Hulaween 2018

The Suwannee Hulaween festival is lauded far and wide as one of the greatest music festivals on the map, and it inhabits one of the most renowned and revered venues in the country.

The gorgeous and dreamlike Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park sits alongside the Suwanee River in Live Oak, Florida amidst 800 acres of oak and cypress trees draped with Spanish moss. Hosted by the String Cheese Incident, the 6th annual event took place Oct. 25-28 with an exceptional lineup of over 75 bands playing on 5 lavishly decorated stages over 4 days of almost perfect weather. The 20,000 tickets sold out to passionate fans across the country long in advance.

Hulaween has a split personality, with major headliners and deep rosters of beloved acts in both the jamband and electronica worlds. Alongside three nights of the String Cheese Incident, jamband fans jitterbugged to multiple sets from STS9 and Joe Russo's Almost Dead, along with a powerhouse hour-long non-stop ever-morphing set from Medeski, Martin & Wood, and a thrilling late-night show from Garaj Mahal. Bluegrassers got tuned up by Yonder Mountain String Band, Trampled by Turtles and the Infamous Stringdusters, while funk fanatics got down with Lettuce, Galactic, Turkuaz and The Fritz.

Electronic enthusiasts melted with Odesza, Tipper, Rezz and Gramatik, and rockers ran off with the Revivalists, Dr. Dog, and Ralph Roddenbery & the Jones. Other major acts included Janelle Monae, Stephen Marley, The Wood Brothers, Mavis Staples, Toubab Krewe, and a massive two-hour Saturday night set from soul funksters Jamiroquai that positively electrified and energized everyone in attendance. Other great bands included Rebirth Brass Band, Sunsquabi, Larry Keel & Friends, Jon Stickley Trio, Bustle in Your Hedgerow, and Too Many Zooz,

The highlight and spiritual center of the festival is the "Spirit Lake visual arts extravaganza," a stunning, sprawling compound perfectly covered in huge, jaw-dropping art installations, spinning lights, sound effects, surrealist paintings, circus and performance artists, fire cannons, metal sculptures, holograms, lasers, smoke, gongs and more. The combined effect turns the lake and surrounding forest into an otherworldly psychedelic dreamscape. Whether viewed as simple artful ambiance or ingested as spiritual ignition, the overwhelming sensory indulgences left no one unaffected.

A huge program of other activities for the mind, body and soul were also on the menu, including yoga, meditation, sound healing, poetry, and dance workshops. On the other end of the earthbound experience, String Cheese keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth hosted Kyle's Craft Beer Corner featuring beer tastings, expert panels, and a spirited performance from his eponymous solo band.

One of the best parts for fans about getting so many amazing musicians together in one place is the endless potential for unique sit-ins and guest appearances, and Hulaween proved no exception. Some of the highlights included String Cheese Incident joined by Nth Power guitarist (and Jennifer Hartswick collaborator) Nick Cassarino for a rousing version of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition." Another huge crowd pleaser was Lettuce drummer Adam Deitch and pedal steel virtuoso Roosevelt Collier joining in the slick, funky stylings of Vulfpeck. 

An undisputed high point of the festival was String Cheese Incident's "Women of the Galaxy" set, an instant classic which featured a flock of female songbirds belting out a set of classic covers. The set opened with the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter", led by Lisa Fischer who provided the unforgettable vocals on the original recording. She later returned for a sublime rendition of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly with His Song." Jennifer Hartswick followed with a festive run through Aretha Franklin's "Rock Steady" and later cranked out Pat Benatar's "Heartbreaker."

Ann Wilson from Heart joined for Cream's "Politician" and her own classic rock staple "Barracuda." Everyone ultimately converged onstage to wrap up the set with Bob Marley's timeless anthem "Get Up, Stand Up." String Cheese's encore then fully embraced the outer space theme with a massive "Space Jam",  tucked into their own "Rollover," which included seven space-themed melodies from sci-fi classics including Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Suwannee Hulaween is a sprawling, complex, multi-sensory affair that takes several days to indulge in and several more to fully process. With seemingly endless amounts of world-class music in an exquisite and hypnotic environment, it's truly a remarkable experience. There's a perpetual vibe of friendliness and joy throughout the campgrounds and concert fields, awe-inspiring art to leave you agog, endless smiles, dazzling costumes, and boundless revelry. It was truly apt that String Cheese Incident's final encore was a cover of the Talking Heads' eternal "This Must be the Place."

- Paul Kerr

- Photos by Justin Barnett