For the fifth consecutive year, Suwannee Hulaween provided a resounding exclamation point to festival season with its biggest and boldest event yet. Located in the sleepy, swampy confines of Live Oak in Central Florida, Spirit of Suwannee Music Park remains a humbling hostess, a stunningly beautiful venue, dotted by towering oaks dripping with Spanish moss, and a river called Suwannee that runs through it. Never in this park’s storied history has a festival completely sold out, yet this year’s Hulaween achieved that status two weeks before the event began. Twenty thousand tickets were sold and nearly 6,000 more staff and performers attended, so the music park was packed with people, yet superior infrastructure and geographical design allowed for what felt like a roomy, intimate gathering.
The four-day affair, a partnership between Florida’s Purple Hat Productions and Chicago’s Silver Wrapper, in concert with host band The String Cheese Incident (SCI), has revolutionized the festival experience for the Southeastern United States. Following in the bold footsteps of West Coast transformational trendsetters like Lightning in a Bottle and Symbiosis Gathering, the production, sound engineering, and organization of the various stages (specifically the magnificent Spirit Lake and the peerless Amphitheater) were again so very impressive. The performance artists and healing arts, the eye-popping visual stimulations and installations, the architecture; top to bottom, Hulaween 2017 earned an A+. These folks know how to throw a party in the woods.
Suwannee Hulaween is in its purest essence a jam band music festival, as SCI plays eight sets over three days every year. This edition was particularly potent for jam band fans of all stripes, shapes and sizes. Beyond the hosts’ marathon sessions, and their celebrated “Night of the Loving Dead” Halloween theme set, jammers were treated to fiery performances from the likes of Chicago prog-champs Umphrey’s McGee, Philly jamtronica pioneers The Disco Biscuits, Arizona-based buzz-band Spafford, burgeoning superstars Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, porch pickin’ phenoms Greensky Bluegrass, and regional kings The Heavy Pets, among others.
On the other side of the spectrum, if herculean bass music is your fancy, headliner Bassnectar put on an audiovisual spectacle unlike any this music park had ever seen. In between that polarity, some of the finest contemporary music across a plethora of genres (and some who resist categorization completely) was available nearly around the clock. For this particular review, I chose to focus on performers other than the headliners, or the jam bands. There is a great deal of Hulaween coverage in both of those wildly popular arenas, so instead we shall focus on the small-font artists, who quite often carry the biggest mojo at Suwannee Hulaween.
The Nth Power & Friends, Bob Marley Tribute (Friday at the Amphitheater Stage)
Few bands approach a tribute with the respectful authority of The Nth Power; for Hulaween the group assembled an all-star squad for its homage to Bob Marley. Under Friday afternoon’s blazing sun, Nikki Glaspie, Nicky Cake Cassarino, and Nate Edgar powered an affair that will not soon be forgotten. Ably assisted by a murderer’s row that included Nth collaborator Courtney J’Mell Smith, guitarist/professor in Pan-African music Raja Kassis (Antibalas, The Wahala Boys), criminally unheralded organ maestro Rob Marscher (Jennifer Hartswick Band), and the gospelized vocal stylings of Erin Boyd (Phantom Vanity) and Bay Area vixen Viveca Hawkins, The Nth Power and Friends did Bob Marley proud and proper. The messages encoded within the timeless catalog are as potent in 2017 as they were in 1977, and this conglomerate set out to represent the Tuffest Gong of them all with reverence and intention.
Coming out the gates with controlled fury on the arresting “Rebel Music,” bassist Edgar and drummer Glaspie held down the riddims with militant precision and a yardie swagger; Nikki bashed the skins clad in a Kevlar vest and wearing her serious scowl. Classic psalms such as “400 Years,” “Them Belly Full,” and “Rat Race” were revitalized for the new millennium. The emotional quotient ran heavy through the crowd on “Zimbabwe.” Dutty dynamics and the patented one-drop were on display throughout the hour, a freewheeling session at once well-rehearsed, and fully surrendered in the moment. Cassarino embodied the voice of Nesta so fully that the venerable R&B frontman was transformed by the sheer power of this music. A tremendous trilogy brought both the house down and the people home, in the form of the iconic “Get Up Stand Up,” the foreboding “No More Trouble,” and ever appropriate “War,” the last song’s lyrics culled from a speech given long, long ago by the Emperor Haile Selassie, words that remain ingrained in the hearts and minds of all who had assembled.
Russ Liquid Test (Friday at Spirit Lake Stage)
Video by John Ra
A powerhouse dance music trio hailing from New Orleans, Russ Liquid Test made its Spirit of Suwannee Music Park debut earlier this year at Purple Hatters Ball. At Hulaween the band showed and proved just why it’s the talk of the proverbial town. Namesake producer and trumpet virtuoso Russ Liquid led his team onto the Spirit Lake Stage, and took absolutely zero prisoners with a set of bulbous, synth-drenched, hard-driving grooves. Flanked by guitarist and Suwannee prodigal son Andrew Block and NOLA badass Devon Trusclair on drums, Russ tore through a series of diverse original numbers from the 1984 EP, as well as reworked deep cuts and unreleased material, all injected with his trademark aggressive aplomb.
In 2017, many electronic producers are performing with live bands. However, I have yet to witness a group that is so entirely enveloped inside of the live element. The energy emanating from the raucous stage was as much Punk in Drublic as it was EDM, as Block did the unthinkable: stage diving into the swirling dervish, the guitarist crowd-surfed his way back to the sonic madness (a Spirit Lake first as far as I can remember). Late into the performance, Russ Liquid Test welcomed ubiquitous Denver emcee Jubee (who also performed with Michal Menert and the Pretty Fantastics, Jaden Carlson Band, and Manic Focus) for more shenanigans; soon thereafter Luke Quaranta (Toubab Krewe, The Wahala Boys) on percussion, and Andriu Yanovski on keyboards joined. The now-swollen troupe pulverized with a ten-ton hammer, and by the time Russ Liquid had reached his destination, the exam results were crystal clear: This here is a band that is not to be tested.
Lettuce (Friday at the Amphitheater Stage)
Video by FunkCity.net
Dating back to the halcyon days of Bear Creek, no band is more synonymous with the spirits of the Suwannee River than genre-defying Lettuce. A vibe institution, the krewe calls the otherworldly Amphitheater Stage its home away from home, and for the third consecutive Hulaween, it descended from the mothership to rule the roost with an iron fist. Friday night, just before midnight, Hulaween’s managing partner (and Bear Creek svengali) Paul Levine delivered yet another poignant introduction to the baddest band in the land, noting the first-ever Suwannee sellout and the band’s vital role in both this community and this venue’s ascension. Lettuce responded to Levine in kind, and rose to the “Mt. Crushmore” occasion with yet another bubonic power hour for the books.
Lettuce celebrated guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff’s birthday by reaching deep into the band’s songbook for the slinky “Blast Off,” a toast to the District on “LETT it GoGo,” and the Suwannee family favorite “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Drummer wunderkind Adam Deitch and his trusty squadron of nearly twenty five years showed Hula just why this stage is their preferred throne. For the past decade, this band returns to this park annually to unveil new music, and this performance would be no different.
Midway through the set, the band rolled out its first ever, four-on-the-floor housequake, and within that jam slipped a mouth-watering flip of the underground classic “Superstar Pt. 0” (K-OS). To close out their gargantuan show, the boys uncorked a massive, unreleased (and still-untitled) trap anthem, the Shady Horns soaring atop a crucial Jesus Coomes bassline – another joint that sounds nothing like anything else found in their magnificent canon. Instead of playing it safe or ringing a familiar alarm, Lettuce did what they do best: fearlessly and ferociously leading the charge on the never-ending search for new land. Welcome to the house that Deitch built.
The Benevento Russo Duo (Sunday at the Amphitheater Stage)
Video courtesy of REX-A-VISION for Live for Live Music
By the time the Benevento Russo Duo took the Amphitheater Stage, both members had already performed several times at Hulaween 2017. Thursday’s “pre-party” featured two mind-bending sets from Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, which finds the namesake drummer and the keyboard wizard in a quintet that reimagines the mighty Grateful Dead songbook. Marco Benevento also played with his idiosyncratic, eponymous indie-rock trio on the sprawling grounds of The Patch on Friday afternoon. However, a strong contingent was merely holding its collective breath, waiting for the Duo to return to Spirit of Suwannee Music Park for the first time since 2009. Although childhood homies from North Jersey, their project has laid dormant for some time while the guys doggedly chase other musical passions.
From the tiny-ass tap bar at Manhattan’s now-defunct Knitting Factory at the dawn of the new millennium, the Duo’s legend first took shape; from all appearances at the hallowed Amphitheater, their moxie remains alive and well. Mixing in selections from their seminal releases Darts and Best Reason to Buy the Sun, Marco and Joe took the people on a magic carpet ride to yesteryear, revisiting a myriad of gloriously beautiful melodies and wig-splitting grooves that first won our hearts so many moons ago. The cherry-on-top was a quixotic sit-in from none other than Mike Gordon, bassist of scene stalwarts Phish, who performed with his own solo band on the same stage earlier in the afternoon. The Trio (or the Duo plus Cactus) chose the appropriately spasmodic “Scratchiti” to explore as they reunited for the first time in over a decade, the glitchy jazz-hop a perfect backdrop for these old collaborators to become reacquainted.
Dimond Saints (Saturday at Spirit Lake Stage)
Video by Josh LeRoy
Comprised of veteran Bay Area producer an-ten-nae and Releece, macabre mavens Dimond Saints drew a short straw, slotted against SCI’s Halloween-themed set on Saturday night. Yet it would only serve to motivate them to hustle harder and plunge further, way down into a Cimmerian cauldron. The Dimond demons are the antithesis of most electronic music found on this festival’s program, as channeling the occult – and then marrying it to obscure indie stylings – is decidedly not the Hula norm. To that point, an enormous crowd at Spirit Lake turned out and turned up for some future moon muzik. Dimond Saints trafficked in gothic minimalism and aural eroticism for a caliginous séance unlike anything these towering oak trees had ever born witness to previously.
Over sixty salacious minutes, the Saints (along with auxiliary member Matthew Silberman on MIDI flute/EWI and saxophone) tunneled sixty thousand leagues deep into the abyss. Mining luminescent gems from the transcendental debut LP Prism in the Dark, obtuse companion EP Shadows, and the soon-to-be-released Shingetsu III, they paired engaging original material alongside empyrean remixes from the likes of Lorde (Everybody Wants to Rule the World), Gorillaz (All My Life), Layla (Smokestacks), and Kendrick Lamar (DNA).
Hulaween’s particular slice of festival culture is born of Grateful Dead genetics and a jamband aesthetic; improvisation is a core tenet of this origin. Inspired as such, the Saints took the stage sans script, and let the vibe take the wheel, careening in and out of songs and samples, inverting things so often The Disco Biscuits would be proud. I’m not sure the trio could re-create this set note-for-note if they tried. This was a live and direct, fully improvised, and a downright harrowing display of the avant-garde in dynamic, downtempo gothtronica. It was a mystical Spirit Lake serenade, an orchid levitating in full bloom.
Run The Jewels (Saturday at the Amphitheater Stage)
Video by Cosmo Surfing
One of the most buzzed-about artists in the run-up to Hulaween 2017 was the politically woke indie-rap duo Run The Jewels (RTJ), appropriately slotted last on the Amphitheater Saturday. Taking the stage to Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” RTJ wasted no time pouring gasoline on a moonlit inferno. Their sizzling brand of full-force, industrialized bangers went over hard and heavy to thousands of jewel runners, in this case throngs of hootin’ and hollerin’ Hulaginz. Setting things off with the manifesto-esque “Talk to Me,” it became instantaneously clear that El Producto and Killer Mike would not sacrifice a bit of aggression or sardonic wit when performing to this particular audience. From “36 Chain,” to “Stay Gold,” to “Don’t Get Captured,” the group did a marvelous job of harnessing the crowd’s spastic energy, as the emcees accompanied flows and passed the rhymes. The DJ Shadow cover “Nobody Speak” was a nod to the underground past, while “Close Your Eyes (and Count to FUCK)” threatened to levy the entire amphitheater in a cloud of sonic boom.
In the middle of a cacophonic concert addressing police brutality and celebrating love in all its forms, the music ground to halt, and they proceeded to address the scourge of sexual assaults that have been steadily and publicly uncovered in recent weeks. RTJ continued the dialogue for those who might have been living under a rock; El-P and Killer Mike let everybody know that unwarranted touching is not ever kosher, and encouraged those who witness such behavior to stop any offending parties. After that well-received PSA, Run the Jewels delivered a series of knockout blows in “A Report to Shareholders,” “Thursday in the Danger Room,” and titanic set-closer “Down.” Each year at Suwannee Hulaween, the Amphitheater Stage hosts one shape-shifting set that soars above the others, and becomes an instant classic; in 2015 it was Odesza, last year Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals. Run The Jewels was the undisputed champions of 2017 and let everybody know one thing for certain: They’ll keep on fighting until the very bitter end.
MZG (Late Saturday in the Silent Disco)
MZG stands for monozygotic, and twins Zach and Charles Weinert are no strangers to the Suwannee River. The area music community has enjoyed watching the brothers’ meteoric rise from boys to men, rocking nearly every possible stage in the park through the years, in a variety of combinations. It’s been nothing short of a joy to witness them make their bones in the scene, and Hulaween 2017 was a coronation of sorts for Sir Charles and Zach the Blak. Florida fans are not the only peeps paying attention to these terrific twinzies, as a pair of major Hulaween artists recruited MZG for pop-up sets far off the beaten path. Old friend Space Jesus invited them to the Incendia fire domes for a Sunday night thump-sesh that was smooth as ranch dressing, while festival headliner GRiZ linked with MZG in the campgrounds for an exclusive b2b set, a true renegade rage.
In a stroke of creative genius, the fellas dressed up for Halloween as Super Saiyans Goku and Vegeta, from the classic anime series “Dragon Ball Z.” At 3 am on Saturday night, the costumed siblings played to a capacity crowd at the Silent Disco, as heads spilled out from the dance floor area into the Spirit Lake ether, fans sharing headphones and smitten squeals alike. The boys dropped everything from grown-n-sexy takes on Mary J. Blige and Ciara, to sultry slow-house, to behemoth bass tomb rattlers; at one point they detonated the entire system and the Silent Disco was forced to reboot. A choice mash-up of System of a Down’s “Toxicity” and Future’s “Mask Off” sent the overflowing audience into a tizzy, while a crunkalogic rework of Santana’s “Oye Como Va” went absolutely legend, just as the clock struck four in the morning. By the time the festival was over, MZG had made their case and their mark. These bodacious brothers are indeed ready for the big time.
TOKiMONSTA (Sunday at Spirit Lake Stage)
Video by Charles Pinto
TOKiMONSTA has reemerged in the dance music scene after a tumultuous time in her life; she is recovering from two brain surgeries for a rare disorder called Moyamoya, with which she was diagnosed in 2015. The disease left her at times unable to speak or understand language, and she was often unable to create music, so she pretty much went silent for a period of time during and after the procedures. TOKiMONSTA, government name Jennifer Lee, has a background as a classically trained pianist, so she was able to painstakingly re-learn music and her craft. As evidenced by her sensational DJ set at Suwannee Hulaween, she still exhibits incredible technical savvy on the decks.
Shepherding a massive crowd through a thunderous journey in electro-house and titanic bass, TOKi was animated and emotional as she steered the vessel through torrid tunnels and over bombastic bridges. Lee prompted a humongous eruption with Shiba San’s “Okay” and Valentino Khan’s libidinous “Deep Down Low,” then laced up luscious jams like “Krush Groove” (Wax Motif) and a choice remix from NGHTMRE. TOKiMONSTA didn’t eschew any low-end theory as she steadied her ship homeward bound, a riotous run included Drake and Future’s “Jumpman,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and “Humble,” her own “Put it Down” featuring Anderson .Paak, among other contemporary hip-hop edits. Rest assured, this genre-leaping selecta has rebounded from personal adversity in deafening artistic fashion.
Amphitheater Stage: Manic Focus, FKJ, Mike Gordon Band, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Portugal. The Man
Spirit Lake Stage: Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Destructo, Shiba San, Claude Von Stroke
Meadow Stage: Kamasi Washington, Damian Marley, GRiZ
Patch: Beats Antique, The Polish Ambassador, Lotus
Campground Stage: Here Come the Mummies, Voodoo Visionary
Silent Disco: DJ Shotgun (all vinyl hip-hop), Hikuri Roots (world house)