Suwanee Hulaween 2016
Photography by Steven Philips StSteven.com, Words by Maggie Jaskolka
Hulaween 2016 was held in the beautiful Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park in Live Oak Florida from October 27 – October 30, 2016. Southern hospitality abounds at this beautiful location designed to celebrate and support the music community. We were welcomed and assisted to find an appropriate camping location by one of the staff who escorted us with his golf cart until he thought we found the best location. We settled into a lovely wooded nook and spent some time with our neighbors before the festivities began on Thursday.
Many campers go to great effort to make their campsites festive and this is particularly true at Hulaween. Lights, skeletons, blow up creatures, witches, pumpkins and ghouls of all varieties were represented. All of this was set within the Spooktacular Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park where the mature oaks and Spanish moss offer the perfect canvas on which to create your own Hulaween scene.
As people began to arrive for the start of the Pre-Party on Thursday afternoon the crowds grew quickly. Hint, get there early if you can and get oriented during the daylight. The terrain changes dramatically as more people set up their campsites and it can be get very confusing especially as the music draws you from one set to another, or from one venue to another and you try to return to your campsite, in the dark and all of the landmarks you thought you remembered, were no longer visible.
The music on Thursday was on three of the five stages that were used throughout the weekend; The Campground, The Amphitheater and The Spirit Lake Stage. The Meadow Stage and the Patch Stage went live on Friday with the official start of the festival. The Spirit Lake and Campground stages are both next to Spirit Lake. Spirit Lake becomes a magical place to be after the sun goes down. A variety of visual and performance art was available for all to view, enjoy and in some cases, become part of. There are performance artists, acrobats, sculptures emitting periodic blasts of fire and sparks in addition to some warmth which is very welcome on cool evening respites from dancing.
The Marco Benevento Trio was the 1st act I caught and Marco energized the audience with his unique blend of keyboards (and now his own vocals); his new bassist, 22-year-old Karina Rykman and drummer Andy Borger. They wowed the crowd by playing the entire B side of their new album “The Story of Fred Short” in addition to other songs and his crowd pleasing favorite “At The Show”.
Grant Farm of Colorado played next on the Spirit Lake Stage. They had a delightful bluegrass vibe that was enjoyed by the crowd and the stage itself is beautiful.
Unlimited Aspect, a collaboration between Jay Jaramillo of ProJect Aspect and Ronnie Weberg of Unlimited Gravity, returned to Hulaween this year as the 1st act on the Campground Stage. Their energetic performance melding synthesizers and bass was well received by the audience.
Con Brio brought their special blend of funk and soul to the table, Kyle Hollingsworth (of The String Cheese Incident) played a wonderful set with his band & Broccoli Samurai led us into the electronic/jam part of the evening. EOTO (consisting of SCI members Michael Travis and Jason Hann) & Friends made the improvisational EDM magic for which they are known. Each show is unique and therefore, very exciting and special.
Umphrey’s McGee played 1st set was of mostly original work with some of their well-known “mashups” of covers. Their 2nd set was even more crowded and the energy between the audience and the band definitely enhanced the experience.
Greensky Bluegrass played their 1st set of classic bluegrass at 11:45 pm at the Spirit Lake Stage. I gladly let their music be what was playing in my head as I wandered back to my campsite.
On Friday the festival began in earnest and people continued to arrive throughout the day. It was a beautiful, warm, Florida day and the organizers used the Hulaween app to remind everyone to make sure they were drinking enough water so that everyone could enjoy the music and other festivities without interruption. Water refill stations were plentiful in and around all of the stages.
Florida natives, Kaleigh Baker and the Groove Orient opened the Meadow Stage and were given a very warm welcome by the crowd. Kaleigh has a wonderful and versatile voice that was described by someone standing near me as “sexy as…..”. He also offered to have her babies. While I’m not sure all of her fans would be willing to bear her children, there was definitely a large crowd of existing fans and those that quickly became new fans. I later learned that the saxophone/flute player had broken a rib earlier that week and still played an incredible set with absolutely no hint that there was anything wrong.
Benevento, Burbridge & Russo played a wonderful jazzy set together on the Meadow Stage. Fresh off a Rolling Stones tour, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe was next on my list and they were very formal (suits and ties!) and funky!
String Cheese played their 1st of 7 (yes, seven) sets and I found myself looking for Turtle who I had met on Thursday. He told me that he came from Seattle to see String Cheese because they made him move like no other band. As I watched the crowd, I had to agree with him. The area in front of the Meadow Stage was filled with people dancing, as it would be for each of their sets throughout the weekend. I have also discovered the percussion wonder that is Jason Hann. It is absolutely mesmerizing to watch him play.
Grammatik has been added to my list of EDM favs. The music was compelling, the crowd was enthralled and there was a fascinating sense of unity while watching the audience. The crowd included people from all age ranges, not just the expected 20-30 somethings. The walk back toward the Meadow Stage for Umphrey’s 2nd set was punctuated by spontaneous group hugs in the middle of the trail. Does it get much better than that?
More Umphrey’s, more String Cheese, My Morning Jacket. If the evening ended there, it would have been more than enough, but it didn’t. Quixotic was an interesting and beautiful blend of music, technology, dance & cirque arts. Absolutely worth seeing, even if you have to wait for a 2am performance! The Jon Stickley Trio was listed as a special late night surprise and they were. They have roots in gypsy jazz, bluegrass and hip hop and they blend all of these elements in a completely new and unique way.
I consider Antibalas to be my Saturday, find of the day. A wonderful blend of Afro-Caribbean rhythms with elements of jazz, funk and tons of amazing drumming. Roosevelt Collier sat in on one of the songs planned for their new album to be released in the spring of 2017. Snarky Puppy has a particularly special place in my heart and they can get me moving even when I danced until dawn the night before.
More SCI, the early set had Jennifer Hartswick of the Trey Anastasio Band on trumpet sitting in for a few songs. The 2nd set of the evening was their Halloween/Hulaween special – costumes, dancers, blow up Rubik’s Cubes, the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man, and on and on; all to a riotous set of 80’s hits. If you ever feel you need help trying to make friends at this event, try handing out Halloween candy.
When I realized that even STS9 couldn’t get me dancing (certainly by no fault of theirs! I was in a coma); it was time to give it up for the night. Unfortunately, that means I missed a ridiculous amount of great music. A fact that was shared with me on Sunday morning.
Our campsite neighbors mentioned that they followed Passafire who was playing noon. I was lucky enough to have some other commitments cancelled and was able catch their set. Reggae, rock, dub influences but unique songs and arrangements. I was so impressed that I flagged down one of them after the set and made a date to chat for a few minutes. As a result, Ted Browne was able to squeeze in a few minutes between other interviews to talk to me. The band members met and started the band while at the Savannah College of Art & Design). Their base is currently Los Angeles and the band members live throughout the country. Ted has moved to St. Petersburg FL where he has also built a studio and is producing other bands when not with Passafire, either touring or recording. They recently concluded a successful European tour and tour the US regularly. While talking, Ted mentioned that he wanted to catch a friend of his playing at Spirit Lake at 3:15. Sufficiently intrigued, I decided to check them out and decided that Spiritual Rez was also well worth a listen. The motto of the story, talk to your friends, neighbors, co-workers or the person next to you on the bus, subway or train about your favorite bands or newest finds. Keep the music alive!
The Travelin’ McCourys have been on my list of bluegrass bands to see for far too long but they were well worth the wait. Rob McCoury was the IBMA 2015 Banjo Player of the Year and that level of musicianship obviously inspires (& is supported by) all members of the band to reach for the highest levels of skill and creativity in their profession. They also appeared with String Cheese during part of their final set of the weekend.
Rebelution, Claypool-Lennon Delirium, Big Gigantic and Twiddle concluded the weekend with as diverse a representation of music as found throughout the festival. Exposure to such talented musicians, playing such different genres of music, continues to be a thrill. Wildly diverse audiences; people of different ages, backgrounds, professions, preferences and all music lovers, happily sharing space, time, resources and friendship with each other. This is why one of the most common statements I hear is that the fest community is a bright spot in an otherwise turbulent world.