5 Days, 800 Acres of Woods, 20,000 BFFs, Infinite Music: Suwannee Hulaween

Videos courtesy of FunkCity.net, RexAVision, M.ich4e.l,
3JsOfficial, Al Khaleel, & MrShocktime

The seventh Suwannee Hulaween has come and gone, and many of us starting missing it the moment we drove out of the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak. It was once again a remarkable gathering of like-minded individuals looking to return to our magical, mystical home in the woods.

The stilt ladies – Scott Hopkins

Talking about this massive five-day event is a huge undertaking, and MusicFestNews is splitting it into sections. Dalia Jakubauskas has already posted a love letter to the Hula fam and will have much more, and photographer Zach Sanders has been sharing dozens of the thousands of pictures he took to commemorate the event. In the coming days, I will also share in-depth articles about groups and musicians I had never seen before, about the incredible Campground Stage many Hulagans miss, and more.

The Campground Stage – Scott Hopkins

First, let’s spread a boatload of love and thanks for the many people who made the 2019 edition of this fantasy a reality, starting with Paul Levine, Michael Berg, and Mother Nature. Levine and Berg once again brought us an astounding lineup which crossed and crisscrossed genres and styles. They and their dedicated team once again did the seemingly impossible, and we say [1] THANK YOU and [2] PLEASE DO IT AGAIN.

Also, there is no denying that Mother Nature looked favorably upon the 20,000 revelers and brought us relief. The forecasts for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday looked pretty bad. Friday we steered clear of any storms, and we had the same good fortune again Saturday. The forecast looked like we would get drenched early Sunday morning for a few hours, but instead we had brief showers before sunup.

There are those who might opine that it was too warm this year, especially those who planned elaborate costumes for numerous days. And, yes, we did perspire a lot, but on the other hand, many patrons wore less clothes, and for that, we shall say THANK YOU.

Avatar People! – Scott Hopkins

A round of applause also goes to the security guards, Spirit Care, and police at the event. We’re sure there were minor difficulties (plus the idiots with the pharmacy van), but it sure looked smooth on our end. We’re also glad they abandoned those little flashy things from last year’s wristbands.

On to the music. I covered a little less ground than photographer Sanders, but I caught all or at least part of 75 sets over the five days. You have to have a few screws loose to do that; I am distinctly overqualified.

 

WEDNESDAY: HULA FOR A CAUSE: The Pre-Pre-Party

High Test, a fine fusion quintet from Tallahassee, opened Hula for a Cause, a benefit for music education in Suwannee County. All music was in the Music Hall. Their instrumental tunes were outstanding, and Kalen Mercer on EWI and Derrick Koelsch on synths and keyboards stood out.

High Test – Scott Hopkins

Next up was Ajeva from St. Petersburg, fresh off a great album release party several weeks earlier. They offered a number of tracks from the eponymous album and older favorites as well, packing the dance floor in the process. Somewhere in the middle of “Funk is Back,” in fact, a Soul Train dance line formed, and the party was on. Taylor Gilchrist was particularly impressive on bass, and a couple Dr. Bacon guys jumped on stage for a tune.

Ajeva – Scott Hopkins

The aforementioned Dr. Bacon from Asheville had the next slot, and they CRUSHED. I know that word will come up a lot before we get to Sunday night, but they started it. The septet mixed up tunes from brand new album Fast & Loose with the Essentials, some old favorites, and a couple dandy covers, including “Lost in the Sauce Again.” Jesse Talbot has a superb voice, and the sound of the band was just so rich. Baritone sax, lap steel guitar, and harp? Damn skippy!

Dr. Bacon – Scott Hopkins

Voodoo Visionary had the closing set, and the Atlanta quint made the most of it. They shot out with “Kang Gang” and never let up. Mike Wilson (guitar) and Marcus White (keyboards) were brilliant, and once again bass man Trent Gilson was king.

Voodoo Visionary – Scott Hopkins

Toward the end of the set, VV were joined by percussionist Jimmy Rector (The Difference), keyboard wizard Mark Mayea (Ajeva, The Difference), guitarist Mike Nivens (Ajeva), and Dr. Bacon’s Jackson Weldon on lap steel and Michael Crawford on harp. They tore up “Red Hot Mama > Shimmy Shimmy Ya > Red Hot Mama.” VV had a final song planned out, but instead (thankfully) they launched into Mac Miller’s “What’s the Use.” What tumbled out was an astonishing 20-minute jam that rivaled ANYTHING that occurred the next four days.

What’s the Use Jam – Scott Hopkins

ANYTHING.

 

THURSDAY: The Pre-Party

And it was showtime. There were no shows on the Meadow Stage (main stage) this day. Magic City Hippies (Miami) opened The Patch with their pleasant indie pop-funk, drawing a good opening crowd.

Magic City Hippies shot by Zach Sanders

Up at the Campground Stage, The Good Wood Band (Jacksonville) were pumping out some popular covers and good originals. “Coconuts > Franklin’s Tower > Coconuts” was fun, but a rockin’ “Come On In My Kitchen” was gold.

The Good Wood Band shot by Zach Sanders

As a result, I missed the first 20 minutes of the set by the Jaden Carlson Band (Boulder). Dalia has been singing her praises since Carlson played Hula 2017 — as a 16-year-old! I can guarantee you I’ll never miss her again. This particular band played straight-up ’70s fusion the way it was meant to be played. Spectacular is much too mild a word for Carlson’s talents on guitar (and she also plays keyboards). My notes say HOLY HOLY SHIT. Absolutely one of the best sets of the festival, right out of the gate, and it didn’t hurt that Fred Reisen (DYNOHUNTER) was pumping the bass.

I really enjoy the Kyle Hollingsworth Band, but it was not in the cards this year.

Spirit Lake was all EDM DJs on Thursday. I had missed Holly Woods earlier, but now Charlie Hustle was throwing down a massively awesome dance party. I am the least expert in matters EDM, but I know what I like, and my main formula is MUSIC > NOISE, even if they’re pleasant noises. Charlie Hustle was my cup of tea, whereas Nick Fresh, who followed, was not.

Nick Fresh – Scott Hopkins

Danka (Jacksonville Beach) was pure fun: punk reggae. This trio was danceable, energetic, and bouncing. If you were there, you had no choice but to bounce, too.

Danka – Scott Hopkins

The Amphitheater was packed for EOTO, the percussion boys from the String Cheese Incident: Jason Hahn and Michael Travis. I was not one of them. This is just me, but it was overloud and more noise than music.

Circles Around the Sun was a religious experience. Eric Krasno made this happen, playing guitar in place of our fallen brother Neal Casal. The quartet dug into some deep, dark grooves, perfect for the late afternoon. Keyboard player Adam MacDougall sounded so good. They played a lighter tune, then shared a song called “When I Was at Peace” from the band’s new EP. The set was a moving experience.

We here in the Sunshine State have always raved about Miami’s Electric Kif, but this set was simply beyond stupid, whatever that means. Mostly, it means we stood there with our jaws on the ground the whole time. Their blistering version of fusion raised the temperature a bunch. They featured tunes from outstanding new album Jefe, but the highlight was a face-melting take on Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang-Ups” that also featured some stunning lighting from the Receptor Lighting and Sound crew manning the Campground Stage.

Electric Kif – Scott Hopkins

Tycho had a live band set at the Amp, and it was great, by turns ambient, psychedelic, groovy, trippy, with great colors.

Tycho

Posted by Scott Hopkins on Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Umphrey’s McGee was at the Patch, but I was intent on making it to Space Kadet’s set. This was one of the bands we mentioned we wanted to see in a preview. The Atlanta trio had added a percussionist, and the band was rocking some of that jamtronica with recorded production stuff. As the set progressed, the sound became more powerful and… those of us who had heard them before asked this simple question: when did Space Kadet become a prog band? They had the Campground swirling! We’ll blame guitarist Thomas Garret.

Space Kadet – Scott Hopkins

Back at the Amp, Greensky Bluegrass were tearing it up with a scorching set. The place was packed once again, deservedly so, for these outstanding purveyors of bluegrass. They had opened with “Working On a Building” and covered John Hartford before a dynamic sequence with “In Control,” “All For Money,” and “Kerosene.” Greensky’s vocal harmonies soared throughout the set.

Greensky Bluegrass shot by Zach Sanders

I connected with STS9 two decades ago but wasn’t excited by the band’s sets the past couple of years. Their set at the Patch brought back all those great memories; I noted, “This is the shit!” Hunter Brown’s guitar work in particular stood out.

STS9 shot by Zach Sanders

Oh, the conflicts! We’d heard noise about a Seattle band called Polyrhythmics who had a time slot opposite STS9. I made it for the last half hour of their set, and let’s just say any hype was drastically understated. Their horn section — Scott Morning, trumpet; Art Brown, tenor sax, flute; and Elijah Clark, trombone — punctuated every song with superb work, and the other key was Ben Bloom on guitar. Fabulous!

Travelling MC PK was curating secret sets, so secret, in fact, that I couldn’t find them the first two nights. This set included members of Voodoo Visionary, Ajeva, Electric Kif, and Dave Watts of The Motet and Kris Myers of UM.

For three nights, the Campground Stage would transform into Silent Disco. I checked out the first time slot with Vlad the Inhaler on Channel 1 and Kozmic on Channel 2. I preferred Vlad’s presentation more and stayed through most of the set.

Silent Disco – Scott Hopkins

From there, I made it to Incendia, where Manic Focus was playing a killer pop-up set. Eventually, I made it back to camp and bed.

Marvel Years at Incendia – Scott Hopkins

 

FRIDAY

There were 27 sets of music on tap with The Meadow making it five stages, sometimes as many as four going simultaneously. What’s a reviewer to do? The answer, of course, was to split sets and do lots of walking. The stages were arranged in a circle, so it made sense to try to plan ahead to hit maximum coverage.

It should also be noted that, for Thursday through Saturday, music did not begin until after 2 p.m. That is significant, because in the past, with sets opening near noon, few Hulagans were awake, and too many bands were playing to near-empty crowds. This new schedule worked much better.

Kaleigh Baker is a true blues belter. Her new vehicle, Someday Honey, gives her the opportunity to play a wide range of music, from Lucinda Williams covers and blues to folksy originals. It also provides guitarist Matt Walker with lots of chances to shine.

Kaleigh Baker’s someday Honey – Scott Hopkins

On the way to The Patch, I encountered a band purporting to play “music parents like.” And Bear and Lions would be correct in this assertion. Dressed as a bear, a lion, a zebra, a giraffe, a squid, and something else, they were… entertaining.

Bear and Lions – Scott Hopkins

I kept chugglin’ on to see Brandon ‘Taz’ Niederauer. Taz had made his first splash at the park at the last Bear Creek fest in 2014 with more than a dozen mind-blowing appearances — as an 11-year-old! This more mature version had a great band and kept the Patch crowd moving with fine set. He and second guitarist Mat Godfrey locked horns for some killer rock. Taz’s  voice sounded great on “Paralyzed,” and he shut down the set with a stunning “Manic Depression.” Welcome back, Taz!

 

The Motet were smokin’ with the first set at The Meadow. Keyboard wizard Joey Porter got some great space reminiscent of his Juno What? music on vocoder, and guitarist Ryan Jalbert ripped up “Whatcha Gonna Bring.” Cheerleader/whirling dervish/singer Lyle Divinsky noted the ’90s theme of the weekend and promptly led the band through some fun favorites.

 

It had been a minute since I’d seen Thomas Wynn and the Believers, and they were rocking hard at Spirit Lake. The Orlando band is centered around the excellent vocals of Wynn and his sister, Olivia, and also Wynn’s guitar work.

Thomas Wynn & the Believers – Scott Hopkins

The mad scientist was ready in his lab, meaning that Andy Frasco and the U.N. were about to abscond with the Amp. Those unfamiliar with Frasco are surprised by the way the band came out of the gate at 90 mph, which is first gear for them. They slammed so hard into “Struggle Keepin’ Love Around,” which might best be described as smash punk klezmer. In the middle of the song, they teased Quarterflash before a stanza of “Two Tickets to Paradise” and back to “Struggle.”

Andy Frasco & the U.N. shot by Zach Sanders

Frasco’s motto: there’s no reason to drive 100 when you can go 120. After “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” Frasco said, “Thanks! Last time we were here, there were five people. After the show, everybody gets whippets. Codeword FRASCO.” During “I’m Addicted to You,” he introduced “my son, Taz Frasco” before having Taz battle the group’s Shawn Eckles. Magic.

Firewater Tent Revival seems to have narrowed their focus to bluegrass, and it worked well for them. They pumped out a fine set with traditional material and great covers such as “I Want a New Drug.”

Firewater Tent Revival – Scott Hopkins

Keyboard master Robert Walter held forth on the Patch stage with his 20th Congress, and it was truly grand. Walter primarily played Hammond B3, joined by Scott Metzger on guitar, Eric Bolivar on drums, and ? on bass. This was the most straight-ahead jazz outing at Hulaween 2019. It was wonderful to stand there and let the grooves wash over you, so cleansing and refreshing.

Robert Walter’s 20th Congress – Scott Hopkins

If you were looking for perfection, it was flowing from The Meadow. Lettuce were funk perfection, with Erick ‘Jesus’ Coomes and Adam Deitch. Sandwiched in between all that funk was a lovely cover of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” sung by Nigel Hall. Ryan Zoidis and Benny Bloom were blowing up the horns all set long. And, of course, Lee Rissen and friends were sending shredded lettuce skyward!

Next up was one of the most anticipated sets of the entire festival: Tom Morello. That set seems even more relevant now that Rage Against The Machine have announced that they will reunite and tour next year. It was Morello in the spotlight, with bass and drums hidden, as he blasted through a powerful set with a backdrop of political messages. The roar that went up as he closed with “Killing in the Name” could be heard in downtown Live Oak.

Tom Morello shot by Zach Sanders
Tom Morello shot by Zach Sanders

We love Pigeons Playing Ping Pong but did not make it over to the Patch since they were up opposite Morello.

The last time TAUK played at Spirit Lake, it was at Bear Creek 2014, affectionately referred to as BRRR Creek. This time, it was 40 degrees warmer (at least), and the band was on fire. Isaac Teel powered the band through a set of favorites and new tunes from his drum kit, Charlie Dolan laying down nasty bass lines. After the set, I showed keyboard player Alric ‘AC’ Carter his picture from our story about BRRR Creek blowing a huge cold vapor cloud; his response: “I remember that! I got sick! I had to wear hand warmers!”

Our Hulaween hosts String Cheese Incident were playing their first two of six-weekend sets, but we missed those to check out some other music.

I tried — really tried — to figure out CloZee, but to me it just wasn’t music. Mind you, I was in the distinct minority, because again the Amp was jammed.

Clozee shot by Zach Sanders

Bells and Robes, an excellent livetronica duo from Atlanta, took over the Campground and put on a master class. They opened with some great tunes, including ones from recent album House of Mirrors, but then Dean Spaniol (drums, electronic drum kit, production) and Luke Sipka (keyboards, synths, production) opened the floodgates for a massive 35-minute dance party, simply awesome.

Bells and Robes – Scott Hopkins

Then I scurried back to Spirit Lake for the Break Science Live Band; that would be Adam Deitch and Borahm Lee (keyboards) plus most of Lettuce. We got more of that outstanding Deitch/Coomes groove, Lee’s great flourishes, and the rest of the boys pumping up the jam. WOW!

Break Science Live Band shot by Zach Sanders

I’d missed the first Umphrey’s McGee set Thursday, thus determined NOT to miss this one. For the second half of their set, they were in pure rage mode, Warp 9. This was my favorite UM set in some time. After they played “Higgins,” they shared a great story about a man they knew who was pulled over by police for speeding. As the officer approached the car, he heard “Higgins” on the car stereo. “Umphrey’s fan? Take it easy out there.” Sweet! They also threw out a great “Come Together > Closer > Come Together” mashup.

Umphrey’s McGee shot by Zach Sanders

I missed Jai Wolf at The Amp and let my friends go the Bassnectar route.

Jai Wolf shot by Zach Sanders
Bassnectar shot by Zach Sanders

I cruised over to the Campground just in time to hear The Heavy Pets launch into my favorite songs of theirs, “Dewpoint.” They also gave us tunes from Strawberry Mansion, including “Real News,” and a great dance jam groove with Jim Wuest in control on the keyboards.

The Heavy Pets – Scott Hopkins

Marc Rebillet: WEIRDEST SHIT EVER

Pure Colors was pumping out the old-school soul jams during his Incendia DJ set. After what I had just witnessed, it was blessed relief and a perfect mix of tunes, keeping those who gathered moving and grooving.

Pure Colors – Scott Hopkins

If you wonder why they have late-night music such as Jon Stickley Trio at Spirit Lake, you have never experienced the vibe in the air. Silent Disco is available down at the Campground, and Incendia DJs such as Pure Colors are rockin’ the “house” old-school-style. The Stickley 3 brand of music — Electro-Harmonic Jazz Grass — is absolutely the perfect antidote to the day, and once again they were noting short of brilliant. Stickley’s guitar and Lyndsay Pruett’s fiddle simply danced atop the groove provided by drummer Hunter Deacon.

Jon Stickley Trio – Scott Hopkins

Still didn’t find those secret sets.

 

SATURDAY

Another 27 sets of music were on the slate for the day, with the highlight sure to be the String Cheese Incident themed set, this year the ’90s. Again, mercifully, music did not start until 2:15 with Shevonne Philidor, a strong R&B vocalist from St. Petersburg who made her first big splash at Suwannee Rising in April. This set was a light year beyond; her band kicks ass, and she has proven herself a powerhouse. The set included tender moments as well such as “You’re Beautiful to Me,” but mostly she just rocked out!

Shevonne shot by Zach Sanders

Our favorite purveyors of jamtronica from St. Pete, Future Vintage, were jamming through a tremendous set at the Campground, featuring new drummer Tucker Sody and those fabulous stilt dancers rocking amazing outfits, especially Marge Simpson! They drew a nice crowd for the early set and kept everybody dancing with some old favorites and a number of great new tunes, including “4th-Quarter Comeback.” Jon Ditty came up to spit rhymes on top of “TGF,” and Ajeva vocalist Reed Skahill guested on a dynamite version of “Wanna Be Your Lover.”

Future Vintage at Hula

Posted by Scott Hopkins on Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Future Vintage with Jon Ditty – Scott Hopkins

In the course of events, I missed MZG at the Amp and Steel Pulse at The Meadow.

Another band we had recommended in our preview drew a big crowd at the Campground, and they didn’t leave. We had described LPT from Jacksonville as a dance party with a band on the side. That band plays straight-up Afro-Cuban music, and it was a pure delight. Mark Mayea, more expert in this area than I, noted that this was the real deal: no drummer, three percussionists, three horns, bass, keyboards, and Sheriff Woody (Josué A. Cruz) as the amazing lead singer. The chorus vocals were brilliant. Most of the set was waaaay uptempo except for “The Bad Lie,” a lamentation. These gentlemen are authentic and soul-stirring.

LPT

I also zipped over during the middle of the LPT set to see that The Hip Abduction from St. Pete has truly become a national act. They had drawn a huge gathering to bounce with them. David New’s distinctive voice is always so welcoming, and this was our first time seeing the band with guitarist Justino Lee Walker, who ripped a superb solo while we were there.

The Hip Abduction shot by Zach Sanders

You could hear SCI during their first set from a distance, and we delighted to a fine version of “I Wish.” NoBide was at Spirit Lake, which for the most part this day featured DJs. NoBide was a trio, with drums, keyboard/ production, and tenor sax/production. They could be smooth, and they could be edgy. It was an interesting set.

Pnuma was at the Amp. It had been ten years since I’d seen the Pnuma Trio. This duo paled by comparison. The drummer (Lane Shaw) sounded fine, but the keyboards/production (Ben Hazlegrove) just seemed uninspired. In fairness, I did not hear the entire set.

The buzz about The Difference in the Tampa Bay area has been huge, and they had a dynamite Suwannee Rising set, but their Hula set was killer prog highlighting complex compositions and incredibly tight arrangements. The band’s new album, , is ready for preorder and comes highly recommended. During “Kiwi,” keyboard master Mark Mayea had a fabulous Latin-tinged electric piano, followed by a great percussion exchanged between Yral ‘datdudeondrums’ Morris and Jimmy Rector, which seemed to me to be colored by the vibes left by LPT. Jon Ditty performed twice with the band, and Justino Lee Walker blistered on guitar.

The Difference – Scott Hopkins
The Difference with Jon Ditty – Scott Hopkins

At this point, there were four bands performing simultaneously. I managed to catch just the end of the set by Maribou State from London, and I just wish I’d cloned my self, because they sounded incredible, a magnificent band fronted by a superb female vocalist. SIGH

Maribou State – Scott Hopkins

Finally, I had my first actual SCI sighting, and it was awesome. Hulaween exists because of the Colorado sextet, and we are forever in their debt. They began their second set of the day and burned hotter as they went, rocking by the time they got to “Restless Wind.”

Kyle Hollingsworth – The String Cheese Incident shot by Zach Sanders

Back at Spirit Lake, there was a cancellation, and the curator of the DJs, Vlad the Inhaler, was subbing, so to speak. Vlad always pours himself into his sets, and he is always rewarded with an appreciative audience. They were dancing for certain.

It was Shak Nasti time at the Campground. This titanic quartet from Orlando have been playing some of Florida’s best jams for 15 years, and they kept it up with this set. Tim Turner (guitar, vocals) led them out immediately with “Middle of a Bubble,” and from there on it was a rock show. The band covers a wide swath of genres, and Rion Smith’s polyrhythmic drumming matched up perfectly with Matt Lapham on bass (yep, still my favorite bass player on the planet). They invited 22-year-old guitarist Syoma Klochko to join them, and his solos on “Postizos” and “Treelocks” showed he’s done his homework.

Tim Turner – Shak Nasti shot by Zach Sanders

I split the set with Thundercat at the Patch. He and his drummer were locked in seventh gear at the very least with some astonishing musicianship flying. It was easy to see why he is so revered as a bass player. He also offered a fine tribute to two friends now gone: Austin Peralta and Mac Miller.

Charlie Hustle was on the decks at Incendia, and he was throwing down a dynamite dance mix. As usual.

Charlie Hustle – Scott Hopkins

I tried to glean something from Mija’s set at Spirit Lake, but noise > music to my ears.

It was time for the theme set, and once again the String Cheese Incident had put together an amazing cross-section of ’90s tunes. They began with the rockers before shifting to the hip hop section, featuring guest vocalists and amazing dancers. The setlist says it all:

[SCI 3: Give It Away (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Santeria (Sublime), Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana), Loser (Beck) > Hand In My Pocket (Alanis Morissette), The Wedge (Phish), Creep (Radiohead), Even Flow (Pearl Jam), Waterfalls (TLC), No Diggity (Blackstreet) > California Love (Tupac Shakur) > This Is How We Do It (Montell Jordan) > Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It (Will Smith) > Can’t Touch This (M.C. Hammer) > Groove Is In the Heart (Deee-Lite)]

Big Wild at the Amp had two DJ/production stands and a drum kit. It was interesting but not compelling to me. Once again, I was in the distinct minority in my opinion. Similarly, I found SoDown’s set at Spirit Lake to imbalanced on the noise:music ratio.

Big Wild shot by Zach Sanders

I had intended to get to Flying Lotus, but I was truly knocked out by Travers Brothership, the Asheville quartet anchored by twins Kyle and Eric Travers. It was Kyle’s prowess on guitar that jolted the crowd packed around the Campground Stage as they worked through songs from new album Let the World Decide, slow blues, an Isley Brothers cover (“It’s Your Thing”), and one wicked instrumental that began with a shortcut to the “Soul Sacrifice” drum solo and then emerged as a tremendous “Stratus.”

Travers Brothership – Scott Hopkins

Now there was an enormous conflict. At The Meadow, Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals returned to Hulaween, this time as headliners. I would make it over there, but I had to check out Doom Flamingo from South Carolina. Let’s just say that it was the correct decision for me. Imagine a band of TAUK’s power with nasty sax and the best vocalist I heard at Hulaween, period. Kanika Moore was a marvel, riveting to watch and to hear. Ryan Stasik of UM holds down the low end. Whether offering us a brand new tune (“Need to Feed”) or covering a gem (“Love is a Battlefield”), it was one massive party.

Doom Flamingo – Scott Hopkins

.Paak was throwing a party of his own, the Meadow slammed with people dancing and grooving. He and the band were dressed up as KISS, and it was a gas. .Paak bounced back and forth between his drum kit and dancing and prancing out front, a true frontman. The funk and jazzy soul went hand in hand for a tremendous show.

Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals shot by Zach Sanders
Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals shot by Zach Sanders

Finally, I found the PK secret set. I’d been a literal stone’s throw away two nights earlier, but a blaring disco made it impossible (for me) to find. This one began with members of The Difference playing first, joined by Shevonne Philidor’s drummer. This was pure jazz: “Spain,” “Red Clay” and more. Jon Ditty came up to perform his “Natural Selection.”

The Difference secret set – Scott Hopkins

As they broke to bring up new players, I scurried back to Spirit Lake to hear the incomparable The Grass is Dead. There might not be a better Dead tribute band than these guys. We had just received the news of Paul Barrere’s passing, and in tribute they played an awesome “Skin It Back.” Billy Gilmore and the boys truly had it dialed in on “Help Is On the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower.”

The Grass is Dead shot by Zach Sanders

Back to PK’s jam, where my boys Shak Nasti were ready to go. Not gonna lie — this was as good as their earlier set, including a tune I called (“Roller Rink”) and one I was about to call (Bobby McFerrin’s “All I Want”). Then a new band emerged with Skyler Golden, Jason Hahn of SCI on percussion, Rodrigo Zambrano of Electric Kif, Shevonne’s keyboard player, and after that I lost track.

Shak Nasti secret set – Scott Hopkins

Finally, at 5:15, I packed up and headed back to camp. The rain was scheduled to hit us hard at 6. As I made my way, I heard a party going on near our campsite… with a DJ. NO, it was OUR campsite. d0min0 from Charleston was on the decks, sounding good. Except that I was beat. Fortunately for all, he was just finishing, because the rain started early.

 

SUNDAY

And somehow, once again, the magic of SOSMP prevailed. What looked like torrential rain sputtered to a light sprinkle that cut down the dust but otherwise left everyone in good shape.

Walden, an alt rock quartet from Athens GA, sounded good at Spirit Lake. Some of their music was introspective, almost Ben Folds-ish. They covered “Losing My Religion” and dedicated a song to [some hyperbole involved here] the show Avatar: The Last Airbender.

J. Worra from L.A., on the other hand, was crushing a great set of dance grooves at The Amp. She really strung together so great music. That’s what I’m talking about!

This was to be my first opportunity hearing the phenomenon that is Billy Strings. But first, a quick Billy Strings story that told me volumes about the man. And I know that musicians with their heads screwed on tight know precisely the worth of their crew from start to finish. Still, this was special.

Billy Strings shot by Zach Sanders

It goes back to the Travers Brothership set at The Campground the previous night. That stage is run by Pete Stitz, and Receptor Sound and Lighting has handled those duties at Campground flawlessly for years. Andy Lytle, a fine musician in his own right, is co-owner of Receptor along with Russ Bowers. Andy has been on the road for some time with very prominent musicians, but he truly seems to have settled in with Billy Strings as his sound technician. Lytle was running sound for Travers Brothership, and I happened to be right next to the sound booth. All of a sudden, a blur came streaking across the ground, ran into the booth, and jumped into Lytle’s arms. It was Billy Strings. That’s the mark of the man. That’s how you do your family.

I arrived at the Meadow as Strings and his cohorts were tuning up. When Royal Masat’s big fat bass tones rang out the opening of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon,” the smile on my face must have doubled! The crowd appeared sparse moments before the 1:30 start but burgeoned within a few guitar licks. The quartet shot through “Everything’s the Same” and “Pyramid County.” Each member of the band had the chance to show his stuff; this band’s cup runneth over, and we are forever grateful.

Billy Strings shot by Zach Sanders

Speaking of Grateful, later in the set they lovingly offered “China Doll.” Earlier, they crushed a version of “All Time Low” by Widespread Panic and played live for the first time the Bill Monroe classic “My Florida Sunshine.” They closed out the set with “Away From the Mire” and the title track on the band’s 2017 album Turmoil and Tinfoil. Billy Failing (banjo) and Jarrod Walker (mandolin) were superb.

Billy Strings shot by Zach Sanders

And here’s a question to wrestle with: which is more impressive, Strings’ astounding guitar techniques or his old-soul voice? Answer: it’s a draw!

Also of note was Omar the Bubble Man (Joyous Bubbles). In past years, we’ve seen him with the string on poles creating huuuuuge bubbles, but this time he had a fabulous new gimmick. Instead of one big loop, he had 30 or 40 small loops on the string. When he picked the string out of the bubble stuff and spread the poles in the wind, it created dozens of bubbles streaming across the Meadow near the stage, a glorious sight to see!

Posted by Scott Hopkins on Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Posted by Scott Hopkins on Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Time being what it was, we only got a drive-by for Beebs and Her Money Makers, a funky soul machine from Orlando. As with many others during the course of the weekend, they had great band outfits. Beebs was in the process of inviting some of her favorite dancers on stage at the Patch, including the Stilts girl who climbed the stairs!

Beebs and Her Money Makers – Scott Hopkins

Then I hustled up to catch party of the set by Ella Jet and Future Soul. They were all sporting black tracksuits with white trim, Ella in white with black. Vinny Svoboda (The Difference) has joined them on bass, teaming perfectly with drummer Dillon Reeder, who otherwise spent the weekend as one of the sound engineers at The Campground (and they absolutely crushed every set all weekend). This set, including “Stranger in Time,” was uptempo and a delight.

Ella Jet and Future Soul shot by Zach Sanders

If I shoulda, coulda, woulda done my homework, I would have known why the name Spaga on the lineup was familiar. My DUH moment of the weekend. This was an incredible set with Aron Magner of The Disco Biscuits on grand piano, accompanied by double bass (Jason Fraticelli) and drums (Matt Scarano). And let me just say DAMN, because it was jaw-droppingly awesome.

Spaga shot by Zach Sanders

In the process, I missed Walker and Royce. It seemed inevitable that Billy
Strings and the boys would join String Cheese, and that is in fact how it went down for 40 mind-melting minutes. In fact, it would be Strings, Failing (banjo), and Walker (mandolin). After “Remington Ride,” they lit it up with “Walls of Time,” a song by Bill Monroe and Peter Rowan. SCI does so much so well, but bluegrass is deep in their heart, and they rolled out an uptempo “I Know You Rider” with Michael Kang on fiddle that was lovely.

The last song of their collaboration was “Rivertrance,” and it is safe to say that this 12-minute sequence was one of the finest of the entire weekend. Dang introduced it on fiddle, but from there the solos were simply titanic, or, as I scribbled in my notebook: HOLY SHIZZ! About nine minutes in, Kang decided to step on the gas, shoving the jam into overdrive. After Billy and company split, SCI kept the jams rocking, especially a fine take on “Exodus.”

 

I had been “instructed,” shall we say, to check out Ripe, a horn-driven group from Boston centered around the vocals of Robbie Wulfsohn. they were heating up as I arrived and knocked out a fun set with covers such as “Californication” and solid originals like “Downward.” You were correct, Bret and Jake!

 

There were more decisions to make. Star Kitchen was on opposite Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, and there were other conflicts as well. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead was storming through two sets at The Patch.

I began with Miss Erica Falls. I love her work with Galactic, but this was somehow closer to her real essence. She was glowing throughout the set, looking spectacular, and her voice just poured out so freely. She had a song where she talked about being in love but just a little pissed off. And, as Vlad the Inhaler noted, hers was the correct (and brief) use of autotune. Ms. Falls did “It Ain’t No Use” proud, demonstrated some stunning vocalese, taught us how to make gumbo, romped through “Compared to What,” and walked “On Guilded Splinters” (and, yep, the jury’s out on guilded/gilded).

It was Star Kitchen time, time for that brilliant psychedelic funk from Philadelphia spearheaded by another Disco Biscuit, Marc Brownstein. This quartet is just so much fun, and their set kept heads bobbing for 75 minutes. They opened with a Bob James song they cover often (thankfully), “Nautilus.” Magner joined Rob Marscher on keyboards for some incredifunk. They slowed it down for a newer Marscher composition called “DVRKNESS.” Drummer Marlon Lewis sang Parliament’s “Do That Stuff,” and they finally closed out with “Poison,” Danny Mayer “singing” the song on guitar.

 

The last conflict was just as bad as numerous others previous. Tchami was at the Amp, and Karina Rykman was at The Campground. I split sets again. Which was tough, because, the moment I went to check out Tchami (from Paris!), I wrote THAT’S MY JAM! If was a superb dance mix, and the Amphitheater bowl was filled one last time with dancing, happy people about to be very, very tired.

I dragged myself away to check out Rykman. I’d never seen her, either. Or at least I didn’t think so until I realized that she plays with Marco Benevento. The Karina Rykman Experience hit the stage, and frankly, I don’t know if any of us anticipated seeing such an amazing guitar player at the end of five long days, but Adam November simply blew us away, as did Ms. Rykman, with Chris Corsico on drums. I thought I’d seen it all; I was wrong. WOW.

Karina Rykman shot by Zach Sanders

9 p.m. Music done. Well, officially. Marvel Years was throwing one last awesome dance party at Incendia, and the place was packed. He played right up until the 11:00 cutoff time; Spirit Lake would close at midnight, or whenever they got everybody out. I went back to my home away from home, the Because of the Lotus installation immediately to the left when you entered Spirit Lake, opposite the stage.

Because of the Lotus

Moe Angelo, Pat Anglin, and Michael McCarthy had been showcasing their “ground-breaking art installation that symbiotically fuses fine art with digital art and biofeedback to bring paintings to life.” (Daniel Morris and Benjamin Smith also part of the project.) They allowed me to hang out so much that people started asking ME questions; I promptly pointed them in the right direction. These gents also throw the VI Jam Fest in March, held on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Thanks, boys!

Because of the Lotus

I said I was heading back to camp, but instead, I headed for the land of PK one more time. It seemed there were two events raging. At the location from the past nights, there was a disco rave-up in progress (was that MZG?). Right across the street, a much more mellow scene was happening with excellent song interpreter Beartoe on guitar and vocals matching up with Matt Lapham (Shak Nasti) on bass. They covered a wide range of songs, the perfect nightcap. Eventually, I drifted back to camp, only to find d0min0 once again rocking Short-Cut Camp, but that set, too, was about to shut down.

Matt Lapham & Beartoe – Scott Hopkins

Many had split by Monday morning, many others of us packed up and headed out during the morning. We had much to be thankful for, and we look forward to returning for future Hulaweens (next year should include Halloween) and other great festivals such as Suwannee Spring Revival, Suwannee Rising (seriously, don’t miss this), and Suwannee Roots Reunion.

 

It was so good to be home in the woods with family, if only for a few days.

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