Hulaween 2014 @ the Spirit of the Suwannee
27 Nov 2014

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Profile photo of Abby Benjamin
Soulful Scorpio always chasing the next adventure in the outside world and within.

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For me, there is nothing more rejuvenating than being outdoors, seeing bands I love, and being surrounded by inspirational people.  These are a few of the reasons why I find myself continuously drawn to music festivals.  We live in a truly mind-blowing era, and these gatherings are a perfect representation of that.  Hulaween down at Spirit of the Suwannee with the String Cheese Incident is a great example.  My favorite part of Halloween is the invitation to embody anyone or anything for a day and night (even though you can do this all the time!).  All of the costumes added an extra layer of fun to this festival experience.

We arrived early Thursday evening for the pre-party which included Modern Measure, MZG, Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty BandElectron, and Particle. I had seen Particle at other Suwannee festivals on the beautiful Amphitheater Stage, and it was just as rowdy as each time before.  Their progressive jam brings high energy to the stage, and I am always entertained by Charlie Hitchcock’s animated faces and stage presence.  The Amphitheater stage is an intimate clearing nestled beneath beautiful trees and Spanish Moss. The different raised levels for viewing are what give it its name, and there’s plenty great spots for hammocks.  This stage is one of my favorite signatures of the grounds.

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Spreading the sparkle with glitter  friends!

Following Particle was Electron, a side project consisting of Aron Magner (keys) and Marc Brownstein (bass) from The Disco Biscuits, Tommy Hamilton (guitar) from Brothers Past, and Mike Greenfield (drums) from Lotus.  Their show had everyone grooving, especially Disco Biscuits fans because their setlist consisted of “Home Again”, “Plan B”, “Little Lai”, “Shelby Rose”, “Kamaole Sands”, “And The Ladies Were The Rest Of The Night”, “Confrontation”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and “Rock Candy” (all DB songs).  They closed it out with Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and “Brain Damage”. Side projects are great because they create a new dynamic with influences from each band.  The improvisation is awesome and they bring a new style to pre-existing songs.  The Thursday Pre-Party was a great kick-off to the weekend.

I woke up on Halloween morning to the blissful sound of the String Cheese Incident.  My friends and I jumped up, worried that we had slept too late and were missing the show!  We realized that it was only sound check, but this was no ordinary soundcheck.  They played multiple full songs like it was show time, and started everyone’s morning off great.  I began to anticipate the three String Cheese sets we would experience later that day.  We headed down to the Main Stage for Greensky Bluegrass who’s mid-day set had a lot of welcomed sunshine.  It has been inspirational to see this band grow over the past few years.  They have tightened up their sound and found their true identity.  Paul Hoffman’s hypnotizing voice alongside their soulful instrumentation evokes powerful emotion.  They also provide an interesting blend of bluegrass classics and their original work, especially during their live shows.  When I listen to them, I can’t help but have a smile on my face.

Performance Art

Performance Art

Emancipator lifted everyone’s spirits at the Amphitheater Stage for an hour before the much anticipated String Cheese Incident Halloween set.  As dusk drew near we headed over to the Main Stage just before 6pm.  We looked around and admired everyone’s costume creativity.  One group costume that I was particularly fond of was a group of 5-6 giraffes, all with heads that stood about a foot over their real heads, so when you looked into the crowd you saw a group of giraffe heads bobbing around (see picture below).

The crowd started to cheer and welcome SCI onto the stage.  They weren’t in costumes yet, but you could tell that they were excited to be there.  There was a beautiful sunset that night as we heard “Restless Wind”, “Joyful Sound”, “Pigmy Pony”, “Piece of Mine”, “Give Me The Love”, “Valley of the Jig”, and “Can’t Wait Another Day”.  “Restless Wind” always steals my heart and takes me to a far away place, so I was very pleased to start off the weekend that way.  “Joyful Sound” was different than any other time I had heard it.  It had a slow, groovy, and melodic beginning that lasted about 3 minutes, and kept a chill vibe through the drop and start of the lyrics.  It stayed mellow until about 6 minutes in when it started to get real funky.  It built more momentum and stayed like this until the end.  I love when songs go through transformations, as they usually do with SCI.

As soon as they took their first set break, Shpongle began to beckon us over to the Amphitheater Stage.  Simon Posford’s music has always blown my mind, particularly because of its uniqueness and incorporation of spiritual ideas and beings.  It also exposes the dark side of life, and how the dark and light share a delicate dance.  As 8pm began to draw near, we headed back to the Main Stage to get a good spot for Cheese’s 2nd set.

Giraffe Photo from Hulaween's FB

Aerial giraffe photo from Hulaween’s FB

The crowd roared as the lights came on and they came out in all white Victorian-style suits with elaborate make-up and masks.  They were the ghosts welcoming us to “The Afterlife”, the theme for this year. They were also accompanied by singers Rhonda Thomas and Tony White, as well as the Antibalas horns (who were all dressed in this theme as well).  Everyone looked great!  They warmed up a bit and Bill Nershi bellowed Happpyyy Halllooweeeen followed by a dark laugh.  Jason started on the bongos followed by Kyle on the keys, playing a very familiar tune.  Keith stepped up to the mic and began “Sympathy For the Devil” (Rolling Stones).  Even though Keith’s voice is much lower than Mick Jagger’s, I loved their version of this song.  They cheesi-fied it as always, but also stayed true to its rock essence.  From there, Kyle played a spooky, buzzing type sound and the band joined in as they went into “Ghostbusters”and kept it silly.  You could tell that they were having a lot of fun on stage, especially accompanied by the Antibalas horns.  Next came a beautiful rendition of Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell” sang by Michael Kang.  It was very special to hear such talented musicians covering timeless and powerful classics.  They elevate the songs to a whole new level while still staying true to the meaning and genre be it rock, reggae, pop, bluegrass, etc.  This theme continued for rest of the set as they played “Live And Let Die” (Paul McCartney), “Just Passin’ Through”, “Stairway to Heaven” (Led Zeppelin), “Don’t Fear The Reaper” (Blue Oyster Cult), “Break On Through” (The Doors), “Heaven” (Talking Heads), and “Thriller” (Michael Jackson). They also had plenty of theatrics (as to be expected with SCI) including pyrotechnics, giant blow up skulls bouncing in the crowd, confetti, dancers, and fireworks.  For “Thriller”, a giant Michael Jackson puppet raised behind the musicians in the background- it was pretty epic.

Spooky Cheese

Spooky Cheese

“Stairway to Heaven” was sung by the lovely Rhonda Thomas who has an absolutely intoxicating voice.  This rendition gave me chills (and still does when I listen to it), and reminded me of all the reasons why I love Led Zeppelin.  One particular lyric from this cover has stuck with me since I left Florida, “Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run…There’s still time to change the road you’re on”.  I think this message is an important one to live by as many people today are constantly worried about their source of income, what they are going to do with their lives, etc.  Rhonda Thomas’ mystique and beauty had me curious about how she came to be on stage with the String Cheese Incident.  I found out later that her and Jason Hann used to play with soul legend Isaac Hayes, so that is what sparked the connection.

For the next set break I decided to check out the VIP area.   There was an outside viewing area in front right section of the crowd, and farther to the right was a very comfortable inside viewing area with couches, heat lamps, and TVs.  You could purchase drinks for $3 (compared to $5-9 in the main area) and meals were catered for VIPs.  They provided FREE massages, a camping area with free showers and inside restrooms, and complimentary golf cart shuttles.  If you want to go VIP for a festival, I would recommend the Hulaween VIP package.

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Fire in a different light!

As the lights came on, we found our spot in the crowd.  They came back still in costume along with the singers and horn section! I was excited to hear them sit in for more SCI songs (the previous set was mostly covers).  They started on a great note with “Miss Brown’s Teahouse”, an upbeat song about an experience the band had together in Jamaica.  Next came the funk/soul classic “Hollywood Swingin” (Kool & The Gang) that had the everyone grooving to the funky bass line.  The horns showed off their amazing virtuosity with multiple solos.  From there they came crashing into “You’ve Got The World”, a newer song with a great message: “You’ve got the world girl, don’t let it bring you down”.  I loved this rendition with the big band sound.  They slowed it down with the hypnotic ballad “Hotel Window”.  This was my first time seeing this song live, and it made me feel so good from the outside and inside.  They revved it up with “Rosie” into an awe-inspiring version of Fela Kuti’s “Zombie” with Rhonda on lead vocals.  They kept us bouncing with a jam back into “Rosie” where Kyle cut loose with an incredible solo.  The set ended on a high note with the always fun “Just One Story”.  We cheered them back to encore, and everyone came out to play a funky “Superstition” sang by Tony White.  SCI did it right for Halloween!

We bundled up as the show ended.  Even though Florida is known for its warm weather all year round, Spirit of the Suwannee gets VERY cold at night this time of year.  The climate is strongly influenced by the Suwannee River.  I remember going to Bear Creek Music & Arts Festival at the end of November and experiencing a very damp cold at night that you needed to prepare for.  Even though Hulaween is a bit earlier, it was just as cold, getting down to the low 20s at night.  We went back to camp to put on layers before heading back to the Main Stage for Thievery Corporation.  I am repeatedly enchanted by their heavenly sound, and the female vocalist always pulls at my heart-strings.  We swayed to their melodies into the early hours of the morning.

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Scenes from a fractal forest:)

As Thievery ended we decided to check out Spirit Lake.  For Hulaween they intended to morph “the Spirit Lake waterfront and adjacent forest into a vivid dream-like space that fully engages the senses” (sewanneehulaween.com). As you walked up to the entrance, there was beautiful metaphysical artwork along the fence.  It changed throughout the weekend as the artists added more to it.  Inside was a playground of installations, jungle gyms, performers, live painting, and metal/fire sculptures accompanied by a late night stage and silent disco. It reminded me of Electric Forest Festival in Rothbury, MI (another festival that SCI is involved with).  What continues to amaze me about music festivals is the fusion of music, visual art, and performance art.  These mediums of expression feed off each other’s energy and share a beautiful symbiotic relationship.  As you walked over to the lake, they were projecting different images in the trees that were also reflected in the water.  It was a truly breath-taking site.  We began to wander around as a bluegrass band played on stage.

I was entranced by a series of paintings along the river.  It appeared as if the paintings were changing continuously! As I approached I could see that there was a projector in front of it, providing moving images that made the painting appear as though it was changing.  The creativity of our generation is astounding, and makes me want to express myself in creative ways as well.  We ventured over to a large jellyfish structure with tentacles made out of ropes and swings, it made me feel like a kid again!  To get warm we gathered by the huge 15-20 ft metal sculptures with fire burning inside them.  We struck up a conversation with a gentleman tending to the fire, and he informed us that the sculptures were frequenters of Burning Man.  We then began discussing how he was involved, and got a little insight on how to become involved with the artists in your local burning man scene.  He said, “Just start poking around.  In most big cities there are artists, sculptors, and metal workers who are working on Burning Man projects all year round.  If you are willing to commit and show up to work, some may take you in, teach you, and invite you into their Burning Man community.  Many workers are able to go every year, all expenses paid”.  I thought these were some good tips to keep in mind!  We headed back to camp to get some sleep after a full day of Halloween fun.

Burning fire octopus art in ze swamp forest

Fire octopus art in ze swamp forest

As I arose the next day, I was sure to get some stretching in.  Over the years I have learned the importance of stretching, especially at music festivals.  Your quads and hip muscles are used A LOT when dancing, and the gluteal muscles are the largest in the body.  The yogi’s say that your hip muscles are where you hold on to what know longer serves you.  Stretching these muscles is a physical, mental, and spiritual release!

The Sewannee Bluegrass Surprise was the other-wordly Keller Williams and friends.  It took place Saturday at 5:15pm, and I was excited to see who the “friends” would be.  I love that Keller plays with different musicians all the time because it makes every set unique.  This Hulaween he was accompanied by Reed Mathis from Tea Leaf Green and Nicky Sanders from the Steep Canyon Rangers (Nicky also recently performed with Widespread Panic).  They called themselves Keller Williams and “Awesome Sauce”.  The sound produced by these three musicians had the crowd getting rowdy.  My favorites from this set were “Don’t Cuss The Fiddle” (Kris Kristofferson) and “Scarlet Begonia’s” (Grateful Dead).  Keller has another side project called “Grateful Grass” which is all Grateful Dead covers.

Following Keller Williams and Awesome Sauce was Conspirator (Aron Magner and Marc Brownstein’s side project) on the Amphitheater Stage for an hour before SCI.  Hulaween was jam-packed with amazing music every day! The Main Stage area filled in around 7:15pm in anticipation.  We got a spot in the back so we could better see the lights and full production.  As 7:30pm arrived Cheese came on stage, and the crowd thanked them for an already incredible weekend.  Nershi responded humorously with “Not so loud tonight guys, I’ve got a headache”.  Hann and Travis led the night off on drums into “Search”.  They came rolling into Kyle’s song “Lost” with a great twang to it reminiscent of Little Feat.  They slowed it down with the always entrancing “Mouna Bowa” before Nershi invited Nicky Sanders back up on stage.  The fiddle makes my heart sing, especially when played by a virtuoso.  Nershi started off the guitar while Sanders played an enchanting solo into “Don’t It Make You Want To Dance”.  He shredded throughout the song, taking it to a whole new level.  Keller Williams was the next guest they brought out, an always welcome addition.  Nershi began to tell the story of the next song, “Resume Man”.  Written by Keith, it’s about a strange man from Moab, Utah who approached the band in their early stages about going on the road with them.  The song was fun, light-hearted, and told an interesting story.  Next came a funky groove into “Pack It Up”, before inviting Keller back up to sing for “Alligator Alley” and close the first set with “Franklin’s Tower” (Grateful Dead).  Keller Williams on vocals made them extra special.

Skeleton balloons!

Skeleton balloons!

They kept the party going second set starting with Kyle’s “Let’s Go Outside”.  I love the lyrics to this song because they are deep and silly at the same time.  They kept the energy up with the “oldie but goodie” Black Clouds, written by Nershi.  This song always amazes me with its intricacies and mystique.  We came groovin’ into “Sweet Spot” that put a smile everyone’s face.  They brought out their next guest, fellow Coloradan Dominic Lalli (Big Gigantic).  One of my favorite instrumental additions are horns, and adding saxophone to SCI is no exception! Dom led them into a jazzy version of “Birdland” with many incredible sax solos.  They dropped it down into “Flying East Jam”, then came back up into “Birdland”.  Keith started with a bass line into the magical “Sirens” followed by an improvisational “Live Oak Jam”.  Kang pulled us in on the fiddle into a fluid “Rivertrance”, with a tribal drum jam between Hann and Travis succeeding.  They paid homage to Florida with “Swamp” before coming back into “Rivertrance” to end the set.  They encored with the foot stompin’ “Bollymuster” to close a night of music that was truly out of this world.  I’m not sure how, but SCI gets better every time I see them.

As the crowd dispersed, we headed over to the Amphitheater Stage for The New Deal.  I had never seen them before, and was unsure of what to expect.  They started off a little slow, so I grooved passively in the back amidst conversations.  Soon they began picking up the pace and with an up-beat, dancey, majestic vibe.  Their show was different than anything else I had ever heard, I like how they layered different sounds on top of one another.  When they were done we headed over to Spirit Lake to check out the silent disco.  We arrived just in time for a fire circle with poi, hoopers, and staffers.  I love watching the incredible talent of fire performers, it’s truly inspiring! I have been particularly drawn to the fire staff recently, it seems so primal and natural. We continued to the silent disco to discover there were two different DJs performing at the same time.  When you put on the headphones, there was a button that allowed you to switch back and forth between the different DJs.  When we came by, one DJ was downtempo and trance while the other was high-energy house dance music.  We huddled by the metal/fire sculptures for a while longer before heading back to call it a night.

Rising Apalachia making magic

Rising Appalachia making magic

Sunday afternoon hosted the lovely sister duo Rising Appalachia on the Main Stage.  I love their authentic, soothing sound and I was anticipating this set because I recently interviewed Leah, the elder sister. One interesting fact I learned is that they never planned on being musicians, they were always involved in community outreach.  They would sing and play instruments with their family at the farmers market, and from there were asked to play other gigs.  Every show they have played has been by invitation- this speaks volumes about their talent! They started off with their well-known “Mississippi” which always gives me chills.  From there came “Scaledown”, “Fly Around”, “Downtown”, and “Pretty Little Foot”, a song that always maintains it’s air of mystery.  Next was a beautiful song in Spanish that Leah picked up in Cuba called “Cuarto de Tula”.   They followed with the soulful “Tiny Fish Lungs” and “Medicine”, and closed with a beautiful version of “Honey Baby”.

Once the set was over, we headed back to camp to layer up before the last SCI show at 5:00pm.  It was bittersweet knowing that we would see Cheese that day, but also knowing this would be the last time for a while.  “Sometimes a River” began the night followed by the introspective “Close Your Eyes”.  They came rambling into a dancey “How Mountain Girls Can Love” before easing into “MLT”.  Kang and Nershi picked the guitar back and forth to begin “Love Is Like A Train” and kept the momentum going with “So Far From Home”. The first set with a lovely “Round The Wheel” which always reminds me of beautiful Colorado that I am lucky enough to call home.  Second set began with an island rhythm intro to the uniting “Colliding”.  Coming back down to earth they began the light-hearted “Late In The Evening” followed by a Latin rhythm to begin “Look At Where We Are”.  They showcased the title track from their new album “Song In My Head” before the drums and bass led them softly into “This Must Be The Place” (Talking Heads).  They picked up the pace with “On The Road” including a groovy breakdown in the middle.  The set wrapped up with “Bumpin Reel” and a jammin’ “Texas” encore.  Another magical evening spent with String Cheese Incident.

As Cheese ended, Future Rock took over on the Amphitheater Stage with their electronic space rock.  This Chicago trio’s sets have high energy and make you want to groove.  EOTO (Jason Hann and Michael Travis of SCI) was the final performance on the Main Stage.  This incredibly talented duo always impresses me with their fusion of electronic genres and intricacy of sound.  I also love how they take an improvisational approach to their sets.  The last performance of Hulaween 2014 was Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, an amazing Grateful Dead cover band.  Joe Russo (drums) has played with Furthur, Trey Anastasio/Mike Gordon duo, Shpongle, and many more bands.  They chose “Truckin”, “Uncle John’s Band”, “No Quarter”, “Let It Grow”, “Crazy Fingers”, “Help On The Way”, “Slipknot!”, and another rendition of “Franklin’s Tower” to end the magnificent weekend.  I am endlessly grateful for SCI and Spirit of the Sewannee bringing together all these amazing musicians to entertain us.  I can’t imagine a better place to spend Halloween!

Pyrotechniques like woah!

Pyrotechniques like woah!

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