Hulaween Embraces The Power Of Women
There’s a cosmic uplifting energy swirling through Suwannee Hulaween that has been there from its very inception in 2013. It grows a little stronger each year. But this time, during a year that many are calling “The Year Of The Woman,” a palpable sense of something more coursed through everything and everybody in attendance. This was the year that Hulaween would give itself over to “The Divine Feminine,” a surprise announced by the host band, The String Cheese Incident, just days before their Saturday night theme set that ultimately brought us to our knees. More on that a little later.
Hulaween, a three-day fest (four if you count Thursday’s pre-party) held October 26-29 at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Like Oak, Florida, has always made an effort to present a balanced lineup of jam, EDM, funk, soul, reggae, and bluegrass with female artists represented throughout. But 2018’s selection of powerful women was bigger and badder than in Hulas past.
The list of fierce goddesses conquering Hulaween’s four stages and multiple genres included headliner Janelle Monae, Mavis Staples, Rezz, Lizzo, Bishop Briggs, CloZee, Jennifer Hartswick (with Nick Cassarino), Kaleigh Baker, Maddy O’Neal, SOSUPERSAM (a.k.a. Samantha Duenes), Melody Trucks of Melody Trucks Band and DJ ill-esha.
Others fronted or were featured performers in bands such as Ghost Light (Holly Bowling and Raina Mullen), Galactic (Erica Falls), Knower (Genevieve Artadi), The Broadcast (Caitlin Krisko), Jon Stickley Trio (Lyndsay Pruett), Holey Miss Moley (Robyn Alleman and Jen Peacock), Come Back Alice (Dani Jaye) and Just Chameleons (Kat Hall).
I bow down to each and every one of these divine beings but sadly could not see them all. So I’ve culled some of my favorites from a marathon weekend starting with the Thursday’s pre-party.
DAY 1, THURSDAY, OCTOBER 25 PRE-PARTY:
Ghost Light, Amphitheatre Stage: A super jam band if there ever was one, Ghost Light is made up of keyboardist extraordinaire Holly Bowling, American Babies guitarists Raina Mullen and Tom Hamilton, who also plays with JRAD, Nicos Gun bassist Steve Lyons and drummer Scotty Zwang of Dopapod and RAQ.
Their afternoon set before a better-than-decent sized pre-party crowd ran for an hour and only five songs. But each was an extended exercise in the kind of richly layered improvisation so high and tight that it marks each musician for the wizards of jam that they are. Classically trained Holly Bowling brought the fire on keyboards while Raina Mullen set the bar high with a blend of harmonic vocals and guitar. And Tom Hamilton’s searing guitar was pushed stratospherically higher with a relentless rhythm section behind him.
Their extended, soaring explorations of “Keep You Hands To Yourself,” “Streets of Brooklyn,” Don’t Come Apart,” “Diamond Eyes” and “Best Kept Secret” filled the airspace and the crowd with delicious vibrations. Ghost Light, who have been together less than a year, may have learned to gel with each other in a studio, but they have clearly come into their own as fearless live band.
The Broadcast, Campground Stage: If anyone found a face lying on the ground near The Campground Stage on Thursday night, please return it to me. Mine melted clear off during The Broadcast’s relentless set of rock, soul, and blues. Fronted by explosive vocalist Caitlin Krisko, the Asheville-based ensemble also includes Aaron Austin on guitar, Mike Runyon on keys, William Seymour on bass, Tyler Householder on percussion, and Michael W. Davis on drums.
From beginning to end The Broadcast set their speedometer somewhere in the vicinity of 110 miles per hour with no let up. Channeling vintage Robert Plant and Janis Joplin, Krisko can go from sweet and sultry to incinerating a stage within nanoseconds. With her band tearing things up behind her, she demolished a set list that included fiery “Eyes of a Woman” and “Loving You” from their 2016 release From The Horizon. Krisko pounced on the unsuspecting crowd with the physicality of a lioness stalking prey.
We got a little breather with the band’s beautifully flowing take on the jazz-infused instrumental tune “Tides.” Turns out they were just tenderizing us to be finished off by Krisko’s soul-shaking versions of Nina Simone’s “Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter” and The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends.” I’m pretty sure my face is resting together with my heart in the firm grip of The Broadcast.
DAY 2, FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26
Lizzo, The Patch: Lizzo is not for the faint of heart or the weak in spirit. Her art is in-your-face, no-holds-barred, unapologetic female empowerment and sexuality at its finest. She is big, beautiful and totally bad ass – a filthy good rapper and soul singer whose songs of self-love give voice to a generation of young women who have had enough of the world trying to shove them into a box. She’s a profane, twerking, body-positive, gospel-singing sage who proudly stands in opposition to the powers that be who hold the thin, the white, and the male in high esteem.
Flanked by a girl group of all sizes and colors sweating, dancing, wildly cutting up and laughing at themselves, Lizzo had the crowd eating out of the palm of her hand. She moved easily between bold-faced raps to soulful, funky beats on “Worship” and managed to throw in some comedic takes on first-world problems including “Phone,” an ode to every millennial’s nightmare – losing a phone. “Bye Bitch,” with Lizzo going about as hard as anyone can go on a flute, veered from sweet to rib-cracking bass drops and wild dancing, with fans following suit. We definitely need more Lizzo in our lives.
DAY 3, SATURDAY OCTOBER 27
Bishop Briggs, The Patch: Like Lizzo, British singer/songwriter Bishop Briggs preaches the gospel of self-love, empowerment and diversity. Her body of work crosses many genres including soul, rock, hip hop, and EDM. Appearing on stage childlike and completely adorable in a yellow and blue kitty onsie, she hit the crowd with a powerful set that shattered any notion of vulnerability – a trait that is her strength.
Imploring the audience to remember that they matter even if they feel like they don’t, she tore into a high-energy set that included “Dark Side, “Baby,” “River,” “The Way I Do,” and “Wild Horse.” It was a gleeful romp with the crowd dancing madly as one. Briggs’s message of self-love had clearly gotten through, because there was not an unhappy face to be found anywhere as she left the stage to cheers and tears.
The String Cheese Incident, The Meadow Stage: If there’s one thing that festival-goers can count on year after year is that Hulaween’s host band, The String Cheese Incident, will put on an epic production for its legendary Saturday night theme set. But this time they would knock us all for a loop.
Aliens, space creatures, cosmic girls and astronauts, Trekkies and Star Wars characters flooded the field in front of the Meadow Stage in anticipation of “Creatures Of The Galaxy,” this year’s theme, and a celebration of “Women of The Galaxy.” What we got was something even more magical and infinitely more powerful than mere songs about the universe. Instead, SCI, whose members dressed as undead gentlemen dandies, announced they were doing something different – a tribute to the divine feminine.
Many in the crowd didn’t get the memo that the band would be giving themselves over completely in honor of female power. But when powerhouse vocalist Lisa Fischer, who has performed with The Rolling Stones, walked on stage to the opening strains of “Gimme Shelter,” the place just exploded. There was no letup from there, and this would only be the beginning of one of the best theme night sets that SCI has ever done.
In between fireworks and fire dancers, SCI played backup to some of the greatest female voices in the industry. Aretha Franklin got her due with Rhonda Thomas and Jennifer Hartswick belting out “Rock Steady” and “Respect.” Thomas, a frequent collaborator with SCI, delivered passionate versions of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” and Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie,” a truly poignant choice. A gifted trumpeter, Jennifer Hartswick played alongside special guests Mofro horns before tearing into a wild take on Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker.”
Just when we thought we couldn’t go any higher, SCI took us there wrapped in glorious feminine strength and energy when they brought out Ann Wilson of Heart. The roar of the crowd could be heard two counties over, and Wilson proceeded to lay waste to us with Cream’s “Politician” and a soul-shredding version of “Barracuda.”
The buzzing and electricity running through the crowd was not going away anytime soon. With the stage full of powerful women, the band along brought us down gently with Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” an uplifting song of empowerment needed now in these troubled times more than ever. With the audience filled to the brim with love and good vibrations, Cheese launched us all back into outer space with teases of some of science fiction’s greatest theme songs including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The set finished with a massive fireworks display and a jubilant crowd roaring their approval to the heavens. This would go down as one of the best Hulaween theme sets ever. Don’t know how they’ll top it next year, but knowing The String Cheese Incident, they will.
DAY 4, SUNDAY OCTOBER 28
Jennifer Hartswick & Nick Cassarino, The Amphitheater Stage: Trumpeter and vocalist Jennifer Hartswick and guitarist and singer Nick Cassarino brought sleepy festivalgoers to life under the oaks at The Amphitheater stage on the closing day of the festival. Hartswick of The Trey Anastasio Band and Cassarino of The Nth Power have been playing together for over two decades, bringing a strong musical and personal bond to their intimate acoustic performances.
It was a beautiful way to wake up listening to selections from the duo’s new album Nexus, including “Numb,” “Stay” and “You Can’t Take It Back.” Hartswick has the lungs of an angel whose soulful vocals match her skillful trumpet skills. She’s one of the best at both who perfectly harmonizes with Cassarino’s bluesy soul-singing and soothing, melodic guitar.
The appreciative crowd started small since they were the first act of the last day of a long weekend but swelled to a sizable bunch as more were drawn in by the sweet strains of the duo’s performance. I hope we hear more from this duo and that they continue their collaboration for a long time to come.
Mavis Staples, The Amphitheater Stage: What do you do in the presence of a goddess? Why, you dissolve into a blubbering puddle of tears, of course. At least that’s what I did, leaning on the rail at the feet of a true hero and living legend, the great Mavis Staples. She had barely walked on stage when the tears started to flow. They were tears of joy, and I wasn’t the only one in the audience indulging.
Under beautiful October skies and oak trees dripping Spanish moss, Mavis took us to church with her iconic soulful growl dripping the gospel of truth and hope. She and her brilliant backup band, with Rick Holmstrom on guitar, Jeff Turmes on bass, Stephen Hodges on drums, and Donny Gerrard on vocals, took us back in time with Staples Singers classics like “Come Go With Me,” “Freedom Highway,” and “Respect Yourself” – songs that resonate as strongly today as they did decades ago.
We got funky with Mavis, whose tiny figure belies her gigantic stage presence, on “Take Us Back” and “The Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” the latter purposefully chosen to poke fun at the so-called leaders of our times. Joy was running thick and strong through the crowd when she led us through “I’ll Take You There,” and I swear we got raptured up, because nobody’s feet were touching the ground. We left knowing we’d experienced a force of nature who I hope will be with us for very long time.
Janelle Monae, The Meadow Stage: There was perhaps no more brilliant a choice to close Hulaween than The Queen, Janelle Monae. A pop star, performance artist, brilliant poet/songwriter/musician/rapper, and champion for the ostracized and marginalized, she is one of the most powerful forces for hope and change that exists today. Her songs have become anthems for women and the LGBTQ community worldwide. And her shows are not just concerts; they are choreographed performances fit for Broadway’s biggest stages.
With a troupe of dancers and musicians consisting mostly of women backing her up, Monae commanded the stage and the audience as she pranced and preened through numerous dazzling costume changes and a catalog of her current work that pays homage to female empowerment and self-worth. And as uplifting and fun as her performance was, she didn’t let the crowd forget about her mission and theirs – to take care of the downtrodden, the LGBTQ community, the poor, immigrants, women and minorities.
Opening with her latest release Dirty Computer, she hypnotized us with “Crazy, Classic, Life,” “ Django Jane,” “Q.U.E.E.N,” “Electric Lady” and more. By the time the giant vagina pants came out for her ode to queer sexuality and female power, we were squirming with delight. Even the men in the audience (and there were a considerable number of them) seemed to share in the joy women felt to have our experiences lionized in music and pop culture.
The hour was too short to contain her, but Monae sent us off feeling ecstatic and ready to pass the good word onto the world with the funked-up beats of “I Got The Juice” and the ebullient “E-Tightrope.” It was clear to all of us that Monae had taken her place among the constellation of goddesses fighting for us all as she left the stage while a gargantuan sign flashed “Just Fucking Vote” behind her. You bet we will.
Kudos to promoters Silver Wrapper and Purple Hat Productions for bringing us all the goddesses that appeared at Hulaween this year. And to all the artists, staff, vendors, security and volunteers who poured their hearts and souls into the festival to make this time of year magic and deliver a message of love, unity, hope and positivity, we hear you loud and clear. Now it’s our job to take that message into our lives and the rest of the world.