In addition to the gorgeous scenery, creations, skills and people of the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, is the music. Suwannee Hulaween is so dense with captivating art pieces and activities to keep patrons stimulated, you almost forget that the main attraction is one incredible lineup of musical acts to provide a soundtrack for the weekend. The host band, The String Cheese Incident is an eclectic jam band, so a large part of the bill is other jamming groups. However, the folks at Suwannee Hulaween want the festival to evolve with its fans, and therefore booked an extremely well-balanced bill of genres this year including Funk, Reggae, Bluegrass, Hip Hop, Electronic, Dub, and everything short of polka.
Lettuce brought their grooves all the way from Boston to the Ampitheater Stage to get the pre-party started on Thursday night and also played Friday night. Lettuce is an 8-piece jam band with horns, fronted by bassist “Jesus” Coomes. He’s not so much the frontman, as much as he’s the one who speaks between songs. They are an instrumental group that always comes to party. Their sound is triumphant, gangsta funk, and the big band vibe hits hard with a splash of psychedelia. Their epic Thursday pre-party jam was only topped by an even more explosive Friday night set.
Umphrey’s McGee had two back-to-back sets on the Patch Stage Thursday night. Umphrey’s is a hard-rock jam band from Indiana with a very dedicated crew. Apart from playing the most face-melty, persistent, and technically challenging improvised jams on the scene, they have a mad genius light designer and a very efficient live-recording staff. So, Umph shows are an audio-visual experience that you’ll never have to forget. Not that you would. Which is why fans were already chanting “We want the Umph! Gotta have that Umph!” before the first set began. They were left speechless after the second. Masters of light and sound, Umphrey’s McGee shone on like crazy diamonds, and also rendered a glorious version of the Pink Floyd song with a similar name.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead is a rock band from Brooklyn that plays mostly Grateful Dead covers. They played at the Ampitheater Stage Thursday night. The Grateful Dead always had a velvety, half-lucid feel to their live shows, and Almost Dead really captures it. However, Russo and friends also bring a new confidence, power, and organization to the old Deadhead classics. They busted out some real bangers such as “Playing in the Band” and an staggeringly long “Truckin’.” Their groovy tunes were a perfect fit for Hulaween.
EOTO & Friends on Thursday night was when things really got started. At the Patch Stage, The String Cheese Incident’s Jason Hann and Michael Travis together make EOTO, a fully-improvised, live-instrument dub experience. Thursday night’s “& Friends” portion included surprise appearances from String Cheese’s Kyle Hollingsworth and Umphrey’s McGee’s Joel Cummins. The set included all kinds of bass from thumping space bass to reggae dub to trap 808 kicks. In the midst of it all, Jason Hann provided some truly impressive freestyle rap lyrics as well as some shoutout jams of “Monster Mash” and “Shine Eye Gal.”
Greensky Bluegrass carved out a niche in Hulaween with their unique brand of lengthy, rock’n’roll bluegrass. Down from Michigan, Greensky closed out Thursday night’s music on the Spirit Lake Stage and played another set on the Meadow Stage on Friday. Their pluckin’ tunes were just as satisfying in the illuminated dark as they were on the sunny grass.
Our friends, The Heavy Pets, started everyone’s Friday off the right way. Locals from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, THP are a rock jam band with influences of jazz and reggae. Their music can make you feel like you're cruisin’ in a Cadillac, take you for a spin on a climactic, exploratory groove, then sit you back down to chill in the uplifted vibes. They ended their set with a good-natured jazz-brunch/reggae session on a song titled “Keep Those Police Away,” proving their sense of humor is just as defined as their jams.
Dumpstaphunk came to represent for NOLA on the Meadow Stage Friday. Relatives Ivan Neville and Ian Neville formed the band in 2003 on a whim and have been cookin’ up some dirty New Orleans funk rock ever since. They sound like a fine mixture of the Meters, Parliament, and James Brown. Tony Hall and Ivan Neville’s colorful collective stage presence wowed the Friday audience. “Let’s get at it,” they chanted in one of their originals, and get at it, they did. NOLA funk at its finest.
Also from New Orleans, the Nth Power played two sets at Hulaween on the Ampitheater Stage, one on Thursday, and a second Bob Marley Tribute set on Friday. Frontman and guitarist Nick Cassarino really seemed to feel the music as he channeled the reggae energy. Bob Marley classics to the Nth Power resulted in a new sheen, fun, and freshness on old favorites. The crowd’s faces lit up when they cranked out “Zimbabwe” into “Positive Vibration.” Everyone clearly felt the solidarity.
Dirty Dozen Brass Band rolled up in style on Friday by making their way to the Spirit Lake stage by way of a second line involving the band, Russ Liquid, and anyone else at the fest that cared to join the party. They were escorted onstage by dancing fans to play a solid set of NOLA brass funk. Dirty Dozen is seasoned and interactive with their audience. They implemented a wonderful “Hiiii-YA!” chant to begin a cover of the Meters’ “Cissy Strut.”
Back over at the Ampitheater Stage, Mike Gordon, the bass player of legendary jam band Phish, played under his own name with some friends including two special guests. Emily Elbert and Madi Diaz joined Gordon for some slightly dark, bluesy folk rock. The set was tight, and it was hard to take your eyes off of Gordon and John Kimock’s matching LED guitars.
After his warm-up in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band second line, NOLA’s own Russ Liquid brought his experiment, The Russ Liquid Test, to the Spirit Lake Stage. After a haphazard soundcheck, the band experienced some monitor difficulties in the first few songs. Despite the hiccup, Russ and his band put on a swell show. Russ plays sax, trumpet and synths along with another keyboard player, a guitarist, and a drummer. Together they rock a vintage synth funk sound, a perfect outlet for Russ’s phat 80’s vocoder melodies.
Vince Staples played at the Patch Stage Friday night. He’s a 24-year-old rap prodigy from Long Beach, California. He had a nudge into stardom with his feature on the new Gorillaz track “Ascension,” which he performed for the Hulaween audience, but has since released a very well-received studio album called Big Fish Theory. When he wasn’t jumping around, Staples’ stage presence was mysterious and creepy, almost spider-like, but his music is a dark sort of party variety that really got the crowd pumped.
Saturday started off with more familiar faces at the Ampitheater Stage. Tank and the Bangas showed Suwannee how to act a fool for Halloween with their vibrant and kinetic energy. Students of Loyola, Tank and the Bangas gained some success recently by winning an NPR Tiny Desk Concert and are now on their way up and up. Tank is the lead singer and she is a singer that no one can take their eyes off of. Her super expressive face and body make it impossible not to enjoy yourself at one of their shows. Once you’re hooked on the gusto, you then realize their music is an unrivaled, engaging solution of live band synth funk, trap and hip hop.
The Host Band of Suwannee Hulaween is The String Cheese Incident. The fest itself is their brainchild that resulted from playing festivals in the music park over the last decade or so. Fans have been coming to see String Cheese since the beginning, so they please with seven total sets over the course of the weekend. While all of the shows were wrought with dazzling blues, rock, funk, and even electronic-ish jams, the fifth performance was not to be missed. The final set on Saturday night was themed to Halloween and Love. To achieve an overall feeling of togetherness and adoration, String Cheese unleashed a slew of famous love songs in the form of covers and then proceeded to jam the loving hell out of them.
Hypnotized by the breath-taking light show, fans began to burst at the seams with affection for one another when String Cheese released giant heart-shaped balloons, fireballs, fireworks, and mass amounts of confetti during their covers. “Love Rollercoaster” by the Ohio Players started the set, and by the time the ground was littered with lovers and confetti, they had blasted through some wicked renditions of “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis, “I Think I’m in Love” by Beck and a fusion jam of “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce, “Where is the Love?” by the Black Eye Peas, “Whole Lotta Love” by Zeppelin, and “What I Got” by Sublime.
The Disco Biscuits kept the spirits high at the Patch Stage with their “Uhn tiss, uhn tiss” style of techno rock. From Philadelphia, Disco Biscuits formed in 1995, pioneering the jamtronica genre. Their late-night Saturday set was spooky enough for Halloween weekend, including a jam with the Exorcist melody, and energizing enough to recharge people for Run The Jewels.
The Ampitheater stage area was overflowing with Jewel Runners for the Saturday night hip hop show. Killer Mike and El-P are two rappers from Atlanta and Brooklyn respectively. Together they form Run The Jewels, a party rap duo with beats produced by El-P himself. The sound is an addictive fusion of trap/mainstream hip hop with underground rap. El-P comes from the Def Jux family and has always produced his own beats, while Killer Mike has friends in the ATL rap community such as Outkast. They play the hardest beats and rap about very party-oriented subject matter, but a staple of their live shows has become a disclaimer that they share with the crowd about caring for the people at the show with you and keeping your hands to yourself in a sexual sense. “If we see you making unwelcome advances on someone, we will stop the show, crowd-surf Killer Mike into the crowd and he will suplex you.” What’s left is a sea of RTJ gang signs and hardcore fans attending for the shear enjoyment.
Damian Marley was played onto the Meadow Stage Saturday night by his backing band, and escorted by a flag man, sporting the giant Lion of Judah. All the way from Kingston, Jamaica, this son of Bob Marley came with his positive vibes to close out the Saturday night schedule. Famous father aside, Damian has crafted his own style of reggae/hip hop that is truly unique to him. His new album Stoney Hill was the subject of much discussion, and so he played many tunes from it. Of course, he didn’t let down his long-time followers and played some classics, too, including “Welcome to Jamrock” as the final song of the evening. With his dreads now being inches from the ground in length, he gives off more and more of a vibe of solemness, however, he surprises with a whimsical attitude toward his stage presence and a heavy-handed advocation of marijuana.
The final day, Sunday, started with some spacey skanking. Scott Woodruff is a reggae musician from Massachusetts that now lives in California. He produces his music and tours with a band and his dog, Cocoa. The band is called Stick Figure. Their style of reggae is atmospheric, with Woodruff’s vocals often laced in reverb and delay. Before the musicians took the stage, Cocoa the Tour Dog ambled out and stuck her nose toward the crowd, staring, while everyone went nuts over her cuteness. Shortly after, the players came out and jump-started the positive feels. The good vibes stayed consistent throughout the set, with Woodruff encouraging audience members to introduce themselves to their neighbors. Everyone left the show with a warm feeling and a new friend.
Following Stick Figure at the Ampitheater Stage on Sunday was Portugal. The Man. Formed by bassist Zachary Carothers and guitarist John Gourley in 2004, Portugal. The Man is from Portland, Oregon. They had a mass of diehard fans waiting for them at the stage, and for good reason. Portugal’s sound is that of almost disco-rock. They have a very pop-oriented feel, yet they are quite loud and layered. All the members sing in unison, giving a lovely chorus effect. Their distinct psychedelic rock kept people moving and their roots showed through as they played snippets of Pink Floyd and groovy oil-inspired art displayed behind them. The best influence they could have revealed, however, was that of the brown influence. After their final song, Gourley announced that he was going to see some Ween, “the greatest band of all time.”
No one other than the masters of chaos themselves, Ween, could have adequately closed out the Ampitheater stage for the last time on Halloween weekend. As the final great act of the festival, their brown magic bewildered the minds of those worthy and unworthy. Ween is from New Hope, Pennsylvania, formed by Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman, who have been making music together as a duo since middle school in the 80’s. They grew up best friends and with the help of psychedelics and social lubricants, they capitalized on the mockery of music in the most flattering way possible. They are not a parody band, more like a meta band. The fact is, they couldn’t care less what resulted from their experiments, it just so happens that the product is an enchanting, humorous and relatable psychedelic/stoner rock, with a twist of everything. Ween’s records have evolved from the messy, drug-addled, garage punk of their first album GodWeenSatan: The Oneness, to powerful, trippy experimental music influenced by whatever genre they are feeling at a given time.
Ween’s Sunday night set was the perfect spiked cherry on top of a mind-blowing and spellbinding weekend of music. The audience was just groggy enough to match Ween’s musical temperament and just lucid enough to be floored by Dean and Gene Ween’s undoubted ability to rock. They played superb versions of their big hits such as “The Mollusk” and “Transdermal Celebration” while also opening minds and hearts with their sentimental deep cuts such as a long-winded “Frank” and Deaner’s favorite, “Mister Would You Please Help My Pony?” The boys even stayed true to Hula 2017's theme of Love, taking a sincere moment for "our brothers in the south" and playing "Puerto Rican Power (The Power of Love)." The Ampitheater Stage, being a naturally-formed concert bowl filled with trees, gave the appropriate, eerie feel of one finding one’s place in existence to compliment Ween’s spectacularly weird closing show.
Of course, leave it to a New Orleans hero to show the people of Suwannee Hulaween how to close a festival. The Revivalists' frontman, David Shaw, was the actual last act of the entire festival. He played at the Spirit Lake Stage after all the other performers had finished. It was an acoustic solo set, with a kick drum pad at his feet to tap a rhythm. David Shaw's voice is as soulful as a bag of soul, and then some. The intimacy of the set was in essence with the warm feelings of unity eveloping the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park all weekend. With friend Brooks Hubbard dressed as a stormtrooper at his side, David said farewell to the great people of Hulaween 2017 and played an acoustic version of The Revivalists' No. 1 hit "Wish I Knew You."