This past weekend, musicians, artists, and costumed revelers descended on The Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida, for the 5th annual Suwanee Hulaween. Building off host-band String Cheese Incident‘s long-running cover-centric Halloween tradition, promoters Silver Wrapper Presents, Paul Levine, and the amazing dedicated staff at Suwanee have transformed Hulaween into one of the best festivals on the calendar. A combination of factors—the right venue (the incomparable Suwanee), time of year (fall hoodie season), holiday (Halloween), and hosts (SCI)—have allowed this festival to grow organically, and as a result, this year’s event marks the first ever sell-out at the music park, with Suwanee hosting 20,000 fans for the weekend this year.
With the hype behind this festival reaching fever pitch, the team behind Hulaween delivered in a major way, with incredible music and art around every corner. To try and commemorate it all, we’ve put together another edition of our Festival Awards, focusing on all things Hulaween. See below for the results and relive the magic of Suwanee Hulaween 2017!
MVP: Marco Benevento
Marco Benevento was all over Hulaween. He played two sets at the Amphitheatre Stage with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead at Thursday night’s pre-party, a set at the brand-new stage The Patch with his solo band (featuring up-and-coming bass star Karina Rykman), and then a final performance back at the Amphitheatre Stage with his batterymate Joe Russo for an ultra-rare appearance as the Benevento/Russo Duo (even more ultra-rare was Mike Gordon’s guest spot during the end of their set; more on that later). Marco was on fire on the keys for all four of his sets, and looked like he was having the time of his life. The joy that he brings to the stage is a pleasure to watch, and he inspires the musicians around him to elevate themselves—a rare combination that made him one of the more special artists at Hulaween.
Best Special Guest Appearance: Mike Gordon with The Benevento/Russo Duo
For a portion of Phish’s break-up period (2004-2009), bassist Mike Gordon moved to New York City, where his path intertwined with two young musicians who were making a name for themselves in the city’s vibrant local music scene: drummer Joe Russo and keyboardist Marco Benevento. The up-and-coming pair’s ambitious improvisations meshed well with Gordon’s style, and the pair quickly invited him to sit in with their band. From that first show, a musical relationship was born. Gordon would go on to sit in with the band several times in New York, tour with them extensively as a trio in 2005, and bring them along for the ride with his Phish bandmate Trey Anastasio as the opening act for a lengthy Phil Lesh & Friends amphitheater tour in 2006, playing as G.R.A.B.
Gordon and The Duo amicably split ways not long after that, and as the years went by it seemed that their paths had diverged for good—that is, until Friday evening at Hulaween. Following an incredible performance from The Benevento/Russo Duo, Joe and Marco’s drum and keyboard risers parted like the Red Sea, and the Phish bassist (who had performed with his Mike Gordon Band on that same stage just a few hours earlier) emerged between them out of a smoke machine haze. The trio blasted Hulaween into the stratosphere, with Benevento creating wild soundscapes before leading the band through “Scratchitti”–the first song on which Gordon joined The Duo more than a decade ago. It was a moment plucked out of time—one of those special, had-to-be-there, euphoric moments that can only happen at a music festival like Hulaween. As Marco remarked sincerely when the song was through, “That was very special.” And he wasn’t wrong…
Best New Band Member Addition: Mike Gordon – Emily Elbert & Madi Diaz
Fresh off his Fall solo tour, Mike Gordon brought a new-look band to his set at Suwannee Hulaween, featuring guitarist/vocalist Emily Elbert and keyboardist/vocalist Madi Diaz. The ladies stacked Gordon’s performance with a second keyboard, rhythm guitar, and expanded vocal harmonies, adding a revitalized layer of intricacy to the set, which featured tracks from OGOGO and Overstep, a fantastic version of Phish crossover “Yarmouth Road”, and a memorable cover of Aerosmith‘s “Sweet Emotion”. Mike’s newly announced winter tour dates will feature his regular touring band, but we sincerely hope that Emily and Madi return to the fold at some point in the future. That was too much fun not to try again…
— Mike Gordon (@mike_gordon) October 24, 2017
Best Cover: Umphrey’s McGee – Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”
Umphrey’s McGee‘s two sets at Thursday night’s pre-party offered some of the best music played all weekend at Hulaween. Their first set was filled with classic, fan favorites, such as “40’s Theme” and”All In Time,” super-charging the crowd and prepping them for a wild second set. The band delivered the goods, with electronic-leaning songs “The Triple Wide” and “Day Nurse” offsetting the alt-metal of “Remind Me” and “The Floor.” The highlight of the set, however, was the band’s jaw-dropping cover of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd. Led by Jake Cinninger‘s ability to re-create David Gilmour‘s iconic guitar sound, this cover is as authentic as it get, and was one of the most talked about moments of the weekend by anyone who was there.
The F*ck Sh*t Up Award: Run The Jewels
Run The Jewels‘ Saturday night set at Hulaween was best described by Killer Mike‘s opening statement when he and El-P took the stage to Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” After stoking the fires of competition by congratulating his University of Georgia Bulldogs on their defeat of the local University of Florida Gators earlier that day, he made their mission clear: “We’re Run The Jewels, and we’re here to fuck shit up, Suwannee!”
And fuck shit up, they did: The conscious hip-hop tag team brought their high-octane live show to the Amphitheatre Stage, and damn near burned the place down. The energy was on another level from any other performer throughout the weekend. Their mix of political messaging with clever rhymes and huge beats whipped the crowd into a frenzy time and time again. Needless to say, it was one of the wildest sets of the weekend.
Rookie Of The Year: Spafford
Spafford laid down two excellent sets for their debut appearance at Suwanee Hulaween. Their set at Thursday’s pre-party featured a huge “Leave The Light On”, a nasty transition from “America” into “The Reprise”, and a firey “Electric Taco Stand”. Their late night set on Saturday evening at the Spirit Lake Stage, however, was even better. Ridiculous set-opening versions of “The Postman” and “Todd’s Tots” proved to be just a warm-up, as Aron Magner of The Disco Biscuits then walked on stage, joining the band for an extended segment that took “Mind’s Unchained” into Spafford’s arrangement of “Mad World” by Tears For Fears. The impressive cover was played impeccably by Magner, who slotted right in on the keys next to Red Johnson for the standout jam of the weekend. Even Magner’s Biscuits bandmate Marc Brownstein was feeling the collab, starting an “it’s a Maaag-neeer” chant from the crowd over the band’s song-ending “it’s a maaad world” refrain.
Best Tribute: String Cheese Incident – Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me”
Hulaween may be filled with tons of different music, but it certainly felt like String Cheese Incident’s festival on Saturday evening, when the band delivered three sets on the main stage, capped off by their Halloween-themed cover song spectacle. In keeping with tradition, String Cheese offered third set filled with covers by a variety of treasured artists such as Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, and more, hewing closely to this year’s “Night of the Loving Dead” theme–with each song containing the word “love.”
However, the most love-filled moment seemed to be the band’s cover of “You Wreck Me” by the recently-deceased Tom Petty. Petty & The Heartbreakers were natives of Gainsville, Florida, which is about seventy miles south of Suwanee. When the band jammed out of “Song In My Head” into “You Wreck Me”, it was one of the most memorable moments during the festival, giving a true nod to both Petty and the local music fans in the area and around the world who loved him.
Best Suwanee Family Moment: Lettuce Late Night
The Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park is a special place to a lot of people. At this point, it’s been hosting music festivals for years, and over the years certain bands have fostered a strong bond with the local crowd and the park’s staff. Lettuce is one of those bands, having played the festival grounds countless times, including every iteration of the now-dormant Bear Creek in addition to several Hulaween’s. As such, when the band took the Amphitheatre Stage Friday night for a late night set, there was a special vibe in the air and the packed crowd went appropriately bananas. Lettuce’s set showed why they are one of the best in the game, but also why they mean so much to the fans at Suwanee.
Best DJ Set: Claude Von Stroke
Mr. Dirtybird himself, Claude Von Stroke graced the Spirit Lake Stage for a late night set, and his set was one of the most interesting offerings of the weekend. Sticking with House and Techno music, Von Stroke offered an excellent counterpoint to acts like Bassnectar and GRiZ, and provided some of the best underground sounds of the festival.
Breakthrough Performance: Tank & The Bangas
This band has it. Their soulful, energetic, funny, emotional, complex performance at the Amphitheatre Stage was one of the best of the weekend. The 2:00 PM set was packed, with many making it their duty to enter the festival early to catch the winners of this year’s NPR Tiny Desk Contest. The many that made it to were rewarded with a fresh and unique live music concept that really resonated with the Hulaween crowd.
Tank is a star, a true front-woman who knows how to work a crowd. The Bangas really cook and know how to bob-and-weave between the musical styles that comprise their sound. This band has the potential to be a true powerhouse, and their abilities were on full display at Suwannee Hulaween.
Best Visual Experience: Spirit Lake
Spirit Lake, Hulaween’s visual art experience, was truly impressive. A mixture of lasers, fire-breathing metal structures, a functioning stage, a silent disco with two DJs at a time, and Incendia, a fire-spitting stage with underground electronic music ran all weekend long. There were giant images projected over the lake, and a madman with a water jetpack and a LED-covered costume putting on a show a few times throughout the weekend. The visuals were overwhelming and disorienting but in the best of ways. Kudos to Andrew Carroll for curating of one of the best art elements at any camping festival.
Best Rock Performance: Portugal. The Man
Amongst a sea of jam, funk, bluegrass, and electronic music, Portugal. The Man carried the torch for rock music at Hulaween. They offered up a master-class with their mind-melding sound. Their set was incredible, and they proved their reputation as one of the best live bands on the planet. [Honorable mention: Ween closing down the Amphitheatre Stage on Sunday night].
Best Reason To Miss Portugal. The Man & Party Your MF Ass Off: Andy Frasco & The U.N.
When it comes to a festival as packed with talent as Suwannee Hulaween, there are inevitably difficult decisions to be made. With only so many hours in a day, and multiple acts playing at the same time, you’re always going to end up missing something cool. On Sunday afternoon, Portugal. The Man played Amphitheatre set at the same time that Andy Frasco & The U.N. were scheduled on the Campground Stage, the smallest stage at the festival. But in the world of Andy Frasco, there’s no such thing as small stages–they’re just more intimate spots to stage his trademark unhinged parties.
Beginning his set with just a handful of die-hards in attendance (including a crew of lovely ladies decked out in tie-dye Andy Frasco panties, whom Andy dubbed the “Panty Brigade”), Frasco proceeded to dive headfirst into rage-mode, passing joints back and forth with the crowd, chugging from a bottle of Jameson’s, and leading his crew of party animals through a ridiculous performance.
From his quick-witted jokes, to the skillful soloing of his band, to his “Wookie Bar Mitzvah” (where he brought a chair into the crowd to do the Horah), to a memorable sit-in from Tauk‘s Isaac Teel (drums) and Arlic Carter (keys) featuring a big game of “freeze dance,” Frasco dissuaded any notions of leaving early to catch the end of Portugal. The Man from the moment he stepped onstage. By the time his set was finished, he had attracted a sizable crowd. Andy Frasco was born to be the life of the party, and it was impossible for anyone passing by not to stay and join the fray.
Silent Disco Standout: Jody Litvack
Sometimes, you just gotta know how to have a good time, and that’s what Jody Litvack showed at the silent disco on Friday night. Full of funny moments and funky beats, Litvak’s disco-centric set and goofy antics were just what the doctor ordered at 3:00 AM.
Storytellers Award: Greensky Bluegrass’ “Hey, Thanks, That Guy Breakdown” tribute to EDM fan who found Greensky at last year’s Hulaween
Greensky shows are always heavy on the running jokes. There are several songs in their repertoire that always signal the beginning of some special shenanigans. One such song, “Broke Mountain Breakdown,” begins with dobro-master Anders Beck telling the bands fans, or “campers,” a story about how the instrumental was conceived and written. Each time it’s played, the story changes. And as the story changes, so does the “name” of the “Breakdown.”
On Thursday night, Greensky Bluegrass closed down the Spirit Lake stage with a special late night performance, and the evening’s “Breakdown” was preceded by a Hulaween-specific story. Beck regaled about an EDM fan he had just met who discovered his love for bluegrass after stumbling upon Greensky’s “beautiful sounds” at Hulaween last year. As he explained, he ran into the kid this year at Suwannee, and the kid thanked him for “changing his life” with their music. So in honor of the “guy that may be walking by,” Beck thanked the new bluegrass convert with the “new” song he wrote about the interaction, dubbing it the “Hey, Thanks, That Guy Breakdown.” From there, the band matched the “beautiful sounds” of the bluegrass “Breakdown” with the “fuckin’ scary sounds” of an extended “Bring Out Your Dead” to cap one of the most memorable musical segments of the weekend.
It wouldn’t surprise us in the slightest if Greensky Bluegrass’ pre-party late night set converted another new crop of bluegrass fans this year…
A very happy Halloween to one and all, and a big thank you to everyone involved–and everyone who came out to join the party–for a truly unforgettable weekend. Until next year…