When we think about those special places that have been carved out by nature, seemingly for the purpose of “becoming” musical venues, our first thoughts run to the magical vistas of places like the Gorge, Red Rocks and Mountainview. But perhaps the most magical of these places is tucked away inside an ancient forest, dripping with Spanish moss, in northern Florida. While the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park has long been the home to numerous festivals of note (Wannee and Bear Creek, just to name a few) it was when Florida based Purple Hat Productions and Chicago based Silver Wrapper joined forces to relocate the String Cheese Incident’s annual Hulaween celebration to this picturesque locale (and expand it to three days) that I knew that this was the time to experience the magic for myself.
With the “holiday” falling on a Thursday, day one of the festival featured the least varied musical schedule as the hosts promised three sets of musical treats for the festivants. But the entertainment opened with a set of folksy bluegrass from Larry Keel and his wife Jenn. Keel’s flat-picking wizardry is always a treat to hear and this short set was no exception, making it the perfect tone setter for the weekend.
String Cheese is known for their over the top theatrics, so I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed at their stagewear for this occasion. Indeed, only keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth took to the stage with a true costume, and even that was not a great departure from some of the “everyday” outfits he has worn in the past. But as the band launched into a soaring version of “Delta Dawn” all wardrobe concerns were quickly put aside and the crowd was propelled into a dancing frenzy. The furor was maintained through “Rhythm of the Road” and “Let’s Go Outside” before giving way to some pure bluegrass with a stellar version of “Doin’ My Time.” The set ending suite of “Betray the Dark” > “Valley of the Jig” > “Texas” was relentless and left the audience in need of the rest that the set-break offered.
Any lingering thoughts that the weekend might be theatrically lacking were wholly dispelled by the hosts’ second set. With the immediately familiar sound of bells erupting from the speakers, the band returned to the stage, in face paint and costumes that fully embodied the weekend’s “Voodoo” theme, and launched into AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” to the crowd’s enthusiastic delight. The weekend’s theme was continued with versions of the Neville Brothers’ “Voodoo” and Fema Kuti’s “Zombie” before morphing into the Police’s “Spirits in the Material World.” It was during this segment that that the weekend became interactive as the band delivered tens of huge inflated pumpkins, including one that put Wayne Coyne’s gerbil ball to shame, for the crowd to volley about. (No doubt all audience recordings of this set will have a set note indicating the precise time that the pumpkins completely decimated the tapers section.) It was at this point that percussionist Jason Hann donned a furry mask and took center stage to lead the crowd in a frenzied but inspired take on Kanye West’s rap “Monster” which had everyone howling in appreciation. The theme set closed with a troupe of fire dancers taking to the stage while accompanied by the band’s obligatory take on Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” which segued into a delicious midnight blue “Black Magic Woman” that was truer to the original version recorded by the Peter Green era of Fleetwood Mac than the more familiar version from Santana. It is precisely this type of incendiary set, one that is born from a spark of imagination, kindled by people of immense creativity and fueled by an eclectic electrically charged soundtrack that has established String Cheese as experts in the making of life-long memories.
Set III had to be a bit of a letdown from the theme set but the band did deliver an epic “Black Clouds > Big Mon > Black Clouds” sandwich as well as an appropriately joyous “Joyful Sound.” The highlights returned with the band’s triple encore of “Miss Brown’s Teahouse” a beautiful take on Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” and concluding with a colossal version of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” that left the crowd in euphoric ecstasy.
The only downside of the Cheese extravaganza was that it went long (too much of a good thing?) thereby causing almost everyone to miss the beginning of Van Ghost’s late night set. I had seen lead singer Michael Harrison Berg earlier in the day and he expressed some concern about his voice because he was getting over an upper respiratory infection. Fortunately Berg had some amazing resources at his disposal. With bandmate Jennifer Hartswick (who along with Natalie Cressman form what Berg calls his “Angel Pipe Choir”, both of whom are probably best known for their work with Trey Anastasio) having her own set scheduled for later in the weekend, her guitar slinger Nick Cassarino joined the “ghost unit” for the weekend. And, of course, no one is going to complain if Berg happens to add an extra song or two to the setlist that happens to feature the angel voiced Miss Hartswick. The result was that Berg unleashed an ultrahigh octane rock and funk assault which continuously saw Cassarino and Berg’s own axman extraordinaire, Grant “Shreddy Krueger” Tye, trade “can you top this” licks before resolving into a twelve string dual lead harmonies. It was the perfect nightcap for the evening.
Day two, for me, began in the early afternoon with Van Ghost’s second set of the weekend. Seemingly with a good night’s sleep behind him, Berg led his mates through a set that was more typical of those mid-afternoon festy sets which has made Van Ghost a staple of the Midwest festival circuit. Full of Berg penned tunes (often with his writing partner Chris Gelbuda), which are known for their catchy hooks and clever, thought provoking and often soul baring lyrics, the set was slightly more laid back than the previous evening’s tour-de-force. Big Gigantic’s Jeremy Salken joined the band on drums for a beautiful gospel tinged cover of Warren Haynes’ classic “Soulshine”, with Berg and Hartswick taking turns with the lead vocals. Unfortunately the “damn sure better than the rain” lyric would turn out to be an ill omen for the evening.
First up on the mainstage on Friday was Steve Kimnock who was joined by his son John on drums, Ron Johnson on bass and the legendary Bernie Worrell on keys. The set opened with a very nice “Africa” before Kimock and company raised the tempo with “5 B4 Funk” which gave way to a jazzy take on the Beatles’ “Come Together”. But it was when the Angel Pipe Choir joined the fun to provide some distaff harmonies and fat horns that the set really took flight. Indeed, the set ending progression of “Red Hot Mama” “You’re the One” and “Take Me to the River” was one of the distinct highlights of the entire weekend.
String Cheese’s second night was their least dramatic of the weekend, but Set I did feature a nice version of “Black and White” and a Worrell and Kimock sit-in on a truly special “Freedom Jazz Dance.” It was also during this set that that the precipitation began. This was not a shock as it seems that every major music festival this year has been plagued by rain. But even the rain seemed to have been affected by the festival’s voodoo spell; while the stage lights revealed what looked like a torrential downpour it somehow magically dissipated into a gentle misty drizzle at ground level that left the crowd virtually dry. Indeed, when the band returned to the stage with a delightful version of “Sirens” the party was back in full swing despite the red Doppler blobs on everyone smartphones that warned of an impending deluge. Yet by the time Big Gigantic’s Dominic Lalli added his saxophone to “Bumpin’ Reel”, the burning licks he traded with Kang again seemed to be holding the weather at bay. But as Lalli left the stage and the band, appropriately enough, launched into a raucous “Restless Wind” it became clear that those who had brought their ponchos had planned wisely. And by the time the “BollyMunster” encore had concluded it was clear that it was no longer a matter of “if” but rather “when” the big stuff would hit.
Fortunately the Ampitheater stage is located under the cover of trees so the set from The Main Squeeze (which, again, was well underway by the time the crowd arrived from the mainstage) proceeded despite the worsening weather. The Chicago-based quintet is quickly becoming a powerhouse on the national music scene with trademark sets of raw metallic funk. Frontman Corey Frye’s versatile voice, infectious smile and “crowd in the palm of his hand” showmanship were punctuated by the fierce virtuoso interplay of keyboardist Ben “Smiley” Silverstein and guitarist Max Newman. As the weather began to intensify, the band greeted the storm with a thunderous version of the Allman Brothers classic “Whipping Post” that had the band and crowd raging in the building monsoon. Unfortunately, with the threat of lightning and no end to the rain in sight, and a rumor that animals were pairing up in the forest and that an ark was being built, the promoters were left with no choice but to cancel Big Gigantic’s set and the rest of the late night amusement.
Morning dawned with the expectation of finding the festival ground having turned into a soupy mess, so it was with more than a little amazement to discover that the grounds had effectively absorbed the previous night’s torrent almost as if nothing had occurred. (It should be noted, though, that the producers did have a bit a sleepless night as they had to man some pumps and hoses in order to keep the water away from the electrical systems while Mother Nature raged.) First up on the mainstage was Brock Butler an artist with whom I was completely unfamiliar, but his solo, multi-instrumental, looping set, reminiscent of Keller Williams but with a much deeper vocal range, made for a pleasant enough eye-opener.
When the festival schedule was first announced the next mainstage act was billed cryptically as the “Suwannee Bluegrass Surprise,” but a couple days before the festival the producers spoiled the suspense by revealing that jamgrass legends Leftover Salmon were filling the slot. The band greeted the afternoon sunshine with a rollicking set that provided one of the funnier moments of the weekend when mandolinist Drew Emmitt could not locate his slide (which his tech had neglected to place on his amp) and was forced to poach Vince Herman’s bottle of beer in order to take his solo. The set was highlighted by beautiful versions of “High Country” and “Two Highways” and by Bill Nershi’s sit-in for “Down in the Hollow” and “Boo Boo” and fueled the crowd’s anticipation of the hosts’ final performance of the weekend.
With five sets already under their belt, String Cheese mustered all their energy reserves and delivered their best sets of the weekend. Starting with Keith Moseley’s plaintive vocal on “Sometimes a River,” the musical energy steadily increased with a zesty “Mouna Bowa” and an exceptionally lively “Cedar Laurels.” It was at this point that the hootenanny broke out as Drew Emmitt, Vince Herman, and Andy Thorn joined the incident for a boisterous “One after 909,” which included an epic “pass the baton” segment among Kang, Nershi and their guests. Next was a short Cajun flavored “Zombie Jamboree” with Herman on lead vocals and with hugs all around the Salmon boys left the stage. The set ended with a beautiful “Windy Mountain” which morphed into an absolutely glorious “Shine” and gave way to a cosmic “Colliding” before dissolving into a titanic drum solo for which Travis and Hann were joined on djembes by Jeffrey Lerner from STS9 and Luke Quaranta from Toubab Krewe.
String Cheese started their finals set of the weekend with a couple sing-a-longs. A somewhat sedate “Best Feeling” birthed a very lively “Howard” which was followed by “Pack it Up.” The band then invited the Angel Pipe Choir (who seemingly had become the default artists in residence for the festival) to join them for a funky “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground” that highlighted how good a horn section Cressman (trombone) and Hartswick (trumpet) are in addition to their esteemed vocal talents. Next was “Rivertrance” which seemed to meander a bit before Kang made it take flight with a blazing jig tempo that sounded like an Irish bumblebee. This paved the way to a percussive introduction that was quickly identifiable as the Talking Heads’ “This Must be the Place (Naïve Melody)” before the band concluded the set with a bouncy “Outside and Inside.” The band encored with an intense, but too-short, version of the Led Zeppelin classic “Kashmir” that left the crowd roaring in appreciation of the three nights of music that they had witnessed.
The last amphitheater set of the weekend belonged to Future Rock, a band that is in the forefront of Chicago’s EDM scene. The trio has perfected the ultra-high energy late night dance party. With a relentless stream short, fierce tunes that are full of fluid hooks intertwined with progressive tempos, all highlighted by a kinetic light show that fully envelopes the audience, this band seemingly exists for the sole purpose of keeping the party going.
STS9 is firmly entrenched on a list of bands that, for whatever reason, I simply do not connect with. Having seen them at least a dozen times, including two shows on their STUM summer tour that they co-headlined with Umphrey’s McGee, they are simply a band that does not trigger the pleasure center in my brain. Because of this, I chose to experience their set in “listen only” mode and made them the soundtrack to my exploration of the “Spirit Lake” art installation that had been erected for the weekend. And from that perspective, it was, by far, my favorite STS9 experience to date. Tucked into an alcove on the shore of the park’s small lake and under the cover of seemingly prehistoric trees, the producers erected an amazing artistic menagerie of multimedia metalwork, paintings, sculptures (including a metallic, bull-shaped furnace which snorted smoke) and lightscaping which combined to create a delightful experience that was equal parts fairy tale, high school science project and psychedelic experiment.
While there was no formal poll of those in attendance, there is little doubt as to what was the consensus best moment of the weekend. It was when festival promoter Paul Levine took to the stage and announced the intention of repeating the party again in the coming year. Quickly, promises were shared to reconvene the following autumn. After all, who wouldn’t want to return to such a mystical place where the music lives and the present is created by melding the future with the past.