From the very start, this festival had enough to fill my musical void. I’m sure this was a shared sentiment from the attendees during this weekend. This was my first experience attending a festival at Spirit of the Music Park and Campground in Suwannee, Florida. It was put on by SilverWrapper and Purple Hat Productions, with the help of String Cheese Incident. It was such a delight overall that the excitement was hard to contain. This wasn’t necessarily bad besides being giddy the whole time. This also isn’t bad, especially for a 4 day, 7-set SCI festival in sunny north Florida.
Thursday night brought a solid set from Particle featuring guest spots Jason Hann of SCI and Aaron Magner of the Disco Biscuits. The percussive addition of Hann created an exciting Latin/West African infusion in the mix along with the added keyboard chops from Magner. From start to finish, they were dialed in and brought it to those who arrived early to see them play. They also closed with a cover of Becks “E-pro.” Later, Electron gave a great performance, playing many Disco Biscuits songs, but also playing Pink Floyds “Comfortably Numb>Rock Candy>Comfortably Numb” toward the end. This was a great warmup for the weekend to be.
Friday started off with an afternoon bang from Greensky Bluegrass warming up the mainstage, whose been touring steadily in support of their newest album If Sorrow Swims. They always prove to impress any crowd and venue, day or night. All were dressed as white angels with halos, suitable for this bunch. There wasn’t many overlapping sets but when there was, it became challenging in a good way. This festival brought top quality all around and a chance for non-natives to catch unfamiliar regional acts.
String Cheese Incident began their opening set with the theme from Friday the Thirteenth, which set the tone for the festivities to come. This made way for a great “Restless Wind” with a Friday the Thirteenth tease contained and into a seamless “Joyful Sound” next. This was quite the spacey version with a lengthy intro and appropriate with all the time throughout the weekend. It’s nice that the band takes time to ease into a song from time to time which is not always possible when not playing a festival. This led right into the sexy latin-esque tune “Pygmy Pony” and “Piece of Mine,” which Michael Kang got some serious play on, along with a big ol’ “Give Me The Love.” The distance this (GMTL) went to was very transcendental, tribal, and electric. This version was further explored than ever previously witnessed. Cheese was definitely showing the love to this great crowd of fans. This led into another smoker “Valley Of The Jig” that went to some interesting places, with great contributions from all members. The set closed with “Can’t Wait Another Day.” Then Shpongle would entertain until the now infamous Hulaween set.
The all cover SCI Hulaween set started off with Rolling Stones “Sympathy For The Devil,” then the 1984 classic Theme Song to Ghosbusters, which led right into a beautiful rendition of Bob Marley’s classic, “Time Will Tell.” Kang can handle the lyrical range and power necessary to pull this hit off, and the strong percussive backing from Michael Travis and Jason Hann didn’t hurt either. Next, came the powerful Paul and Linda McCartney song “Live And Let Die,” which took off in usual Cheese fashion, to another level, by elevating it so well as they do with the great cover songs they carefully choose. Also, the help of guest vocalist Rhonda Thomas and Tony White and the Antibalas Horns, created such a depth to the songs. “Just Passing Through” is a nice transitory tune that they fit into the covers, but actually is a Cheese song, cowritten by Bill Nershi and John Perry Barlow. This lead into a phenomenal Led Zepplins “Stairway To Heaven,” a song that could not of been as powerful had it not been for the presence of Rhonda Thomas, whose no stranger to powerful soul music producing 6 of her own albums. She was also a strong thread in the Isaac Hayes band for ten years, along with Hann. They took no time leading into Blue Oyster Cult’s classic “Don’t Fear The Reaper” and into The Doors “Break On Through,” which saw some fun exploration in an accurate but improvised fashion. Next came Talking Heads “Heaven,” an obvious choice after just breaking through, but indicated that the setlist had an overarching theme of “afterlife” that was consistent throughout the context and execution of this set. Then came a “Live And Let Die” reprise out of nowhere, leading into set closer Michael Jacksons “Thriller.” It was full of pyrotechnics, dancing zombies on each side of the stage and a giant MJ face with arms stretching outward, controlled by guys below. This was quite a closer of a dance party, with plenty of heavy bass by Keith Mosely and soulfully accurate singing by White. What a finish to the Hulaween set, with yet another set to go for the night.
Always a great SCI opener and classic staple “Miss Browns Teahouse” was aided with the horns and guests staying up for another round. Such a sweet version of this long time staple made for a great transition into a version of Kool & The Gangs “Hollywood Swingin.” Billy even stated, “How do you like this String Cheese Big Band sound?” It was definitely more full than their already dense sound. Then came a Kyle Hollingsworth song “You’ve Got The World,” which is always impressive. This one in particular had that extra special quality, much ado to Kyle's hyper funk level, the extra voices, and heavy Kang shreds! Slowing it down a bit into a nice and calming great version of “Hotel Window” that led them to liven it up with a huge sandwich of “Rosie” into Fela Kuti’s “Zombie” back into “Rosie.” It was an incredible display of versatility for this band who continue to push the envelope. And what a way to drop that Kuti track within their own song while having the sweet horn addition. Next, a very strong “Way Back Home” into “Just One Story” without a blink of the eye and into a blasting Stevie Wonder cover “Superstition” with a great vocal jam. This would put a close to their 3 set shenanigans, but not for the night of music.
Beats Antique is no stranger amongst this lineup and fit in well after the final set of Cheese for the evening. They had a great performance, even including a sit-in from tour mate Lafa Taylor, who is a NW rapper/producer, based in LA now. Seeing guests with them was new for me and I am hoping they don’t shelve that idea. Last but not least was the mighty Thievery Corporation, who put on a fantastic show into the brisk evening. They kept the crowd warm through a solid array of hits off their discography including “Radio Retaliation” and “Vampires." They continue to maintain such a powerful sound while traversing era’s, genres and regions.
Then I caught some of the fantastic “outlaw bluegrass" jams from locals Grandpa’s Cough Medicine who really know how to throw a late night get down. That was the end of the night for me while perusing Spirit Lake and all the incredible artists involved with acrobatics, installation art, silent disco, projections on the lake, fire poi, and giant metal robotic fire pits. It was definitely done up right and want to personally thank all the artists and crew who contributed to the festival grounds. This is truly a special piece of property that seems to have a great agenda going with their heavy event schedule.
The next day brought The Heavy Pets, whom I’d never seen, but was quite impressed with their array of styles all synthesized within a rock framework. They threw out a great cover of Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” and it was even their 1,000th show together, which is a milestone in itself. Next, was Nahko & Medicine for the People who never seem to disappoint and this was no different in their strong performance given. There was a sizable crowd for an afternoon set too, which is always comforting and indicative of a solid fan base.
Keller Williams & Friends, Nicky Sanders (Steep Canyon Rangers) and Reed Mathis (JFJO, TLG, 7 Walkers) entitled Awesome Sauce, layed it down on the MainStage for a great afternoon set, full of smiles and wonderful strumming all around. Highlights were a Kris Kristofferson tune “Don’t Cuss the Fiddle,” Grateful Dead cover “Scarlet Begonias,” and Pink Floyds “Wish You Were Here.” Along the ride were some original tunes too such as, “Kidney,” “Missing Remote,” and “Bumpersticker.” The individual talent of each of these three musicians is remarkable and to see them together was a real treat! One never knows what Keller will do next, as he’s always innovating and bridging gaps. It’s always a pleasure to see a musician who is as excited about performing as the fans are to see him.
Cheese wasted no time going right into longtime fan favorite “Search,” and giving Hann some early solos and Travis time too. It’s such an all inclusive song, as most are, but it really comes through in this track especially. This led into “Lost,” which got real funky with additive Nershi slide work going on along with Kang rips. They seamlessly went into the gorgeous “Mouna Bowa,” which saw some great playing along with some serious Mosely bass bombs. Next, they invited Nicky Sanders up to do some fiddle for “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance,” from which I saw many complements added. Sanders has been sitting in increasingly around the country with many acts including Widespread Panic of recent. Nicky stayed up while they brought Keller up for an oldie “Resume Man,” about a man from Moab, Utah who tried to become the bands roadie. This classic was greatly highlighted by these guests and brought such a shine to this already finely polished song. The wheels turned up for the Kyle song “Pack It Up” also co-written by The Motet’s Dave Watts. The funky synth is real solid for this version and Kang got deeply invested in it. Next, Keller came back out for his own song “Alligator Alley,” a fun and almost similarly Dead-like tune in feeling. This was appropriate as they segued right into “Franklins Tower.” Cheese can really let go and dive into some Dead classics, but having Keller adds that special charm and extra level of heightened musicality. This would put a sweet closer to a fantastic first set.
Cheese began with “Let’s Go Outside” from their funky arsenal for the second set opener and perfect fitting for an outdoor festival. Next, a smooth upbeat “Black Clouds” and “Sweetspot” lead itself into a really fun sax-filled “Birdland” into “Flying East Jam” back into “Birdland” with Dominic Lalli from Big Gigantic. Then an epic run of “Sirens>Rivertrance>Drums>Swamp>Rivertrance” that was one for the history books! Drums contained a Talking Heads sampler tease, that led into their song, “Swamp.” It’s great when a band is so dialed in and can get a sequence like this together. It all led up to a “Bollymunster” encore to guide people off into the swampy night for more music to come later.
The New Deal started shortly thereafter over at the Amphitheater. The cozy stage in the Spanish Moss-filled wooded bowl, situated back en route toward Spirit Lake. This Toronto based jamtronica act is not one to be messed with. The energy they put out as a three piece is very well synched, loudly vibrant and rare. This was my first time seeing them after waiting close to ten years and was not disappointed by any means.
Later, Big Gigantic threw down on the main stage for a veracious crowd ready to get down. Then over yonder at the Spirit Lake stage Kung Fu was throwing it down like they do. Their keyboardist Todd Stoops is ridiculous along with a great band who is forever seeking to blur lines of genres with funk in mind. Last for the night was a goodnight treat of Tampa’s own Applebutter Express. They make some sweet sounds folks. It made for a warm feeling on the cold walk back to camp.
Day three brought Rising Appalachia who took main stage through a journey. These two sisters and backup band are an original group that shouldn’t be underestimated. These sisters embody the South, while incorporating many other world influences into their sound. Then The Dean Ween Group laid it down over at the Amphitheater. It sounded great overall and I love Deans ability. It would be great to see Ween get back together for a future Hulaween.
A funky “Sometimes A River” came out of the gate from Cheese for night three, which is a great place to start from and went into “Close Your Eyes.” Billy was all over this track with his smooth slide work and fast picking. A quick “How Mountain Girls Can Love” came next leading the way for a fantastic “MLT,” which isn’t so frequent from my knowledge. These great numbers made room for “Love Is Like A Train,” a beautiful track about the roller coaster journey that love can be but somehow worthwhile. Such a great message, as are most of their songs. A monstrous “So Far From Home” came out rocking with keys and percussion, even with some great washboard additions. They even took it to darker funky spaces and explored its depth too. “Round The Wheel” brought extra bliss to the crowd and for quite an extended time.
Newer track, “Colliding” popped up to open the final set of SCI for the weekend. This is a fun danceable groovy track that still manages to sound contemporary. “Late In The Evening” made it’s way, a Paul Simon cover with vocals by drummer Michael Travis. Occasionally, you’ll see a sign or hear someone yell out, “Let Travis sing” because he really does have a great voice. Kang got some great chops in and the band led into a great vocal jam with elements similar to a ritualized mantra that went back into the song to finish it out. An appropriate “Look At Where We Are” came next, allowing some introspection about this great venue and special property. An explosive “Song In My Head” came next, which is a newer Nershi song. Then onward to the appropriately played Talking Heads song “This Must Be The Place,” a great fan favorite. This was definitely a special version of TMBTP with fireworks going off in the background. “On The Road” flowed nicely into a huge “Bumpin Reel” to finish the final set, leading into a giant encore of “Texas.” They continue to elevate their game, raising each others level of talent further with each show. I can only hope they continue this for another ten years at least.
This was the coldest of nights reaching below 30 degrees, but kept warm by the tight improvised edm from EOTO. For all who managed to keep warm were treated to some fantastic tunes to close out the festival. Last act of the weekend would be Grateful Dead tribute Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, who tore through some classic staples in the bands repertoire. Standouts included “Uncle Johns Band>No Quarter Jam>Uncle Johns Band,” and “Slipknot!>Franklin’s Tower,” which was the second of the weekend with the other coming from String Cheese with Keller. Also, the whole set segued into one another which makes for that full Dead experience and reminds us that this is one of the best cover bands touring today.
What a weekend that was, full of smiles, temperature fluctuations, more music than could be possibly seen, oddities and magic all around. Big thank you to Purple Hat Productions, SilverWrapper, The String Cheese Incident, and Spirt of the Suwannee Music Park & Campground for hosting. This is a festival grounds sure to please any who attempts to bask in its beauty. It’s not a bad choice to go get some sun in late October and shortly thereafter Bear Creek Music Festival, which was a few weeks later. Hope to see you there next year Suwannee Hulaween.