header photo: Aaron Bradley
Throwing a festival in this day and age is even more of an ambitious, frustrating, and confounding undertaking than it ever was before the age of pandemic. Consider that Suwannee Hulaween is hosted in Florida—an epicenter of the culture war with deep social and political divides on issues of the day—which meant that the situation with testing and vaccines threatened to become a conundrum before the festival even began. State of the union, I suppose, but still, there was an ominous energy in the run up to the event that troubled me, and I know I was not alone in those concerns. The fact that Suwannee Hulaween 2021 even happened at all was a miracle in itself, yet somehow the fest managed to manifest something as magical as ever.
Allow me to report that almost none of that kind of negativity was present at the event altogether. After a torrential rain soaked the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park on Thursday, October 28th, the entire festival and its imbibed inhabitants were thoroughly rinsed of any preconceived drama, fears, or default-world concerns. People were unabashedly stoked to be back at the glorious music park, and it felt like just about everybody surrendered to the phantasmagorical flow that so defines the Suwannee Hulaween experience.
Something about the esoteric environs dripping in organically psychedelic Spanish moss, the towering, defiant live oak trees that envelop us within the dank swampy confines, the divinity and mystery of the Suwannee River, its fertile soil for transcendence and transformation, for healing and community, for dancing and revelation, inspiration and collective vibration—of course it would be on these sacred grounds that societal walls of illusion would crumble at the gates, and the people would indeed roam foot-loose and fancy-free once again.
This iteration of Hula seemed to be an evolution of sorts, a collective leveling-up in ways both subtle and substantial. 2021 saw many more people of color attending the festival, and it seemed the LGBTQ community was present, prouder, and more vibrant than ever. There were open displays of love and affection for and from all humans; for the first time in a long time, feelings of togetherness were fostered in earnest.
Then, of course, there was the fantasy world of big art, LARP-horror, fire dancing, occult temples, grim reapers, and psychedelic projection mapping mania at the inimitable Spirit Lake, which reignited the ensorcelled landscape with a gluttony of eye-popping grandeur. Frick Frack Blackjack returned with a larger casino than ever before, packed to the gills with gregarious gamblers from open to close for four consecutive disco nights. The educational/inspirational programming at the Oasis Tent was an essential element to this year’s Hula elixir. Suwannee Hulaween continues to diversify its offerings while maintaining the original visions and mission.
[Photo: Bryan Edward – Oasis Tent]
I’d like to thank The String Cheese Incident for hosting this event every year, for sharing their abundance with the culture by opening up their festival to the plethora of wonderful, eclectic scenes, styles, genres and communities that populate Suwannee Hulaween. This year’s event had to be especially difficult for SCI given the sudden passing of their longtime manager, agent, and dear friend, Jesse Aratow, a partner in industry giant Madison House, on Friday. String Cheese soldiered onward nonetheless, playing six sets of music across three days at Hulaween, including their annual Halloween set on Saturday night. So before we get into some of my favorite music of this incredible weekend, I wanted to acknowledge the seismic loss of a beloved, original SCI team member, and the dignity and grace with which their entire organization moved through their grief during this festival, onstage and off.
[Photo: Keith Griner – The String Cheese Incident]
I found the amount of incredible female performers on the bill this year very inspiring. The gospelized funk n’ soul sounds of West End Blend, fronted by the sizzling Erica Bryan, wowed on the Hallows stage right after Raquel Rodriguez scorched the Meadow. The fiery blues-rock electricity from Celisse (Ghosts of the Forest) stunned those assembled Saturday at Spirit Lake, channeling Sister Rosetta Tharpe while ably assisted by another Trey Anastasio associate, TAB bassist Dezron Douglas. Duval County DJ Booty Boo forwarded blistering techno in the midday sun at Spirit Lake, award-winning NOLA firebrands Tank and the Bangas battled sound issues to tear the club up on the Hallows. On Sunday afternoon, Maggie Rose performed on the Hallows to kick off the final day, VEIL went b2b on the decks with NotLö, while Tire Fire tore down the Campground Stage a couple of hours later. And that’s merely the tip of the iceberg; women across all genres were better represented on Hulaween stages in 2021 than in years past. Progress.
[Photo: Keith Griner – Celisse]
Renegade sets were once again thriving throughout the weekend, starting with a “sanctioned” after hours shindig at the now-legendary Incendia fire domes tucked inside of Spirit Lake. Late Friday night, Skrillex, Bonobo, and Chris Lake went b2b2b well into the night, an instant classic collaboration that was the talk of the festival the next day. Veterans of SOSMP like Camp Funky Love hosted live music late nights per usual, and we caught burgeoning Atlanta band Funk You doing Tower of Power‘s “What is Hip?” at some random camp in the wee hours.
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Personally, I loved the Burner-style sound camps found thumping deep into the woods, an unofficial tradition like none other. This year, it was longtime Hula vets Minglewood who held us down in our neighborhood, nestled back in the Bird Sanctuary just past the famed Bathouse. On two consecutive nights, we stumbled upon Hwoofer putting in work on the decks at the sprawling Minglewood hang, the big man steadily rinsing only the deepest, darkest, finest, and most atmospheric dubs, mostly minimalist dubstep of 15-ish year vintage from across the pond—the perfect aural and vibrational landing gear after a full day of feverish festival-ing. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the good folks at Camp Reddit, which again threw the best late-night renegade ragers, always under the stewardship of Chris P. and the Brainquility fam. This year, they hosted the likes of MZG, Yesmann (Craig Brodhead, formerly of Turkuaz), Futurejoy, Sidetrakd, among local Florida favorites. Camp Reddit was most certainly ground zero for after-hours dance parties with high-end sound, and the inevitable shenanigans that followed.
There must be some attention paid to the waste/garbage situation across the festival grounds. The amount of trash strewn about was horrifying and unacceptable. How can fans have such transformative experiences in this music park, and then leave refuse in every direction as far as they eye can see? To many of us, this is at once mind-boggling and infuriating. Walking away from a stage blissed-out from a performance, or strolling home at dawn and taking in the grandeur of this picturesque place, only for it to be defaced by mountains of litter doesn’t just harsh the vibe, it’s nothing short of demoralizing. Festival-goers need to do much better. So do the festival and music park staff, with regard to collecting the receptacles in a timely, efficient manner. Large piles of garbage billowed out of cans and onto the ground all over the place all weekend long. This was pretty much the only real downer of the entire experience, but it is more than worth noting, it is essential to fix.
Friday afternoon for our krewe began with a thought-provoking, emotionally resonant workshop from (unofficial) SOSMP poet laureate/ambassador Scott T. In the cozy confines of the Oasis tent, about two dozen lucky souls were treated to an enlightening exchange of ideas, a talk that masqueraded as a history lesson on the majestic environs of the Spirit of the Suwannnee but wound up revealing something even deeper and far more profound. Scott took us back hundreds of years, riding rapids down the roaring Suwannee River, careening through the stoic live oak trees as we wove our way through the musical and spiritual history, all of it bowed in humbled awe of this incredible park. After enjoying this beautiful place for so many years, I cannot stress how special it was to get so much further connected to the land, it’s lineage and legacy.
Later that day, the always-informative and inspirational Mitchell Gomez from the ever-essential DanceSafe also spoke in the Oasis tent. This right here is the kind of programming that adds an intangible value and consciousness to the festival experience, and I would like to both encourage the powers that be to facilitate more of this kind of thing and thank those behind the Oasis tent for bringing these experiences to the good people of Suwannee Hulaween.
There were so many super-solid sets this year it’s difficult to know where to begin to dive in. Friday saw the return of Dumpstaphunk, this year on the Meadow Stage, who delivered their clinic in greasy NOLA-funk and R&B grooves. Fellow Crescent City champion Russell Batiste also returned to SOSMP, the drummer/bandleader playing a spirited set to a small crowd on the Hallows immediately after Dumpsta, highlighted by a spellbinding run through Sade’s timeless “Keep Looking”. Durand Jones & the Indications, dressed as an all-star baseball team during the World Series, included the wonderful contributions of percussionist/vocalist Mayteana Morales. They unleashed a mesmerizing cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ethereal “Dreams” towards the end of their set on the Hallows stage Saturday night.
Mark Farina dropped a diverse smattering of housequakes while warming up the Spirit Lake stage for DirtyBird main man Claude Van Stroke, while My Morning Jacket uncorked two hours of monumental rock n’ roll bombast on the Meadow Stage well into Saturday night. Electro hip-hop was back in a big way, as Hula mainstay Manic Focus brought the live instrumentation to pack the Amphitheater Stage. Atlanta’s wildly popular producer Daily Bread mined more of that same electronic boom-bap vibe with special guest drummer Adam Deitch for an extended stretch.
The Silent Disco saw DJs bump beats deep into the night on Friday and Saturday; Toubab Trio serenaded a cavalcade of acrobatic fire dancers in the middle of Spirit Lake. Florida live rap crew GoldenEra rocked the Campground Stage, as did Joe Marcinek Band with some help from String Cheese’s Jason Hann. Atlanta’s JGBCB released a crescent moon of mid-’70s Jerry Garcia Band into the ether as the sun set on the Lord’s Day, captained by the locked-in Legion of Mary tone from guitarist Jonathan Brill. Later that day, Jungle turned the Hallows into a Sunday evening dance machine with their sexy brand of soulful boogie. Roosevelt Collier, the minister of the Suwannee River, brought us home proper to shut down Spirit Lake that night.
[Photo: Keith Griner – My Morning Jacket]
This year’s Hula event blessed us up with numerous enjoyable sets across all stages, but were I to explore them all in detail, this feature would go on far too long. My report is exhaustive as it is, so please enjoy this unpacking of a dozen favorite/memorable performances of Suwannee Hulaween 2021.
Booked at 5pm on Thursday at the supernatural Spirit Lake stage, torrential rains and associated delays forced lespecial to hit the stage an hour later, but the early hiccup was a gift to many of us festival-goers just arriving and getting (re)acquainted. Despite the daylight and the deluge, the idiosyncratic Connecticut trio brought out die-hards in droves, and boy did they ever deliver the goods. Mixing up selections from their masterful 2020 LP Ancient Homies that delivered thunderously-heavy riffage and tectonic rhythms galore, lespecial juxtaposed their unrepentant savagery with dreamy shoe-gaze, polyrhythmic carpet rides, and diabolical drum n’ bass detours galore.
Kris Myers of Umphrey’s McGee sat in on percussion for a jam, while his bandmates mixed it up with the gen-pop at front of house; clearly, this was a band that needed to be experienced, not merely watched from the wings. The three amigos (bassist Luke Bemand, guitarist Jon Grusauskas, and drummer Rory Dolan) dealt smart nods to Rage Against the Machine, Phil Collins, and even got their Dave Tipper on a time or two. A scorching, sledgehammer power hour to kick things off for Hula 2021, one can only hope they’re back again next year on this same stage—but ideally, scheduled for a much later rage. This music is intended to be transmitted on a nocturnal frequency.
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The latest—and possibly greatest—incarnation of Break Science took over on Spirit Lake stage following lespecial, headed up by SOSMP vets Borahm Lee (keys/samples) and Adam Deitch (drums). The fantastic foursome included new additions Eric “Benny” Bloom (Lettuce) on trumpet and Denver-based bassist Hunter Roberts. The boys came off the top rope from jumpstreet with a trifecta of old school chestnuts in “Vibe Walk”, “Once in a While”, and a leviathan “Looking Through the Hourglass”. This updated squadron dropped the science of the breaks for the duration, sprinkling a few golden-age hip-hop nuggets along the way.
This lineup boasts a more bulbous and dynamic sound design, buoyed by the kinetic connection in the rhythm section between Deitch and Roberts, who have collaborated quite a bit over the past couple of years. Another element on display was more Borahm Lee keyboards in the mix, creating organic textures and layers on Rhodes and synths and spotlighting his own virtuoso. Bloom was a lightning rod on the horn, “YUNG BENJ” digging deep for baroscopic soundscapes and vintage trumpet melodies. The sum of these parts was an exhilarating performance that basked in the band’s history, while opening up new dimensions on the sonic horizon.
[Photo: Collin Taylor/Live Edits Lab – Break Science]
Raquel Rodriguez was the first act on the main Meadow Stage on Friday afternoon, and the L.A.-based singer brought a tight backing band and her own scintillating style. Mid-tempo grooves with heaping slabs of R&B smooth, Rodriguez showed out to a slight-but-vibrant audience that danced in the midday sun. Fans may remember her working with Break Science, or recording/performing with Nigel Hall’s various solo projects over the years. Hall would return the favor at Hula, sitting in for the entire set on a second keyboard on the stage left wing, singing some backup vocals, to boot. Sam Brawner was holding things down on the drum kit, and the singer worked her way through several songs found on her latest album, Sweet Side. Fantastic first sounds of the day, lots of soulful, funky jams and Quiet Storm moments peppered throughout the performance.
Longtime Jacksonville-based jamtronica favorites Greenhouse Lounge made a triumphant return to SOSMP after several years spent inactive. Not unlike Break Science, GHL have retooled the lineup but maintained their sonic DNA and a pair of founding members in bassist Dave McSweeney and drummer Jason Hunnicut. The group’s potent performance on the Campground Stage Friday night pulled a very large crowd for that area, one that was loud and engaged throughout GHL’s fiery set. They matched classic originals like “Koto ” and “Slow Drip” with tight covers from The Time (“Get it Up > 777-9311”) and The Notorious B.I.G. (“Big Poppa”).
[Photo: Bryan Edward – Greenhouse Lounge]
Meanwhile, the debut festival performance for the brand-new Krasno & the Assembly was underway on the Spirit Lake stage just a football field away from GHL. Guitar icon Eric Krasno (Soulive), a beloved Suwannnee lifer himself, put together this fresh contingent of players during the past couple of years he’s been living in Los Angeles. The Assembly includes keyboard wizard Wil Blades (AD4), Bay Area-based, all-world musician/producer Otis McDonald on the bass, drummer Curtis Kelly, and second guitarist James VIII. The group unveiled a soulful sound rich in harmonies via both vocals and guitars, and we were treated to a flashback of sorts when Nigel Hall took the stage to revisit the Chapter 2 era with “Leave Me Alone”.
Kraz and crew revealed their latest work like “Silence”, and revisited his classic Derek Trucks collaboration, “Curse Lifter”. He took things from bluesy to the Beatles, Jimi to jammin’, and numerous points between. Krasno’s axe tones were mint and his stage presence was veteran. It will be exciting to see where this project goes once the new LP (a long-labored collab with McDonald) is released in the coming months; I can attest that the new joints sounded lush in the live setting.
Future-funk squadron Lettuce has an iconic legacy at the Spirit of the Suwannee dating back to Bear Creek’s storied run on these sacred grounds, as well as Purple Hatters Ball, Suwannee Rising, and other oddball hits around the music park over the past dozen years. For their triumphant return to the Amphitheater Stage, the boys hopped in the wayback machine with original members Eric Krasno (guitar) and Sam Kinninger (saxophone). Leaning heavily on their earliest material found on debut album Outta Here, 2003’s Live in Tokyo, and sophomore scorcher RAGE, songs that first set the Amp stage ablaze many moons ago. Lettuce treated their loyal massive to a page torn out of the book of yesteryear. Saxophonist Ryan Zoidis was unavailable for this show, so longtime OG Sammy K flew in to save the day, and it was nothing short of a heart-filling joy to see Krasno and Kinninger back up at the Amp with the squad.
LETT was a bit looser than usual, but also slid back into a familiar zone for the space we were in that special evening. Highlights included a juicy “Reunion” with a pocket fit for a pair of JNCO’s, a tight-as-nails run through “The Flu”, and an effervescent “Breakout > Relax” with the glorious duel-axe attack from Kraz and Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff. A high-energy take on Bear Creek theme song “Move on Up” included Nigel Hall running through Maze’s “Happy Feelings”. A positively crunkadelic stomp through a truncated “Makin My Way” and a slammin’ “Sam Huff’s Flyin’ Raging Machine” both reminded folks of where it all began ’round here while introducing a new generation to the Royal Family’s furious styles.
Detonated well into the set, the most transcendent part of Lettuce’s two-hour tour de force was a deep dive into the J Dilla tribute, “Mr. Yancey”, found on 2008’s RAGE, the jam vehicle that first gave this band their psychedelic wings. The Yancey reading on this evening was subaqueous and translucid; bassist Jesus Coomes led the way into the depths, really the only time they flirted with the lysergic elements that often define their contemporary sound.
[Photo: Aaron Bradley – Lettuce]
Chicago’s white-hot soulman Neal Francis took over the Spirit Lake Stage on Friday night with a blistering set that made good on the bubbling industry buzz, and netted a number of fervent new fans with a quickness. Fronting his rock-solid band behind an arsenal of keyboards, Francis dressed up for the occasion—in this case a tight cocktail dress and appropriate undergarments, which he flashed at us in between songs. The enigmatic bandleader/phenomenon delivered a mixture of crucial cuts from his incredible debut LP, Changes, and a handful from the forthcoming sophomore release, In Plain Sight, due on November 5th. Francis was a demonstrative force of nature, wielding a rock n’ roll sorcery and unabashed mojo that is so often absent in our little corner of the musical universe. For comic relief, Francis sprinkled in Golden Girls theme-song “Thank You for Being a Friend” and uncorked a Funkadelic deep cut “Alice in My Fantasies” for the numerous space cadets in orbit.
[Video: Aaron Bradley – Neal Francis]
Meanwhile, just around the bend of Spirit Lake and through the hazy maze of swaying trees, a sensational sea of spooky art and fire dancers gave way to KAMANI on the tightly-packed Campground Stage. Fighting through some onstage sound issues with sheer determination and professionalism, the Nikki Glaspie-led crunk troupe made the best of an enthusiastic audience and coveted late-night slot with some positively punishing early-’80s-style funk bangers. Glaspie was flanked by KAMANI regulars Kat Dyson (guitar), Florida’s own Matt Lapham (bass) and for this special evening, the dueling keyboard mavens Shaun Martin (Snarky Puppy), and Nigel Hall (Lettuce, Nth Power). Channeling pioneering purveyors like Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, the GAP Band, Maze, Cameo and more icons of that era, the contingent continued to barrel through the ’80s fatback fonk with freewheeling reckless abandon while pulling up into some sultry Quiet Storm passages, to boot.
The final thunderclap of their sensational set was among my favorite songs of the weekend: a joyful, swaggering romp through Aretha Franklin’s 1982 classic, “Jump To It”, produced by a young Luther Vandross. This was a perfect number for the occasion, with a voluminous pocket, thumping bassline, and intoxicating guitar riff, during which Glaspie and Hall took me all the way back my mom’s ‘85 Buick with a spirited, back-and-forth vocal reading.
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It’s hard to nail down just what went down during the Original Nth Power set on Saturday afternoon at the Amphitheater Stage. A whirlwind of emotions, memories, and reconnections dotted the entire show as the original band members took this sacred stage once again and blessed the throngs of adoring fans with a performance few will soon—if ever—forget. There’s something intangible, uniquely special, and downright spiritual that happens when Nikki Glaspie (drums/vox), Nick Cassarino (guitar/vox), Nate Edgar (bass) reunite with Weedie Braimah (percussion) and Nigel Hall (keys/vocals) and dig into their earliest creations.
The Nth Power’a songs are woven into the hearts, minds, souls and remembrances of so many who count themselves among the SOSMP tribe; because this band has planted roots, made history, and fostered divine experiences here—be it Bear Creek, Purple Hatters Ball, or Wanee Festival. This is devotional music about Love—of one another, of God, of our planet; the miracle of Love through our spirit, soul and song. There were many hugs, smiles, and tears shed and shared as The Nth Power moved through a huge “Spirits” sandwich that included primordial cuts like “Only You”, “Truth”, “JazzFest 420”, and “Only Love”, among others. The big finale was built around a rousing rendition of Bob Marley’s iconic “War/No More Trouble” medley, which The Nth Power honored at Hulaween in 2017. Altogether, it was among the most emotionally gripping and riveting sets of the weekend, and a beautiful homecoming for a forever-treasured family of the rolling river Suwannee.
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When Duval County’s prodigal sons MZG touch down at Suwannee, it’s always a bombastic beat treatment and family affair. It’s been an absolute joy to watch Charles and Zach Weinert evolve over the years, maybe never more so than during their annual set at Hulaween, once again hosted on the Spirit Lake Stage. These twin brothers are SOSMP lifers, and many of the people who call the music park their second home have watched the boys grow up, going on about a dozen years now since they started rockin’ this place in one form or another. As such, a crowd of all ages, scenes, and styles always turns out and turns up when the Twinzie Takeover takes place at Spirit Lake, or anywhere else on these grounds for that matter.
MZG makes future-bass music with a joyful brand of twin-tuition, but the brothers’ tastes and touch are those of old souls. Case in point: the set closer was a reimagining of The Outhere Brothers’ club classic “Boom Boom Boom”, a banger I originally remember from skating rink parties in middle school in the early 1990s! The twins steep themselves in the classics while surfing the cutting edge. They’re individually brilliant producers and thoroughly-trained musicians, which comes out in their intelligent dance music. Always among the most elated, energetic, and crunkdafied dance parties of this festival, 2021’s Twinzie Takeover was no different, leveling up the Spirit Lake stage and then oscillating into the wee hours at Camp Reddit’s late-night renegade rager, another annual Weinert Brothers tradition that so many of us hold dear. One day these dudes are going to be huge, and several hundred of us will be able to say “I remember when.” In the meantime, it feels as if we are in on some kind of big Suwannee secret.
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Hip-hop in the live setting can be hit-or-whiff, especially at a festival not necessarily geared to sonically or energetically produce a concert of that nature. The Amphitheater Stage at SOSMP is certainly the exception, as it has hosted some truly transcendent hip-hop sets over the years, including The Roots (Bear Creek 2013), Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals (Hula 2016) and Run the Jewels (Hula 2018). Atlanta duo Earthgang assertively added themselves to that conversation with a cacophonic throwdown on Saturday night to an absolutely throbbing Amphitheater. The throngs of Hulaginz were as turnt as I’ve ever seen in 13 years of parties at the park, but Earthgang knew just how to channel that frenzied energy into revolutionary optimism and a liberating release, achieved through the unifying power of live hip-hop music.
After a short intro from DJ Dark Knight, Earthgang’s Johnny Venus (Olu) and Doctur Dot (WowGr8) stormed the stage with reckless abandon and boundless energy as they uncorked a magnanimus 1-2-3 combination of the exuberant “Top Down”, affirming “Proud of You”, and nostalgic “This Side” in short, potent order. Somewhere in there, they did a smidgen of “Swivel”, reached way back for “Artificial”, and touched on some Spillage Village before eventually landing in Dreamville’s explosive “Down Bad”. The remainder of the set was a blur of Afro-futurism, bubonic bass, catatonic 808s, double-time triplets, and making ridiculous rap hands at our neighbors. The ozone-lovechild of ATL’s Organized Noize and Tallahassee legends Dead Prez, Earthgang’s feel-good vibes and intoxicating togetherness won the night, thanks to the dynamic duo’s colorful ingenuity and fearless positivity.
[Photo: Josh Skolnik – Earthgang]
Sunday afternoon saw Brooklyn-bred funktrain Turkuaz deliver their trademark Remain in Light festival set augmented by multi-instrumentalist Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads) and guitarist Adrian Belew (King Crimson), both of whom can be heard on the original 1980 Talking Heads album. Little did we know, we were witnessing what was essentially a Turkuaz swan song. The band did not seem disconnected, delivering a driving, demonstrative set steadily brimming with classic cuts like “Crosseyed and Painless”, “Psycho Killer”, “Take Me to the River”, among other gems like King Crimson’s swirling “Thela Hun Ginjeet”.
For what it’s worth, I did notice a certain purposeful pace to the performance, a pulse that was frankly a much-needed jolt on a slow Sunday afternoon when fans tend to drag a bit on the tailwind of the weekend’s activities. But not today, thanks to Turkuaz and co., who never let on that anything was amiss as they tore through the Talking Heads tribute with the professionalism we’ve come to love and respect from this group. Obviously, we were unaware that the focus of such precision and execution was surely the band’s looming finality. Fare thee well, Turkuaz; it’s been a privilege and a joy to chronicle this journey in some capacity over the years. Thank you for the music and your voluminous contributions to the scene over the past decade.
[Photo: Keith Griner – Turkuaz w/ Jerry Harrison, Adrian Belew]
On the heels of Jungle’s jubilant dance party across the way at the brand-new Hallows stage, the ethereal sounds of Khruangbin soon filled the swampy air, their now-patented collage of atmospheric global subgenres beaming from the humongous main stage perch. Dub reggae, surf-rock, Middle-Eastern themes and melodies, shoegaze stoner jams, and golden era rap classics all mashed together, knockin’ boots from H-town all the way to the headlining slot at this celebrated annual festival. This year, Halloween fell on a weekend, so Laura Lee (bass), Mark Speer (guitar) and DJ Johnson did their trick or treatin’ down by the Suwannee River to close out Hula 2021 in high falutin’ style. Three was our magic number all weekend long, beginning with lespecial on Thursday and spiraling out into various cosmic directions all weekend long; trust, towering atop the huddled Meadow massive at full attention, this terrific trio did not disappoint.
Khruangbin took the stage in Halloween costumes, Lee rocking a pumpkin get-up, Johnson with an Astros jersey (mid-World Series) and bear mask (how appropriate); Speer was dressed as Count Dracula, wearing a black suit and jazzed to the nines. They wasted no time digging into the annals of their catalog and a songbook of their own favorite jams; kicking things off with “Shida” (found on 2020’s masterful LP Mordechai) before tucking in and out of a dancehall section that included Sister Nancy’s iconic “Bam Bam” and segued right into Chaka Demus and Pliers timeless anthem, “Murder She Wrote”. Other mid-set highlights included a rapturous rendition of “Evan Finds the Third Room”, the ecstatic dancing in the field kicking up a notch with every Leezy “YES!” I looked out at the thousands of revelers getting busy during “Evan” and had the realization that this was the greatest Hulaween closing act in all my years attending this festival—and we still had over a half-hour left to go.
Khruangbin’s trademark hip-hop medley wove in the ever-appropriate “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me” by Texas rap pioneers Geto Boys, “Summer Madness” by Kool & the Gang—best known as the sample from DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s ubiquitous “Summertime”—Oakland’s weed-anthem “I Got 5 On It” by The Luniz, and Slick Rick’s (or Snoop Doggy Dogg’s) “Lodi Dodi”. There was a nod to “Rap Snitch Knishes” by the late, great MF DOOM, who passed away on Halloween 2021, one year prior to this very performance. Somehow, Khruangbin managed to work a detour into AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, “Spooky” by The Zombies, and the theme from The X-Files into their uniquely Hulaween elixir, among other references and interludes. Inside of their own majestic “Maria También”, they covered Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” and stuffed the “Apache” break in there as well, just because they could.
[Photo: Keith Griner – Khruangbin]
The band left the stage in a hurry with fifteen minutes to go, and after a brief pause, minimalist piano notes unveiled the theme to the Halloween films playing through the PA (think Michael Myers creepin’ on a come-up). This lasted nearly five full minutes of anxiety-ridden suspense as fans looked around wondering just what was taking so long, and what was to come. In an instant, Lee, Speer and Johnson retook the gigantic Meadow Stage dressed—in unison—as the Ghostbusters, and launched into Ray Parker Jr.’s popular song from the soundtrack, arranged and performed in patented Khruangbin instrumental style. Those who stuck it out ’til the conclusion were rewarded with a canon blast of euphoric energy, one that exploded exponentially when the group seamlessly segued into Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, a song that (nearly) everybody knows and loves, especially on Halloween. After two passes through this quintessential jam with party people belting out every last word, they dropped into an old-school Khruangbin classic, 2015’s “People Everywhere (Still Alive) Dub”, which sent us further into a frenzied state as we rounded third with a Sid Bream headful of steam.
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Yet my most treasured musical moment of maybe the entire festival was Khruangbin’s final tune, a surprise segue into Crystal Waters’ 1991 club anthem, “Gypsy Woman”—a song I have adored for thirty full years, one that introduced me to house music and has followed me through every chapter, stage, and era of my own life. I asked my fiancé, through a shimmy and tears of pure joy, “How did they know?!?!?”. Actually, I screamed it at her; I was borderline unhinged, but in the best kind of way. All she could say was, “that is the Spirit of the Suwannee.”
Indeed it was, and it is, and if we’re ever-conscious, careful, and just a little bit lucky, it shall be. Forever.
Special thanks to Paul Levine, Michael Berg, Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park and the Hulaween festival staff for rolling out the red carpet for all of us once again.