onstage this afternoon that the band ran out of time and were unable to close out this monster performance with the supernatural vibes of “Android Love.” Nonetheless, the set proved to all who attended that without question, the Break Science Live Band is a force of nature. #JustAddKarns
String Cheese Incident – Hulaween Festival Wrap-Up, by Sheryl Gentry
Returning to HULA for the sixth consecutive year, The String Cheese Incident once again went above and beyond to satisfy their loyal fanbase. The “Creatures of the Galaxy” theme presented a myriad of options and the band gave few clues about their traditional Halloween costumed set during the first four sets of the weekend. But each was a gem on its own. Opening with “Texas” in set one, they played a couple of new tunes, ”Gone Crooked” and “Hey Larocco” before closing the day with Michael Kang’s ripping fiddle on classics “BollyMunster” and “Rivertrance”.
Friday at Suwannee Hulaween vibrates with the costumed anticipation, the crowd is ready for anything SCI can bring. Each year’s show is more amazing than the last. For 2018, SCI gave HULA aliens, rocketships, and Jedi knights. The creativity and positive energy that was on display were palpable and thrilling. The first Saturday two sets were sweet for any and all fans of Cheese. Opening with Birdland into a long hearty jam, the band was reveling in the beauty of the fantastic Florida weather in late October, and delivered a “Colorado Bluebird Sky” to close the first. Set two teased us with “The Big Reveal” and they busted out the first Hulaween “Jellyfish” ever. That, plus the Rayland Baxter sit-in, made this reviewer and thousands of other fans ecstatic.
When the band came out for the always-incredible Trick or Treat set in period costumes, lots of people seemed a bit confused. When they invited Lisa Fischer (of Rolling Stones fame) to sing “Gimme Shelter”, we rocked out hard. Longtime SOSMP favorite daughter Jen Hartswick sang and played trumpet on the dearly-departed Aretha Franklin’s beloved “Rock Steady”, Rhonda Thomas sang Ike and Tina Turner’s arrangement of the legendary “Proud Mary”. SCI’s Billy Nershi gave us a clue when he told us it was “all about the women.” Surprise guest vocalist Ann Wilson of Heart sang Cream’s “Politician” (another clue). When they closed the set with Peter Tosh’s “Get Up Stand Up” and there were still no wild balloons floating through the crowd and no aliens, we looked at each other and started to ask if we’d been tricked.
[Video: The String Cheese Incident]
The encore, which is sort of like a ‘secret set’, was the treat, and started with the band’s “Rollover”, which deals with the effects of climate change. Cheese went right into the “Close Encounters of a Third Kind” theme song, followed by a jam. To close it down, SCI hit on themes from Star Wars, the “Cantina Song”, “Imperial March” before touching on the theme from Star Trek and even “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)”, then the band segued back into “Rollover” to close. When it was all said and done, Hulaween got our theatrics, floating spaceships and fried egg balloons, and an out of this world light show. The closing video sign sent a blunt force message to their fans: Just F*cking Vote! The band returned for two more phenomenal sets on Sunday to close out yet another seven at String Cheese’s Southeast jamboree, Suwannee Hulaween.
Chris Karns – Solo DJ set – Silent Disco – Friday, late-night
Much like MZG in 2017, one of the most jaw-dropping performances of the entire weekend took place deep into the Suwannee night at the Silent Disco. On Friday night well after 3 am, former DMC World Champion turntablist Chris Karns took to the wheels of steel and first painted, and then pillaged, the town. Captaining an exciting excursion in progressive turntablism and underground hip-hop, Karns dropped banger after banger of classic materials, exhibiting unparalleled prowess on a true deejay’s artillery, two Technics 1200 and a mixer. School was in session for the Pretty Lights Music maven, as Karns showed and proved for a solid hour of some of the finest boom-bap laid to wax, lacing up current-day gems and reaching into the wayback machine for the golden era joints that defined a moment in time. Scratching, juggling, and makin’ heads bob like emergency brakes, the beats, rhymes, and cuts were absolutely perfect for this witching hour.
The Silent Disco is no picnic for a performer, and while the physical impact of the kick drum and snappin’ snare are muted by the headphones-only listener medium, the cans allowed for the audience to really key in on the never-ending nuances embedded in this deejay’s every freaking move. It wasn’t limited to just rap tunes, either, as Karns flirted with minimalist dubstep, drum & bass, West Coast bass, and even some smooth-as-butta downtempo as he furthered on down the road. Yet the juiciest jawns were undoubtedly from the genre that he loves most, the one that defines him. When Karns uncorked DJ Wonder’s edit of Bone Thugs N’ Harmony’s timeless “Mr. Ouiji” the entire crowd erupted in jubilation, same respond/react to Rockwell’s forever beloved early 80’s electro-heater “Somebody’s Watching Me”, and even Karns own remix of Camp Lo’s throwback anthem “Luchini (This is It)”. Nevermind his mind-boggling piano-juggle routine atop the Micheal Myers Halloween theme, a recurring nightmare all weekend long. For this writer, it was the 4:20 am sequence of GraveDiggaz “1-800-Suicide” > Geto Boys (specifically Bushwick Bill’s Halloween-themed verse on) “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me” > J Dilla “E=MC2” that made me bow down to a true master of ceremony. Chris Karns is one to watch for, whether he’s sitting in with Break Science, scratchin’ up some Pretty Lights, or most specifically, solo DJ sets, because one thing we learned for certain is that his Uzi weighs a ton.
Saturday, October 27th
Saturday, on the whole, was one of the most incredible musical menus at the park in recent memory. Buoyed by Luke Quaranta’s globalized riddims, Toubab Krewe’s meditative kora tones on the Meadow brought us back to life after so many raved til’ (nearly) dawn. Lettuce raged in the afternoon sun, while Stephen “Ragga” Marley sung the yardie lullabies on the Amphitheater Stage. That very same hallowed stage hosted an absolutely massive throwdown from Manic Focus, who returned to HULA for the fourth consecutive year, with a special edition of the MF’n Live Band. This particular extravaganza included the omnipresent Shady Horns, Break Science’s Borahm Lee (keys), Marvel Years (guitar), and brought out the likes of Adam Deitch (Break Science, Lettuce) and Nicholas Cassarino (The Nth Power). Fans were going apesh*t for the entire set, filled with pop-culture anthems and choice remixes; the free-wheeling energy spilled out into the road as Manic brought the house down once again.
Knower (Live Band) and Bishop Briggs brought more youthful feminine flavor to the Patch, while former Jax Beach funk stalwarts The Fritz, who decamped to Asheville, N.C. a few years ago, returned to the familiar confines of the Campground Stage and drew that stage’s largest audience of the weekend. Mikey Spice, Jamar Woods and company played a mix of their trademark jams and tracks from the recently released Echo EP. The Minister of the Suwannee River, lap-steel shredder Mr. Roosevelt Collier brought his trio to the Campground Stage for yet another swampy revue later Saturday evening.
TROYBOI – Amphitheater – Saturday
Taking to the Amphitheater Stage just as the Saturday sunset, UK DJ/producer TroyBoi detonated an hour of the finest trap music the park has ever hosted, and the natives were restless. After an unforeseen equipment snafu threatened his set altogether, the Trap God assumed the decks and led an absolutely enormous, hyped-to-the-gills audience through a laundry list of the gulliest hip-hop edits, as well as slab after slab of his own titanic creations. The man has established his very own lane in the industry today. TroyBoi has an uncanny ability to connect with those who seek the most aggressive in bass music thunder, yet peppers his musical journeys with just enough palpable sensuality that the audience actually included more women than men. Rest assured, this sort of alchemy makes for an absolutely raucous rebellion on the dancefloor, inhibitions lost and not found. Doesn’t matter where TroyBoi is playing, this man’s music makes people behave some type of way.
Unleashing his tasty takes on monster anthems from Migos (“Bad & Bougie, Walk It Like I Talk It”), Kendrick Lamar (“Be Humble”), Rick Ross (“Purple Lamborghini- Skrillex remix), Damian Marley (“Welcome to JamRock”) Snoop Dogg/Pharrell (“Drop it Like It’s Hot”), and even the dearly-departed Aaliyah (“Are U That Somebody”), among others, TroyBoi had the Amp overflowing with frenetic energy. However it was his own rump-rattling ruckus on originals including “OG”, and “Grimey”, that threatened the integrity of every structure in his wake. Nearly fifty minutes in, the veteran crunkologist uncorked the libidinous “Do You” and just about every beating heart at the Amphitheater erupted; the volcanic vibrations extrapolating in that three minutes was unparalleled, the most vigorous energy transfer anywhere at the festival, all weekend long. As he concluded with the sizzlin’ sexy “I Like It”, TroyBoi said into the microphone that this was his livest show of the year, and trust that we all believed him. First time to the park, Troyboi came, he saw and most definitely conquered; Welcome to Ratchet Town, he’s OG not new to the game.
TIPPER – Amphitheater Stage – Saturday
In the run-up to HULA 2018, one of the most talked about sets was the return to the Amphitheater Stage of the mighty Dave Tipper. The living legend has hosted two Tipper & Friends festivals here at SOSMP, but much to the chagrin of his numerous fanatics, the event was absent from 2018 programming, (although it’s set to return in 2019). Never fear, Silver Wrapper to the rescue, and the shamanic sound designer was offered the closing slot on Saturday at the celestial Amphitheater, in a time slot smack dab between the SCI theme set and headliners Jamiroquai. It was a tight squeeze and scheduling Tetris, going head to head with another highly anticipated set from Vulfpeck on the Patch Stage. However, predictably, the living legend stepped into the moment and delivered a kaleidoscopic alien workshop like only he can. Tipper’s brand of sound design is so quadraphonically-advanced that at times, we missed the custom-tuned Funktion1 sound-system, but rest assured the tones blissfully dripped off the Spanish Moss and into the ether.
After first stumbling upon the Wimbledon, England-born genius on a Black Rock City sunrise in 2013 (on the Mayan Warrior, his first performance since open-heart surgery earlier that year), I’ve learned that to experience the music of Tipper live is an exercise in mindfulness and human echolocation, and as such it requires attentiveness and (nearly total) surrender. This is not background music, it is not a “party,” this is not EDC Orlando, fam. The West Coast audiences that have more alien full moons under their belt seem to understand that kind of reciprocal respect, from the stage to the rage; Hulaween was filled with fantastic energy all weekend but for Tipper’s Saturday night seance, more than a few at the Amp seemed to lose their manners, and the environment suffered for it. What did not suffer was the art, namely Johnathan Singer’s phantasmagorical visuals that accompanied the surreality coming from the pineal purveyor onstage. For nearly seventy-five minutes, Tipper uncorked jams that were quite simply unf*ckwittable, as this man really has no peer. Dave scratched the sh*t out of some Serato and forwarded a grip of funky and ferocious tracks, namely “Lumpy Haggis”, “Can I Get”, “Ambergris (VIP)”, “Spunion”, “Covered in Lobsters”, “Chrome Splat”, “On the Natch”, an unreleased joint he calls “Starkers”, among other treasured psychonautic excursions in sound. Tipper slowly revealed snippets of future transmissions in a language that not everybody could easily overstand. Not the easiest art to wrap your brain around, Tipper’s not for everyone, but he’s most definitely for me: there’s no denying that this humble luminary feels quite at home on his Amphitheater Stage throne.
Jamiroquai – Meadow Stage – Saturday
For as long as I can remember, longtime funkateers and Spirit of Suwannee family alike have begged and pleaded with Paul Levine and Michael Berg, (along with Leif Moravy, the managing partners of Suwannee Hulaween) to book UK electro-funk titans Jamiroquai to play at the music park. It seemed impossible for the longest time, as Jay Kay and company had not visited the US in thirteen long and agonizing years of funk purgatory. Alas, with the release of the phenomenal LP Automaton in April 2017, hopes were rekindled, and after US dates in Coachella, San Francisco, and New York City were revealed, the pipe dream was once again alive. Somehow, Silver Wrapper and Purple Hat Productions were able to move mountains and add Live Oak, Florida to the major US markets that Jamiroquai would visit in 2018. A special engagement at Chicago’s North Coast Music Festival put a lid on the Stateside soirees, and the date was set for October 27th, when the Space Cowboy would finally descend on the spirits of the Suwannee, and headline the Saturday night HULA special. Never has this writer, in his entire life, anticipated a single set of music more than this one.
Jamiroquai has evolved into a grown n’sexy version of acid-jazz, disco-funk, electro-groove and live electronica, and their current incarnation has been together longer than even the classic lineup from the 1990’s. As such, the band and their fearless leader Jay Kay arrived at Hulaween a finely-tuned automobile, having toured the world over behind the new record, selling out each and every show/festival they touched in the U.S., while continuing to fill arenas across the globe. Delayed by 30 minutes after the SCI set ran late, the Meadow was pretty packed and it was chilly after midnight when it was finally showtime for Jamiroquai. As the “Street Fighter” intro played over the PA, the iconic Automaton-helmet, an LED contraption that moves and glows as Kay performs, lit up the night as the band took the stage, another in the long-standing tradition of the singer’s patented preposterous headwear.
In his thick British accent, Jay Kay emphatically greeted us with the salutation “Party People”, something sacred to the Jamily and had eluded U.S. fans the entire tour. That right there was the supersonic bat-signal, sh*t was officially on! Opening with the scintillating “Shake it On” which kicks off their latest album, the rhythm section of Paul Turner (bass) and Derrick McKenzie (drums) took charge of the pocket and never relinquished it for the duration of this two-hour tour. The band segued into 2001’s “Little L” and the lightweight electro-grooves were bubblin’ across the field with vibrancy, yet it was still a bit cramped from the soundboard to the stage, the thousands of fans who were assembled close to the action, lovers looking to get their rage on with gusto.
Initially, it was so crowded at the Meadow, but the lengthy wait for the band seemed to ruffle some feathers. Nobody likes a festival stage stuffed to the gills, there’s no room to really boogie, and the vibes can turn sour in such close quarters. Then, miraculously a series of fortuitous events came of the previously unfortunate delay, in the sense that the phenomenal French DJ/Producer CloZee kicked off her set at Spirit Lake at 12:45 am. CloZee is one of the brightest lights in electronic music culture, a true musician behind the boards, and a spirit unlike any other in the industry today. She was clearly bummed she got slotted at HULA against Jamiroquai; we know this because she posted on her social media that she too wanted to catch the legendary British band at Suwannee Hulaween. Nonetheless, CloZee is an extremely popular artist, particularly with younger fans relatively unfamiliar with the storied history of Jamiroquai, not to mention their sprawling, herculean catalog. In a stroke of luck, roughly one-third of the crowd at the main Meadow Stage abruptly departed, mostly from the outskirts, leaving apparently to CloZee’s set, as reports are it turned out very well-attended and thrilling performance.
This happened right as Jamiroquai shifted gears into the tribalized fury of “Use the Force,” and one could feel a transfer of energy as the curious or disinterested moved on from the Meadow, and the thousands of joyful Hulaginz that were really in it to win it, they could now spread their wings and fly sky high. All of a sudden, we had wingspan, and the runway was finally cleared to land planes. As the “Use the Force” breakdown heated up thanks to all-world percussionist Sola Akingbola, a palpable shift in consciousness occurred, and one of the biggest dance parties this writer has ever rode the rail for was off to the races. Rocket man, superstar, we must believe!
1994’s “The Return of the Space Cowboy”, from the album of the same name, was it’s typically transcendental expedition into realms of cannabliss, and I saw more than a few well up with happy tears, as they finally could say they caught this heavenly song live. Bassist Turner has really made this archetypal bassline his own, following the timeless Zen awakening that preceded him and adding some physicality to the low-end theory. “Space Cowboy” outro jam and coda was rapturous, and was followed by what was maybe the song of the night, 1996’s “Alright”, found on the multi-platinum smash Traveling Without Moving. An emotional bounce and euphoric declaration of love, it had been light years since I’d felt these sort of vivacious vibrations at the main stage at any festival, let alone the one I hold dearest to my heart… and like my man said, that made me feel alright. 2001’s “Main Vein” (A Funk Odyssey) and “Runaway” continued the uber-sexy disco-fresh freight train with reckless abandon, as Kay danced, pranced, crooned, and the sea of cosmic girls swooned to his ever stutter-stepped move.
Then came the unthinkable; this in the form of one Ryan Zoidis of The Shady Horns (Lettuce) taking the stage for the Rock Dust Light Star deep cut “Hey Floyd. With its one-drop breakdown and dubby reggae bridge and bassline, it was the perfect track for Zoid, ever the Arkologist, to get nice on; even if Kay called him Brian once or twice, it was all good in the hood. Unfortunately, the sax mic was a little low for the beginning of his solo, but alas, Zoid would burn the whole way through and when the soundman did get it right, an audible roar filled the air. Later, Zoidis would return with his Shady co-conspirator Eric Benny Bloom (trumpet) on the filthy-funky, super-rare, and swank-tastic “Starchild.” The horns seemed to establish an immediate kinship with keyboardist and musical director Matt Johnson, and “Starchild” soared into the ether, a lucid dream unfolding before us. Momentarily coming to a complete stop, I took off the moonshades and a consumed a deep breath, and I gave thanks to the HULA Gods, the spirits of Suwannee, and a Higher Power; for after all the violence, hate, darkness and fog that surrounds our culture, as we gazed into the starry Suwannee night, each and every one of us children ourselves, the Shady Horns were onstage, Lettuce was collaborating with Jamiroquai, and for one monumental moment in time, all was right in the world. A deep bow of gratitude for delivering this out-of-body-experience right before our eyes, ten-thousand hearts gushing in unison. We give thanks, Paul, & Berg.
In my mind’s eye, the rest of the set is a blur of sound, light, sweat, swag, and tears of unabashed joy, not just from my team but from any and everybody I could see in any direction. Jay Kay had some humorous banter between songs (“The freaks come out at night… or do the freaks come out in Flarridah”), and in yet another in a mystical nod to Bear Creek (in a weekend filled with them), the Buffalo Man repeatedly remarked that he was quite cold, despite the fact he was wearing a custom-designed polyester/wool blended Mexican blanket/smock, thick gloves, and that crazy-ass glowing helmet. Sounded and felt all too familiar, just as we’d dreamt it up so long ago.
One by one, miraculously many of my dearest friends from all corners of two decades in the music and festival communities seemed to magically and rapidly reveal themselves in the front rows, bearing champagne, smiles, and serendipity. The vibes at the Meadow were levitation station as seminal jams like “Cosmic Girl” rang into the constellations. McKenzie and Turner wasted no time revving up the engines for “Travelling Without Moving”, and as we raced toward 2 am and reached the home stretch, the heavenly purr of Jamiroquai’s turbo engine was careening down the freeway, highsteppin’ through town, with nary a f*ck given.
In reflection a few days later, I’m still not sure how they fit all of that mojo in the Park, let alone on the magnanimous Meadow Stage. The ferocious basswork for Mr. Paul Turner in “Traveling…” took the head clear off of any of the scattered remaining doubters, or of those slowly returning from CloZee’s sixty minute session. Right on cue, Jay Kay and the crew fired up the classic disco-funk anthem “Canned Heat”, found on 1999’s Synkronized but made popular here in the U.S. by way of Napoleon Dynamite, and all there was left to do was dance. In the photo pit. And then go full YOLO, get on one knee, ask for my loving partner Alicia’s hand, and get engaged. As a hundred of our friends scream their heads off. And Jay Kay sings his heart out into the Suwannee night, while thousands of funkateers revolutionize the dancefloor like it was 1993 all over again. Yep, that really happened!
But back to the lecture at hand, the band was running dangerously late, so when they smoothly segued from “Canned Heat” into A Funk Odyssey chestnut “Love Foolosophy”, most in the know could tell this was the final comedown. As such, the remaining masses, still transfixed from the trans-continental explosion they’d just bore witness, clutched their lovers, hugged their friends, and threw down whatever remaining moves they could summon with whatever petro remained in the tank. “LoveFool” serenaded the lovers (almost!) all the way to Mr. Moon. Our beloved British Buffalo Man repeatedly assured, I don’t want the world, I want you. Well, Suwannee Hulaween, we wanted ‘em, and we got ‘em. Space Cowboy on the river Suwannee. One night only. Interplanetary Good Vibe Zone. Manifest Destiny, we f*cking did it!
Vulfpeck – Patch Stage – Saturday – by Zach Freedman
Author’s note: In spite of the scheduling conflict with Tipper, we wanted to include Vulfpeck’s much-ballyhooed Patch performance in our Hulaween coverage, as several reports had called it an instant classic. We reached out to Vulfpack Lt. Zach Freedman, a longtime Vulf superfan who was responsible for the Change.org petition requesting that HULA book Vulfpeck for the (2017) festival, something that obviously finally transpired for this year’s edition. Zach was kind enough to offer these reflections:
A set three years in the making, in 2018 Suwannee Hulaween finally booked the elusive and indie-funk quartet Vulfpeck, who made their highly-anticipated inaugural performance at the Patch Stage on Saturday night. The weather was perfect in the mid-50s in what would be a primetime slot just after The String Cheese Incident’s Halloween theme set, and leading right into Jamiroquai. Many were forced with the ultimate decision in what was maybe be the biggest scheduling conflict of the weekend: Vulfpeck vs. Tipper. Two completely different flight paths while both offering uniquely unforgettable experiences.
In the festive spirit of Hulaween, Vulfpeck would rotate their traditional outfits, personas and even instruments with each other in what would be a full set prank that essentially was a shtick making fun of their own shtick. Theo Katzman, donning Jack Stratton’s trademark soccer outfit, did a superb job of commanding the stage and sarcastically mocking Jack’s Ted Talk-like demeanor. Nobody ever broke character, which confused many in the audience who were less initiated, but for those who knew the band intimately, we were given a real treat. Faces ultimately hurt from ear to ear smiles, as Vulf continued to push the musical and humor envelopes. Merging a comedic performance act, dance party rhythms, and extremely tight musicianship, the entire crowd was entranced in the experience.
Opening the set with the deep cut “Rango”, the band seemed to take their time coming out of the driveway in what felt like an old school Cadillac. We saw Joe Dart (dressed as Cory Wong) on Cory’s Stratocaster, while Woody Goss (dressed as Joey Dosik) lightly decorated the track with some sexy saxophone. Vulf wasted no time diving into fan-favorites “Cory Wong”, the Jackson 5 like-tune “Animal Spirits”, and the bass-driven pop hit “Conscious Club.” Introduced midway through the set as Woody Goss, Antwaun Stanley effortlessly delivered his benchmark soulful vocals that brought grown-man swagger, and dynamic range to the playful set.
Local lap-steel legend Roosevelt Collier joined Antwaun Stanley on a cover of Chaka Khan and Rufus’ funk classic “Tell Me Something Good”. Not wanting to miss out on any of the fun, Lettuce’s drummer Adam Deitch hopped up to fill the pockets on “Daddy, Got a Tesla” while Ryan Zoidis and Eric “Benny” Bloom provided a proper horns section on “1612” and “Funky Duck’.
Before Antwaun’s departure, he serenaded the crowd with the sentimental “Wait for the Moment.” Making sure to pay homage to the beloved Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, Theo altered the lyrics of their signature crowd sing along “Christmas in LA” to “Christmas in Suwa-nnee” and it was truly a precious moment. For a night that was billed as historic for modern funk music, Vulfpeck made sure it indeed got funkier.
Sunday, October 28th
The Patch had a particularly strong lineup on Sunday, beginning with the serene sounds of Mikey Pauker, then a dubby mid-afternoon frolic with British psy-dub wizard OTT before Colorado young gunners Sunsquabi took over. But the big surprise of the day at the Patch was Nevada City, California’s The Polish Ambassador & the Diplomatic Scandal; TPA is no stranger to HULA, but for this visit he brought his new endeavor, the extremely jammy Diplomatic Scandal. The band featured a ton of vibrant new material, as the world’s funkiest diplomat was assisted in this conspiracy to shake tail-feathers by the scandalous sounds of TROPO, Jesse Hendricks, and the crazy-talented Ryan Herr, all members of the extended Jumpsuit Family.
Sunday saw a magnificent card to finish strong, beginning with a proper NOLA tradition in Rebirth Brass Band. Things were cookin’ early, particularly at the Amp, where Jennifer Hartswick and Nicholas Cassarino’s duo started things before handing off to the quintessential Mavis Staples, whose emotional pleas and gospel numbers tugged on the heartstrings of all in attendance. A double shot of NOLA saw longtime swamp-funkers Galactic pass the torch to white-hot Crescent City ensemble The Revivalists; and the shooting stars donned Adidas tracksuits for a Beastie Boys Halloween gag to start their show. The enigmatic Kiwi known as Opiou came all the way from NZ and drew the largest crowd at Spirit Lake all weekend; Oscar dropped some super-funky sound designs and original bangers on the swollen massive. Brooklyn, NY’s theatrical showstoppers Turkuaz brought their patented Crayola box funk revue to close out Spirit Lake with swagger and authority.
Janelle Monáe – Meadow Stage – Sunday
A controversial, dynamic performer who’s set contemporary pop music ablaze with her magnificent 2018 LP Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe was nothing if not a surprise booking for HULA 2018. Closing the festival’s main Meadow Stage at 9:30 pm Sunday evening, the proudly-Queer firebrand arrived to the tones of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)”, an entrance befitting of Ric Flair, right down the chorus of “Wooooo” that greeted her emergence. Like the Nature Boy himself, Monáe delivered a monumental entertainment experience for all who took a chance on her set. Gone are almost any signs of her future android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, as she took the stage to the Dirty Computer intro. Instead, we got a confident, sexy, political siren whose jams took shape with roots in the Godfather’s Augusta, Georgia (“I Got the Juice”) and dripped Twin-Cities stank (“Make Me Feel”), even though she staked her own claim to rebellion in the progressive Black mecca of Atlanta. And like the Aquemeni who came before her, Ms. Monáe is an ATLien, but this “Django Jane” spits the hottest fire, word to Dylon.
The “Electric Lady” owned the SOSMP stage from jumpstreet, steadily and assertively pushed the limits of genre and artistic expression, questioning and rebuking the cultural status quo to aim for heights higher and far mightier than just a nightclub. Every song was a demonstration of feminine power and matriarchal energy, complete with whirlwind dance troupes, a tight-as-nails funky backing band, and a plethora of impressive costume changes, never ever stopping the show for even a moment.
Whether it was her “Pynk” pussy-pants, channeling her inner Yogini, or just putting her sexuality on the line for all to revel in (basically every song,) it’s safe to say that Janelle Monáe presented an unapologetic artist-activist to the core. Janelle’s subject matter and messages were extremely heady, and very necessary, yet it seemed a bit too heavy for the HULA massive to connect with at-large. As such, the Meadow Stage was not brimming with people like it was on Friday with Odesza, or even Saturday for Jamiroquai, something that could also be attributed to well-attended sets from scene stalwarts like Turkuaz (Spirit Lake) and Gramatik (Patch). But like the scintillating Jamiroquai a mere twenty-hours earlier, numbers do not tell the tale, vibration does. The seven thousand or so that arrived at the Meadow positively salivating at the prowess of her limitless talent, we were awoken to the promise of a woman’s truth, rewarded exponentially for believing in a “Q.U.E.E.N.”.
Allow me to declare that I have never been prouder to be a member of an audience in a music festival community than I was when this artist was addressing the congregation. Whilst undergoing yet another phenomenal costume change, buttoning up her full length leather trench coat, Monáe delivered a passionate plea to all in attendance. In an emotionally charged, priestly benediction, she asked us to look out for the less fortunate, to lift one another up, to embrace the plight of LGBT communities and of minorities and immigrants, to reject Anti-semitism, to be conscious of ourselves and our inherent privilege, among other messages. Tears were flowing unabashedly and in all directions, and on that field it was crystal clear that Janelle Monáe had resonated profoundly with every soul who danced the “Tightrope” alongside her.
Giving Thanks to Spirit of Suwannee Music Park and the benevolent folks at Suwannee Hulaween. This year really was what dreams are made of. We love you more than words can say.