Suwannee Hulaween 2016: Don’t It Make You Want to Dance (Photos)

Have you ever been dragged kicking and screaming to some event you were sure you didn’t want to attend? It happened to most of us in our formative years. And it happened to me again last weekend, when my mean, mean MusicFestNews compatriots compelled me to go to Suwannee Hulaween at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park.

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I don’t know what happened to you when you were a child, but I know what happened to me last weekend. I saw the magic. I heard the magic. I felt the magic. I experienced the magic.

Also, I experienced the dust, which was one of the few unfortunate side effects of it not raining for days.

I arrived Thursday to find that there were plenty of volunteers and workers available to process the slow but steady stream of festies rolling in early in the morning.

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THURSDAY

You can call it a pre-party if you want to, but Thursday was astounding. There were so many incredible performances (and I missed a few).

Music was scheduled to start at 1 PM, but we got music at noon: String Cheese soundcheck! It was amazing! The sound from the Meadow Stage was crystal clear on the far side of the Amphitheater, and they sounded great. That was a deluxe surprise.

Future Vintage
Future Vintage

Future Vintage saved their best-ever set to open the Hula festivities. The St. Petersburg jamtronic trio lit up the Campground Stage, which had the best sound all weekend long, thanks to Receptor Sound and Lighting. They played a bunch of their original tunes, closing with their knock-out version of the theme from Back to the Future.

Trae Pierce and the T-Stones had a set on the Spirit Lake Stage at the same time. They are a superb high-energy funk band and always deliver.

Trae Pierce & the T-Stones
Trae Pierce & the T-Stones

Marco Benevento had a brilliant set with that funky piano of his and great trio. His piano looks like a mini-player piano with all sorts of electronics, producing amazing sounds. His drummer and bass player were locked in with him. Much of the set featured music from his new album The Story of Fred Short, closing with “I Can’t See the Light” and “Follow the Arrow.” After that, he played his great cover of Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” then most recent single “At the Show” before closing with a faithful rendition of Bowie’s cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”

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Then Grant Farm had a wonderfully diverse set of… everything! The quartet purports to play roots rock, but there was so much going on. Led by Tyler Grant, they touched on country rock, some spectacular Hammond B3 playing from Kevin McHugh, Southern rock, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” and some excellent wah-wah guitar. They reminded me of the great band Eric Quincy Tate. The last tune was a heartfelt “Carry Me Home to Jesus (Ain’t That Good News?)”

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Unlimited Aspect, a trio from Colorado, gave us a solid EDM set, although there was more of what I call instrumental karaoke — playing on top of another artist’s song — than is usually of interest to me, but they had plenty of people dancing.

Con Brio really funked things up at the Amphitheater, with a male singer very much in the Prince mold and a great female singer as well. The band rocked the deep funk; the ballad-like tunes were less effective. “I’m Gonna Fly” was killer. It transitioned to another tune but roared back as “Are You Ready to Fly?” Patrick Glynn was magic on B3.

Entrance to Spirit Lake
Entrance to Spirit Lake

I caught the first two songs by Kyle Hollingsworth’s band in deference to the Hula host before heading elsewhere. The first tune, “Racer X,” was pure unadulterated funk, deep, deep funk! “Here We Go” was more in the SCI mold.

I ‘sprinted’ over to see Broccoli Samurai, who served up the best set of jamtronica I’ve ever seen from them (a recurring theme here). “Green Sauce” was in the set, and they featured an amazing adaption of Chick Corea’s “Spain” at some point. Guitarist Michael Vincent is forever throwing in great jazz quotes and channeling the likes of Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. They offered “Squadlive” (Lettuce) and a great Lotus cover.

EOTO and Friends
EOTO and Friends

We enjoyed the EOTO from Short-Cut Camp (right behind the Amphitheater) before checking out The Werks’ superb set. It was huge, to borrow a recently abused adjective. Dan Shaw was the B3 king for this set, which closed with “Frankenstein!”

Umphrey's McGee
Umphrey’s McGee

Umphrey’s McGee ripped two incredibly angular and metal-tinged sets. This was strong material. Set two highlighted “Let’s Dance” and featured a great “Ocean Billy,” completed during the encore. I would have bet money there was a “Roundabout” tease in there somewhere.

In between their sets, Fruition and The Heavy Pets played. Fruition’s high-octane bluegrass sounded great, but it was not what I needed at the moment. The Pets played an entertaining and very different — for them — set, with a fun cover of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”

Umphrey's McGee
Umphrey’s McGee

Greensky Bluegrass got into some deep pickin’ before I got into bed.

Face melted, mind blown.

Greensky Bluegrass
Greensky Bluegrass

No Silent Disco this time around. But I did have my eyes on Friday night’s lineup.

FRIDAY

At the Pre-Party, there were only three stages to contend with, all relatively close: Spirit Lake and Campground, along the same side of the lake, and the Amphitheater. And, for the first time, all three were inside the security area. A new passageway had been cleared near the Spirit Lake stage to the main vending area, Amphitheater, and the Meadow Stage. Not only that, but the passageway was the mouth of an inflatable Kraken!

The Kraken!
The Kraken!

The new kid on the block was the Patch Stage, over near VIP camping and horse camping. It was quite a schlepp from anywhere to there, but the trip usually offered great rewards.

With three stages, there was no way to see and hear everything, so the usual decisions came into play: see one band, ignore the other; or split time between stages.

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Kaleigh Baker and the Groove Orient got the day off to a magical start which included a great cover of “The World is a Ghetto” and “There’s a Bump in Every Road.” The Groove Orient also blasted “Hot Bandit Woman.” They looked great and sounded great working on the main stage (Meadow).

Kaleigh Baker
Kaleigh Baker

Mungion then killed with their funky fusion set, Chicago-style. I had planned to hit other stages but was riveted. “Let’s hear it for the banana!” was the call from the stage. Later, there was honky tonk rock swirled into the mix and huge funk as Nicholas Gerlach jumped in on tenor sax. They closed with an a cappella version of “Banana Man.”

Russo, Benevento and Burbridge played a stunning jazzy set jammed together. Think Cobham, Hancock and Pastorius. Benevento was at his jazzy best. There was an incredible spacey section at one point, then ridiculous clavinet and Oteil just ripping on bass. It reminded me what McCoy Tyner would sound like thoroughly plugged in. Damn!

I made my first (of only three) treks to the hinterlands of The Patch to see Post Pluto, the fine Pensacola quintet. That stage is huge, and the space was very large (except for Saturday night). They had a dynamic set.

Chris Littlefield and Karl Denson
Chris Littlefield and Karl Denson

Then I made the long walk back to the Amphitheater for Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. They were their normal incredible selves, funk so deep. They had Roosevelt Collier (and congratulations on a wonderful new son November 3!) on stage with them, ripping through their great cover of “Show Biz Kids.” They also played drummer Alan Evans’ (Soulive) tune “Have You Seen Him.”

DJ Williams with Karl Denson's Tiny Universe
DJ Williams with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe

Meanwhile, Electric Kif blew up an amazing fusion set at the Campground. There were platforms on either side of the stage, and for the rest of the weekend there were performance artists on both of them — poi twirlers, hoopers, and more, all with great costumes and/or body paint. Meanwhile, Kif was slamming heavy metal jazz and funk. Toward the end, Collier sat in with them, too.

That was the only time I made it to three performances during the same time slot. I kept telling myself, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Perhaps my brain was a tad, well, you know…

Sunsquabi
Sunsquabi

At Purple Hatter’s Ball, we heard a brilliant jamtronic set from Boulder’s  SunSquabi. This one was an even better chunk of their “electronic hydro funk.”

It was our first time hearing Gainesville’s Locochino, and they turned in a funky rock set. We dug “Make It Better.”

Things got downright ridiculous when Future Rock melted most of the faces still left. Their live EDM trance-dance music was magnificent.

Future Rock
Future Rock

Then it was Cheese time, and the boys knocked out a tremendous first set for a huge crowd of Hulaweeners, filling up the Meadow. They began with “So Far From Home” and kept rolling. Hollingsworth was superb on “Rhythm of the Road” and the following “Keep Rolling Jam.” The set highlight was “Lonesome Fiddle Blues.” WOW!

String Cheese Incident
String Cheese Incident

Then Umphrey’s did what only they can do at the Amphitheater, making the most of their short one-hour set, launching with an excellent “In the Kitchen.”

Ajeva delivered their best set ever (consensus vote). Skyler Golden was a monster on guitar, and the special set they had worked out for Hula was perfect, Jurassic Park theme, “Power Rangers,” “Mission Impossible” and all.

Umphrey's McGee
Umphrey’s McGee

Then it was time for more Cheese; this set began solidly but then blew the sky apart. After “It Is What It Is,” Michael Travis and Jason Hann had a spirited drum duel. After that, the set really picked up steam with a powerful “On the Road.” They hit a huge groove when Collier joined them, and they encored with “Johnny Cash.” Two sets down, five to go!

Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals then proceeded to blow more minds. There was no middle ground on this set. Some found it very much to their liking, others left early on. Many people thought it was the sleeper set of the festival. It started very strong.

Anderson .Paak
Anderson .Paak

I opted to check out The Fritz, and the Ashevillians tore it up (business as usual!). “A Better Way” sounded awesome after Jamar Woods played some wicked piano from his keyboard console. The “Purple Rain” encore featured some awesome guitar from Jamie Hendrickson.

Claude von Stroke threw down an amazing DJ set at the intersection of Acid Jazz and Deep House. Like, real deep.

My Morning Jacket
My Morning Jacket

This was my first My Morning Jacket show. My notes are useless. They played a simply superior set. Not sure what I was waiting for, and I won’t miss them again.

And the fun was JUST beginning! Quixotic combined mesmerizing music and mesmerizing dance. There were poi twirlers and others with fire apparati. Their bio says: “Quixotic is an innovative performance art collective that fuses imagination with technology, dance, projection mapping and live music to create fully-immersive, multi-sensory experiences.” The violin player was the only musician I saw; some of the music must have been recorded. And the Aerial Dragons were performing on their equipment to the left and right of the stage.

Quixotic. Photo courtesy of Bryan Edward
Quixotic. Photo courtesy of Bryan Edward

With a quick stage change, we got the late-night Bluegrass Surprise: the Jon Stickley Trio. They are so beyond incredible, each one a brilliant player. They had impressed so much at Springfest, and they were even more so in this (relatively) unusual slot. Lyndsay Pruett is incredible on violin, and Patrick Armitage powers everything on drums, twisting the sound this way and that. Most of the music played was from their upcoming release Triangular.

Aerial Dragons
Aerial Dragons

And, finally, it was time for the Brother vs. Brother showdown, the Battling Kulishevskiys! On Silent Disco Channel 1, Vlad the Inhaler; on Channel Two, Leo and Lava. Maybe the other way around. Vlad was spinning those trippy dance tracks. And Lava were playing trippy trip music, Leo on violin.

You call that one a WIN-WIN.

5 AM. Enough. For now.

SATURDAY

Saturday at Hulaween was another wonderful day, weather-wise and music-wise. Clear skies and daytime temperatures in the low 80s and nights near 60 made this a lovely environment, but the music was scorching hot the entire time.

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MZG got the dance party started early with a superb set including lots of brand new music. They had just completed their Road to Hula tour with Bells and Robes.

Then Come Back Alice played (get used to this phrase again) their best set ever — according to my standards. They unveiled some great new tunes, including “Digital Eye,” “Illusion of Time” and “Heavy.” And they invited Isaac Corbitt and Kenny Stadelman to join them for a nasty, nasty cover of Wet Willie’s “Greasy Hambone Blues.” Deep funk, rock and blues.

Come Back Alice
Come Back Alice

Larry Keel and Drew Emmit offered gorgeous pickin’ to open the Meadow stage for the day. The Galbraith Group, back to a trio, drew a nice crowd to hear their wicked blues-tinged rock [BSE]. This was a strong performance, gaining them lots of new fans.

Antibalas delivered an amazing set of Afrobeat and deep funk. It was a huge set, bass, vibes, tenor sax and so much more. A long take on “Toonstown” featured Roosevelt Collier for a hot, spicy jam. And they really knocked us out with Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me.”

Heather Gillis and Kyle Chervanik
Heather Gillis and Kyle Chervanik

The Heather Gillis Band also had an amazing set [BSE] of blues and rock. She has been on fire these past twelve months, and she really shines at SoSMP. She wasted no time, starting at “100 MPH” and never slowing down. Gillis does great justice to “I’m a Ram” and later invited Isaac Corbitt up.

Meanwhile, Snarky Puppy was… Snarky Puppy. There is nobody in their class. The field at The Patch was full, deservedly so. Michael League and company played new material and old favorites, so powerfully presented.

Bill Nershi and Kyle Hollingsworth
Bill Nershi and Kyle Hollingsworth

This was the night of three sets by String Cheese Incident, including the themed second set. The first set was excellent, “Restless Wind,” “Joyful Sound” and Jen Hartswick joining them for “I Wish.”

Washed OUt
Washed Out

Washed Out played good funk and soul at Spirit Lake, followed by Lettuce funking everything up at the Amphitheater. Because I had seen them recently, I opted for Montana’s Cure for the Common, making their second trip to SoSMP a joyous return with a fine set. They hit some many great themes, with “revolutionary” rock and roll, honky-tonk piano, a guest female vocalist, and Eastern-infused rock. Come back any time!

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The SCI themed set honored the ’80s. Let the setlist speak for itself (and most of these were segues from one tune to another):

[Stringier Things Intro, Would I Lie To You, Should I Stay Or Should I Go, Upside Down, She Blinded Me With Science, Let’s Groove Tonight, White Wedding, Stringier Things Interlude, Sweet Child O’ Mine, Love Shack, Stringier Things Interlude, Another One Bites The Dust, White Lines, The Safety Dance, Come On Eileen, Relax, Thriller, Never Gonna Give You Up, Don’t You Want Me, Group Hoot, Burning Down The House]

Here is video courtesy of Richie Williams, The Sober Goat:

The production value put into SCI themed sets at Hula are next to none at festivals of these size. We are talking everything from on-stage pyro to performers using buzz saws to fly sparks off of their bodies to GIANT inflatable Rubik’s Cubes, fireworks, and confetti, and even the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man of Ghostbusters fame made an appearance. We also got Rick Rolled. They took this ’80s theme to a whole new level, and it was a sight to behold.

Michael Kang and Bill Nershi
Michael Kang and Bill Nershi
String Cheese Incident
String Cheese Incident

The entire set featured vocalists Rhonda Thomas & Tony White and the Antibalas Horns (Martin Perna, Jas Walton, Jordan McLean, and Jeff Pierce).

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String Cheese Incident
String Cheese Incident

For my money, the third SCI set was their best so far (five down, two to go). They did EVERYTHING. Incredible. It began with “Colorado Blue Sky” and just kept getting more and more amazing. “Rivertrance” was great, and there was great synth funk during “Rubik’s Cube Jam” (with an “Axel F” tease). Michael Kang was on fire the entire set (all weekend), guitar and violin (fiddle, whatever) just blazing. After closing with “Colliding,” they encored appropriately with “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours).”

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Speaking of incredible, STS9 was astounding. Mesmerizing. I had not seen them in years and had to catch up on all that I had missed. It was a jazz jam, then jam rock, then funk jazz, then… well, you get the idea. This was the one occasion when the Patch was overloaded, simply not capable of handling the huge portion of the 20,000 in attendance who wanted to hear them.

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Going back to the Meadow was even weirder. There was a steady stream of people going from SCI’s third set to hear STS9. Coming back, however, it was a tsunami, because the pathway was narrow, and they were attempting to check everyone back in through security. A few people started mooing, then lots and lots more, cattle at the gate. They eventually relaxed the security some, and we made it out in time to hear the Disclosure DJ set, which was a magical dance party. It was deep, deep house, incredibly funky.

Disclosure DJ set
Disclosure DJ set

I still missed a dozen sets. The Larry Keel/Jon Stickley Guitar Freak-Out sounded great from our campsite near by.

SUNDAY

Suwannee Hulaween closed with a big bang on Sunday Funday, with 20 bands performing.

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Passafire opened the Amphitheater with rockin’ reggae and prog with a dancing crowd thoroughly entertained. Aaron Lebos Reality were shredding funky fusion. The trio had a hot set, Lebos in Jeff Beck mode. We really enjoyed “What Would Rick Riley Do?” and “Flux Capacitor.” And El Dub had his looper set at Spirit Lake.

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Of all the bands on the lineup, the one band I never want to miss is the Travelin’ McCourys. Seriously. They were brilliant once again. As I arrived, Ronnie McCoury was explaining that they had just recorded “Cumberland Blues” and were going to play another song from the session: “Loser!” (Garcia, not Beck). This group, with Cody Kilby in place of Del McCoury for the Travelin’ version, is a pickin’ delight. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was superb. I loved “Deeper Shade of Blue,” their vocals so wonderful. On the closing “Travelin’,” Ronnie’s son Heaven joined in on guitar.

The Motet
The Motet

I split the next hour, starting with a great throw-down from The Motet, first time hearing new vocalist Lyle Divinsky. “Back It Up” featured Joey Porter killing on keyboards, including a great Herbie trill. A new tune was next, with Gabe Mervine on amazing wah-wah trumpet. Porter and bassist Garrett Sayers went wild. I split as they blasted “Keep On Don’t Stoppin’.”

Savi Fernandez and Christian Ryan
Savi Fernandez and Christian Ryan

Back at the Campground, we got a tremendous set from Savi Fernandez Band with Kaleigh Baker, Roosevelt Collier and Isaac Corbitt guesting. Tommy Shugart (The Groove Orient) and Christian Ryan (Leisure Chief, Holy Miss Moley) joined Savi’s band for the entire set, which included “No Diggity” and an explosive version of “Skunk.”

Roosevelt Collier
Roosevelt Collier

Just never made it back to The Patch on Sunday. Meanwhile, Spiritual Rez got a big crowd on its feet at Spirit Lake.

String Cheese Incident played set number six, which began slowly but really picked up momentum with some great jams during “Born On the Wrong Planet,” “Rain” and “BollyMunster.”

Micahel Garrie and Juanjamon of the Juanjamon Band
Micahel Garrie and Juanjamon of the Juanjamon Band

The Juanjamon Band blew up the campground with ridiculous funk. After “Meesta Juanjamon,” they destroyed “Knockin’ Boots > Booty.” They closed the great set with Isaac Corbitt guesting on “All I Need Is My Baby.”

Michael Kang and Jason Hann
Michael Kang and Jason Hann

Then time for the last Cheese of Hula, a wonderful closing set. They began with “How Mountain Girls Can Love” and “Shady Grove” with Bill Nershi sounding great. Kang played a world of fiddle on “Bumpin’ Reel,” and I went wild when Joey Porter (The Motet) and Dominic Lalli (Big Gigantic) tore up “Freedom Jazz Dance!” And they closed with “Beautiful,” the perfect statement for the weekend.

Les Claypool
Les Claypool
Sean Lennon
Sean Lennon

I split the next hour between the Claypool Lennon Delirium, very diverse set including a cover of “The Court of the Crimson King,” and Bells and Robes with great new dance tracks. I had been at this since Thursday morning, and I was done. Baked. Almost.

Big Gigantic
Big Gigantic

Finally (phew!) Big Gigantic featuring the Motet had the last dance word on the Meadow stage. They were all dressed in white and had a huge throwdown. Joey Porter made great use of his talkbox. 

The Motet horns with Big Gigantic
The Motet horns with Big Gigantic

Twiddle sounded superb on the Spirit Lake Stage, but my energy was gone. It was a great, lively set with lots of great piano from Ryan Dempsey, and the place was packed. I had anticipated the place to empty out some for Sunday night, but it certainly didn’t seem that way given the number of people at the Meadow Stage and at Spirit Lake.

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And that was just the music. The art installations at Spirit Lake were incredible, from the great audio-visual project by Because of the Lotus to the enormous metal elephant and… words are inadequate. I’ll just let our gallery from the weekend do the talking there.

Because of the Lotus
Because of the Lotus
Morph Mobile installation
Morph Mobile installation

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And there was more: yoga, healing, hooping, drumming, meditation, acroplay, a plant walk and so much more.

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I won’t be kicking and screaming next time!

Happy Hulaween, everyone!