A few weeks have gone by fast after the spectacular party in the woods that was the sixth Suwannee Hulaween. The String Cheese Incident’s annual Halloween celebration has grown not just bigger, but better. The magic that took place this year at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida pushed boundaries of what we all thought was possible.
Though a completely separate event, the Suwannee Roots Revival festival this year brought acts like Oteil & Friends and Keller Williams PettyGrass plus thousands of campers to the grounds the weekend before Hulaween ops got to work with pre-production set up. This mid-October country shindig felt like a family friendly pre-party for Hula. There is something to be said for all of the events hosted at this unique 800 acre park throughout the year, and the storied history of SOSMP in general. This is a do-not-miss venue that should be on every music lover’s bucket list.
Dozens of artists and soon hundreds of staff, vendors, and volunteers were on site prepping for the most impressive Hulaween weekend lineup thus far, thanks to Silver Wrapper and Purple Hat Productions. The event was boosted by a sell-out in early October, a new record for the festival and park. Excitement continued to build in the days leading up, with hundreds of campers arriving early to get settled in.
By Wednesday night, the campgrounds were filling up with elaborate Halloween- themed sites, and finishing touches were being put on Spirit Lake, the visual arts space that brings dreams to life beyond the five stages. Although Live Oak was spared, Hurricane Michael had blown by earlier in the week and completely wrecked the Florida Panhandle. With so many people already in the park, the SOSMP Music Hall held a successful benefit concert, featuring Zach Deputy, CBDB, Catfish Alliance, and Beartoe.
Funds raised benefited Convoy of Hope and Volunteer Florida in their efforts to help communities affected by the hurricane. Donations were also accepted by Conscious Alliance, the Colorado nonprofit, who spearheads the food drive at this event and so many others through their “Art that Feeds” program. Conscious Alliance set a new record for donations collected at SOSMP this year.
The official Pre-Party began early Thursday afternoon with Florida’s own Ajeva pumping out their sunshine soaked funk at the natural wooded Ampitheatre stage. Spirit Lake was open and everyone was dazzled by the dozens of installations, ranging from huge stand-
alone sculptures, to interactive opportunities for attendees to express themselves. Photos abound on the Internet, but this immersive experience needs to be felt to grasp completely. Again, this is a bucket-list venue. Aptly named band Side Hustle opened the Campground Stage, which sounded and looked perfectly set along the lake waterfront. The Campground alternated with the Spirit Lake Stage, and Marco Benevento ripped the keys during his set immediately afterwards.
Papadosio played their familiar airy grooves at the Ampitheatre, and STS9 played an “Axe the Cables” set at the Patch as the sun went down. The same high energy precision from the band but on the acoustic versions of their instruments of choice make for an audiophile’s dream. Many fans chose this opportunity to bust out their bubble guns, adding to the already whimsical environment and fitting the weekend theme, “Creatures of the Galaxy”. Sound Tribe took an hour break before blasting the crowd into outer space during their second set of the night.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead did the grateful damn thing at the Ampitheatre next, while Orlando based Kaleigh Baker laid down soulful vocals at the Campground. The Floozies led a dance party at the Patch afterward, JRAD played again, but longer, and finally Kyle Hollingsworth closed down Spirit Lake stage. There were so many other musical acts throughout the day, but Hulaween has effectively become a choose-your-own-adventure festival. Once you accept you are not seeing everyone you want to, the weekend gets a lot more relaxing and fun. Just go with the flow. Thursday night production ended with Lettuce, EOTO, and CBDB all going til 2 am. The Silent Disco and Spirit Lake installations stayed open until 5.
Holey Miss Moley, another Florida band, had their turn opening the Ampitheatre Friday, before the Wood Brothers filled the Meadow (AKA Main Stage) with their sweet sounds. Too Many Zooz started a wild, feral human dance party in the dusty bowl of the Amp as the campgrounds really started to near capacity (20,000). Hulaween staff presented a full weekend of workshops that allowed guests a sacred space at Spirit Lake to continue a regular practice, or try something new. There were activities ranging from Vinyasa Yoga with Handpans to Third Eye Massage.
For the first time this year, Florida’s premier circus entertainment company, Aerial Dragons, built their own stage and hosted additional workshops as well as choreographed performances throughout the weekend. The Dragons and their tribe have been performing at SOSMP for several years, but the new Dragons Den brought the Ampitheatre to new heights.
Colorado based and longtime SOSMP players, the Malah, crushed their sunset slot on the Campground Stage before String Cheese lit up the Meadow for the first of seven sets over the course of the weekend. Emancipator brought the ethereal Ensemble act to the Amp while Bustle in Your Hedgerow, a Led Zeppelin cover band featuring members of JRAD (who are world class musicians hailing from other bands already) plus Benevento, rocked the Patch.
Cheese played again as Spirit Lake was happily invaded by DirtyBird’s FISHER and Justin Martin. STS9 did their thing one more time at the Patch, while spooky lady producer Rezz melted minds at the Amp. A whole festival themed around Halloween, set in the Florida swampy woods is truly a brilliant idea. It’s no wonder this event has been successful.
Hulaween darlings Come Back Alice, from St. Pete, brought their Southern gypsy funk to close the Campground stage for the night.
Friday’s headliner Odesza filled the Meadow with booming sound, playing old favorites as well as their new music, featuring a drum line. There were dazzling pyrotechnics and fireworks that went off in time with the beat in front of the backdrop of hundred year old live oak and pine trees. Garaj Mahal was busy making earthy magic back at Spirit Lake, and revelers were able to stay at the stage with Ralph Roddenberry rocking out, followed by trance-like Dixon’s Violin. Several electric campsites had “secret” sets of their own that help to make this special event what it is. What people are capable of together was seen this weekend in the excellence, talent, and hard work that was shared so freely.
Saturday started with smooth grooves by Guavatron, Toubab Krewe, Trevor Hall, and Slenderbodies. Lettuce played again as well. Stephen Marley brought irie vibes to the Amp before SCI started the first of their three sets. Troyboi clearly had the time of his life leading a dance party at the Ampitheatre, while Bishop Briggs brought her cute yet powerful sound to the Patch. The biggest production efforts of the weekend went into the third Cheese set, which played up the theme with “Women of the Galaxy”.
They started strong, bringing out Lisa Fischer, who toured with the Rolling Stones, for “Gimme Shelter”. The set featured women vocalists on each track, including gospel great Rhonda Thomas, Jennifer Hartswick, and Ann Wilson of Heart. Two Aretha Franklin songs paid tribute to the Queen of Soul’s passing earlier this year. “Barracuda” could not have been more fun with Wilson leading the group. The whole collective shined in the finale “Get Up Stand Up”, which echoed the sentiments of most artists throughout the weekend, encouraging the crowds to vote.
It was amazing. The acts that followed were ready to go, including Tipper at the Amp bringing the huge crowd in for a magical journey featuring backdrop video art by Android Jones. Vulfpeck did their jazzy, sassy set at the Patch, and Jon Stickley Trio jamgrass rocked the Campground. Psymbionic and Clozee brought smooth intoxicating vibes to Spirit Lake afterward, and the biggest headliner of the weekend, the elusive Jamiroquai, closed the Meadow. To say his set was the dance party of the year would not be an overstatement. It was two hours of the greatest hits, and the crowd was nonstop moving. Larry Keel & Friends kept Spirits high at the Lake and Dixon’s Violin closed the night again alongside the Silent Disco.
Sunday brought the legendary Mavis Staples to the Ampitheatre, while a second line parade formed in Spirit Lake after the Rebirth Brass Band set. There were other New Orleans favorites on the schedule, with Galactic in the late afternoon, and the Revivalists closing the Amp stage. Cheese played their final two sets, and the latter gave the Nth Power’s Nick Cassarino another chance to shine during a very fun “Supersition”. Opiuo and NGHTMRE kept the crowds dancing up until the final sets of the night, Turkuaz, Gramatik, and Janelle Monae. Monae closed the main stage and brought her provocative, yet uplifting message to the crowd, ending the festival on a high note. Spirit Lake stayed open until midnight and the campsite parties went into the wee hours of the morning.
Not just the practically flawless production went well, but the security and overall event staff did their best and raised the bar high. It’s a fundamentally wondrous thing that 20,000 people can have completely different experiences over the weekend, and all come out saying it was the best time ever. Let’s not forget the park is bordered by and named for the Suwannee River. No trip would be complete without a visit to the white sand SOSMP beach and tannin-colored blackwater before leaving. Everyone involved in Suwannee Hulaween this year took the memories and lessons home to do with what they will. This has turned into a fabulous reunion and meeting of the minds, even called the “Burning Man of the South”, and we are already looking forward to next year.