Running Around in the Woods at Suwannee Hulaween
Feature image by Josh Skolnick.
If there is no photo for a band or performer, we either could not find one or could not identify from unlabeled photos.
When I used to tell my mother I was camping at a music festival, she always referred to it as “running around in the woods.” For Suwannee Hulaween, that description is accurate, running around just a tiny fraction of the 800 acres of live oaks and pines, seeing friends, patronizing vendors, finding port-a-potties, and zipping back and forth among the five stages where amazing music poured out for four glorious days (and, no, I didn’t make it to the infamous renegade stage).
There were 95 sets performed at Hula. I made at least a part of 75 of those and heard several others from the woods. Sometimes it was a ten-minute drive-by, other times I split attendance at two sets. Several I saw start to finish. So this is an overview.
Also, your mileage WILL vary, and our team was decidedly missing Dalia, who could interpret much better than I what was happening at some of the EDM sets. I interpret that as electronic DANCE music, but I confess I don’t know how to dance to what some of the DJs played throughout the weekend. For those, I will say that, almost without exception, they had huge, enthusiastic crowds, and we will share photos.
On to the event, spread across the five stages, which we will abbreviate as Meadow Stage MS, Hallows Stage HS, Amphitheatre AMP, Spirit Lake SL, and Campground Stage CS. Fasten your seatbelts. We are on the move!
This article focuses on the music. We will post galleries of the people and art of Hulaween soon!
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 28
The magical Spirit of the Suwannee umbrella again kept almost all of the festival safe and dry. The weather reports looked bad, but the rain Wednesday night had stopped around noon Thursday. Through a herculean effort, the staff and the Spirit Lake artists were able to get the fabulous art stroll from Spirit Lake Stage to Campground Stage up and running after a brief two-hour delay. Serious props due.
That meant that the Kyle Hollingsworth Band (AMP) led off, and they proceeded to play the best festival-opening set I’ve ever heard, with all sorts of magic and a Supertramp tease. His band is aces, and they wove String Cheese, Grateful Dead, and island sounds into a beautiful tapestry. When they launched into “Sweet Emotion,” it seemed like it would be a snippet, but they knocked out an incredible version of the entire song! Never imagined I would see a band do justice to Aerosmith.
Grandpa Da Gambler was supposed to open the fest with a brief 15-minute set. That didn’t happen. Action at CS began with the great duo Oxford Noland, two men sounding like a full band, with Aaron Buckingham on drums and keyboards. They rocked out!
Speaking of rocking out, S.P.O.R.E. (SL), the Jacksonville quartet expanded to a septet, blew out a spectacular set of prog rock and trance-dance, with a heavy metal stage show thrown in. Like many other bands appearing at Hula, they gained lots of new fans.
Stick Martin and Jon Ditty (CS) blend hip hop, entertaining vocals, stop-on-a-dime theatrics, and perfect unison for a truly entertaining show, entertaining the early arrivals (many people did not get to the park until late Thursday or Friday). Of note: “Brokenhearted in the Break Beats.”
The entire Deadbeats Takeover (HS) had me baffled. The crowd at each of the five sets was slammed with appreciative fans. I did not comprehend what was going on — wrong headspace. I caught Wreckno, Deathpact, and the organizer: Zeds Dead. I missed GG Magree and LSDream.
LeSpecial (SP) wasn’t, for me. Third time I’ve seen them at a festival; third time I wandered off to another stage. I can guarantee you mine was the minority report. I need to see them in a show with no other distractions.
Pure magic poured out when Greensky Bluegrass took the AMP. Their blend of bluegrass, newgrass, and rocking Americana had the place packed on opening day.
If there was an honest surprise Thursday, it came from Honey Hounds (CS), who claim to be a “booty-shakin’ blues trio.” The quartet, dressed in matching ochre suits, might have played some blues, but they offered so much more, reminiscent at times of Umphrey’s McGee, perhaps. Truly solid, great vocals, a “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” singalong, and deluxe falsetto funk. WOW!
Break Science (SL) dialed up a fine set, with Adam Deitch and Borahm Lee plus Benny Bloom.
Anthill Cinema (CS) made the most of their Hula debut, with the septet diving into material from their three albums of experimental fusion. In addition to original material, they did a masterful job covering “Bohemian Rhapsody” and invited Jon Ditty up for a rap.
Boulder’s Sunsquabi (SL) properly sensed it was time for a dance party and proceeded to throw one. Their crush-funk set had everybody grooving.
At the same time, last-minute addition Umphrey’s McGee (AMP) tore it up at a completely packed Amphitheatre, where they always excel.
In the midst of all that, Hoosier Joe Marcinek Band (CS) brought a fine set of Florida musicians with him and delivered a great set. Taylor Galbraith provided a set highlight with her drum solo during “George Washington.”
For my money, they saved the best for last. Lotus (SL) is flexing muscles with the current addition of Tim Palmieri (Kung Fu) on guitar. They were absolutely stunning, and much of that was drummer Mike Greenfield’s fault. HE WAS A BEAST.
Each night at Incendia, the enormous structure that shot flames and also housed DJ production decks, was home to DJs throughout the weekend, including Skrillex, Manic Focus, and numerous others.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 29
With all five stages now in play, serious legwork was required. The decision to move the stage from The Patch and rename it as The Hallows meant much better attendance there (but eliminating the Ferris wheel!). Eight sets occurred during the first three+ hours alone!
The danger of sleeping in at festivals is that you miss some amazing music by artists you don’t know (yet). Raquel Rodriguez (MS) was the first of a series of amazing female vocalists Friday. The L.A. singer’s magnificent voice wafted over the all-too-empty grounds.
South Florida’s TAND (SL) crushed their set of prog rock, funk, and jamtronic goodness, bolstered by the addition of Mike Garulli on guitar.
The Campground Stage crowd wasn’t truly prepared for the awesomeness that Shine & the Shakers were about to drop on them. Shema Shine has an incredible presence on stage, and she absolutely crushed “Hey Joe” (the Hendrix version) on both vocals and guitar, and they finished with a fun cover of “Get Lucky” after some great original material.
Celisse (SL) began her set just as Shine & the Shakers finished theirs; these two were a matched pair. Celisse is another powerhouse vocalist who plays guitar, and it was not coincidental that her guitar is the same as the one Sister Rosetta Tharpe used to play.
We were knocked out by West End Blend (HS) and their fabulous funk, fronted by great singer Erica T. Bryan, a male vocalist, and great trombone players.
Daily Bread (AMP) had the Amphitheatre rocking, but the bass was overloud just walking by. Clearly, mine was the minority opinion.
With so much else to check out, I did not get to Dumpstaphunk (MS) on the main stage. I’ve been fortunate to see them often. Our photographer, John Strojny, did make it there (Louisiana boys stick together).
Tampa’s wildmen The Reality (CS) kept the party rocking with their ridiculous funk, great songs, and a dandy cover of “Frankenstein” (Edgar Winter, not the New York Dolls).
The Floozies (AMP) were thoroughly entertaining, but again I have no way to react to bass that makes my chest sink.
Russell Batiste Jr. & Friends (HS) were making beautiful music out in the meadow, New Orleans-style, again with a fine female singer.
The String Cheese Incident (MS) played their first two of six weekend sets, sounding awesome on original tunes such as “Dudley’s Kitchen” and “Restless Winds” and covers of John Coltrane’s “Impressions” and Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight,” a tune he penned for Old and In the Way.
More great music from South Florida was on its way courtesy of Magic City Hippies (SL), full of their indie funk.
When a band changes significant personnel, it is almost impossible not to compare the old to the new. Such was the case with Asheville’s The Fritz (CS), who played an inspired set. There is a different dynamic with a new vocalist, keyboard player, and bassist, and they did well, opening with familiar song “Sound. Habits. Blame” before offering new single “”I Already Know.”
A Tank and the Bangas (HS) set is a visual assault as Tarriona “Tank” Ball and bandmates blast New Orleans R&B, soul, funk, hip hop, and lots more. They delighted the packed crowd.
Manic Focus (Live Band) (AMP) had the bowl full and had a superb set as the famous DJ matched with his band.
Five years after their last show at the park, Greenhouse Lounge (CS) 2.0 provided more outstanding Florida prog rock, funk, and jamtronica.
Eric Krasno & Friends (SL) had a brilliant set, and it reached one of its peaks with a superb “Power of Soul.” Kraz was brilliant, and Will Blades on organ sounded amazing.
I missed the two late sets on The Hallows by Bonobo (DJ set) and Chris Lake, both of which created a big buzz with the EDM fans.
For the first time all weekend, I ran into the one and only Lee Rissin, all dressed up but not quite ready for the next set. Ten-second exchange: his, then, “Gotta run to get the lettuce.” Yep, that’s Lee.
Lettuce (AMP) have played countless sets at the park, and every time they rise to the occasion. They were amazing, enhanced all the more by the best sound of the weekend on that stage. It wasn’t too loud, yet you could hear perfectly the awesome work of Jesus Coomes on bass. Benny Bloom sounded great, too, as did Adam ‘Shmeeans’ Smirnoff on guitar. Former mate Eric Krasno joined for a long stretch, and we heard “Squadlive” and Nigel Hall singing “Move On Up.”
I missed Flipturn (CS) again.
Skrillex (MS) was a total light and sound show. The Meadow was full to overflowing.
Far and away the most exciting cover I heard was by Neal Francis (SL). He and his band are straight-up ’70s and ’80s rockers who played some superb original music, and their jaw-dropping cover of Funkadelic’s “Alice in My Fantasies” from Standing On the Verge of Getting It On melted my brain.
KAMANI played — for me — one of the two best sets of the festival, even though it started late and ran short. Shaun Martin and Nigel Hall on keyboards and vocals were incredible, with Nikki Glaspie on drums and vocals and Kat Dyson (guitar and vocals), and their long take on James Brown’s “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing” was absolutely spectacular. Glaspie, Weedie Braiham (percussion), and Matt Lapham (bass) tore it up.
The Grass is Dead had the first-late night set; they OWN this slot. Obviously, they play a lot of Grateful Dead music. They opened with a wonderful version of Rev. Gary Davis’ gospel classic “Samson and Delilah.”
There was no chance of getting anywhere near Silent Disco. It was totally slammed!
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 30
Seven of the first eight of the day’s sets featured outstanding female performers, all in the space of two and a half hours! Checking them all out required splitting sets and jetting between stages, which paid wonderful benefits.
Someday Honey (HS) pours out the vocals of Kaleigh Baker and music from her band (she also plays guitar). They went bluesy, then roots Americana with “Someday Honey” and excellent three-part harmonies. They even played bouncing country rock with a “Jingo” tease!
There was some fun going on at the Little Stranger (AMP) set. The duo featured guitar, production, great vocals, and great comedy, not what I expected.
Ashley Smith and the Random Occurrence (CS) have emerged as a great band with a sexy and talented vocalist. They put on a dazzling set full of vocalese, violin, Latin-tinged grooves, slinky bass, and a killer closing “Atmospheric.”
Many of us first encountered Magnolia Boulevard (MS) at Suwannee Rising in April and were impressed with the Lexington outfit fronted by Maggie Noëlle, who also plays guitar. This set was even better with some great rockers, an ABB tease, an “Afro Blue” quote, and originals such as “I Feel Like Losing My Grip.”
Bedouine (HS) is the stage name for Azniv Korkejion, a lovely folk singer with a band to match; she plays guitar as well. The drummer’s use of brushes was perfect for the set, which began with fine song “Walking Circles Around the Room.”
The Original Nth Power (AMP) had the bowl filled early, with Nigel Hall and Weedie Braiham joining the current trio: Nikki Glaspie, Nate Edgar, and Nick Cassarino. Sadly, the bass was too rumbling, drowning out some of the vocals, but they offered a spirited set which included their best-known song, “Only Love.”
Spirit Lake was dedicated to DJs all day and into the evening. First up were Booty Boo b2b Vlad the Inhaler. Know three things: Vlad is the park’s ambassador for DJs, the two are married, and she kicked his ass!
Revival (CS) is a band from Tallahassee that plays lots of the great music of the ’70s, fronted by powerhouse vocalist Avis Berry. Few moments at Hulaween were as heartfelt as their version of “Got to Get Better in a Little While,” which I still contend is the best song by Derek and the Dominos. Berry and band were superb, also with last tune “Whipping Post.”
I have always liked Zach and Charles Weinert, the twins of MZG (SL), but this set was a letdown — for me. Too much noise:music ratio.
I ended up missing Cautious Clay (HS), Nala (SL), LP Giobbi (SL), Honey Island Swamp Band (CS), and Rohan Solo during the second set by The String Cheese Incident and by dinner.
There was great hype for the set by Masego (AMP), the Jamaican-American whose videos and EPs have made a big splash. The sound from the Amphitheatre was far too low unless you were right up front, and that place was packed like sardines. The vocals were sometimes non-existent. It is baffling how some sets are far too loud, some far too quiet, and some, like (Baby Bear) Lettuce: just right.
The aforementioned Lee Rissin had sent a message to his many friends: the set by N.E.R.F. the World (CS) might be the sleeper of the weekend. As usual, he wasn’t wrong. Keyboard wizard Chris Spies (Matador! Soul Sounds, Honey Island Swamp Band) and his rhythm section tore it up with organ fusion and pure funk.
Biicla (SL) put on a decent show, not spectacular, but not noise either.
The second of three sets by hosts The String Cheese Incident (MS) featured favorites such as “Miss Brown’s Teahouse” and a cover of Talking Heads’ “Naive Melody.”
All decked out in Phillies’ uniforms, Durand Jones & the Indications (HS) were full of R&B and soul. Jones (vocals), Aaron Frazer (drums, vocals), and Blake Rhein (guitar) led the band through a solid set.
If you were wondering what that earthquake was over at the Amphitheatre, know that it was a raucous (and plenty loud) set from Earthgang (AMP), an R&B/hip hop orgy that kept everyone on their feet.
As they stepped on stage for their announced Monster Mash-themed set, Bill Nershi explained that 2021 had already been unpleasant enough. With that, The String Cheese Incident (MS) took everyone to the dance floor for their extravaganza. “Tiny Dancer” seemed to be the overwhelming favorite. Those of us in the Zappa fan club were thrilled to hear Nershi struttin’ his stuff to “Dancin’ Fool”!
[Let’s Dance (David Bowie), You Should Be Dancing (Bee Gees), Dancing in the Street (Martha & the Vandellas), Dancing Queen (ABBA), Dancin’ Fool (Frank Zappa), Boogie Oogie Oogie (A Taste of Honey), Dancing Machine (The Jackson 5), I’m Your Boogie Man (KC & the Sunshine Band), Dance to the Music (Sly & the Family Stone), Boogie Nights (Heatwave) > Just Dance (Lady Gaga) > Dance Monkey (Tones and I) > Lose Yourself To Dance (Daft Punk) > Tiny Dancer (Elton John)]
Now there were four sets going simultaneously. I know I passed by the Cordae (AMP) at some point, where his solid hip hop was backed by a very good band. I missed Rohan Solo, a musician I really like, but I was on overload.
There was a lot of buzz about Leon Bridges (HS). The end of his set turned out much better than the beginning, through no fault of his own. Bass drowned out the vocals when he began, truly sad. When they finally got it dialed in properly, Bridges’ soul, funk, and R&B did the trick, washing over the huge crowd.
Up the hill at Spirit Lake, Mark Farina on the DJ stage was throwing a dynamite dance party; wall-to-wall grooving ensued.
Next were three competing events. I began with My Morning Jacket (MS). The quintet, fronted by the amazing Jim James, blew out a brilliant set of rock that kept the Meadow deservedly jammed.
Claude VonStroke (SL) has one of the biggest presences in the EDM world. Now I know why. He too put on a monster set of dance music for a crowd that had grown even larger at Spirit Lake.
And speaking of large crowds, nobody — and I mean nobody, including those who have run the Campground Stage for years — had ever seen the likes of the absolute mob checking out Funk You (CS). The hard-working Augusta band was funking everybody; they deserved this attention. Vocalist Gavin Hamilton was wearing a wild wig.
Silent Disco was once again overflowing.
That left it to Jon Stickley Trio (SL) to handle their traditional Saturday at Spirit Lake with a stunning late-night set and capped it all off with “The Sinister Minister,” that magical tune from the debut album by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. New tune about Ohio, ska-grass, Lyndsay Pruett playing bass (??) on her violin (??), and anything they damn well wanted to play.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 31
Our Hulaween guru, Mr. Paul Levine, seemed like he cloned himself Sunday. He popped up on a bunch of stages to make warm introductions, beginning with Goldenera (CS), the band complied by MC Nook, who is also a moderator of the Hulaween private FB group and tireless supporter of Hulaween and live music in general. The “trip to Southeast Asia” was powerful hip hop in the midst of a fine set.
Levine next popped up for Maggie Rose (HS), a great Nashville singer new to Hulaween. Here’s betting she’ll be back. As fates would have it, I caught her entire set, and glad I did, although it meant missing Levitation Jones (SL) and Grandpa Da Gambler’s 15-minute set (CS). Country, pop, indie, rock — Rose had all the bases covered. She sang a duet with Brother Love and played a lot of great original music before closing with “The Letter,” Mad Dogs and Englishmen style.
It was Sierra Hull’s turn next (MS), and she amply demonstrated why she is the darling of the bluegrass scene with a perfect set of music with her band (plus great costumes). The harmony vocals on “Whisper in My Ear” were sublime. She also tossed in a fine cover of “People Get Ready.” The final tune, “I Think I’m Coming Out of My Blues,” was done traditional style with the band surrounding one microphone.
Levine surfaced again to introduce Lesibu Grand (CS), a new wave punk band from Atlanta. Levine confessed that he and bass player John Renaud were in school together (“One of us graduated.”). The set was raw and engaging. Whirling dervish vocalist Tyler-Simone Molton was a dynamo.
What turned out to be the very last Turkuaz performance (HS) was another Remain in Light set with Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew. In the midst of all those great Talking Heads songs, they dropped in a breathtaking version of the King Crimson masterpiece “Thela Hun Ginjeet,” which Belew cowrote for the album Discipline. Whatever caused the band’s breakup, it didn’t surface on stage, as they were on fire. And, once again, for one of the most important of the 95 sets of the weekend, the sound was way below par. Vocals were barely intelligible at times.
Lamorn (AMP) had a big audience, with DJ production, guitar, and overpowering bass (I presume that is the point).
Veil (SL) b2b NotLö was raucous and noisy as the ladies squared off.
Sorry to have missed JGBCB (CS)… that’s the Jerry Garcia Band Cover Band.
The String Cheese Incident (MS) traditionally have played to sets on Sunday but scheduled just one this year, and they made the most of it, including “Birdland” for openers, “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” with Sierra Hull and her band in the middle, and a romp at the end through “Rosie.” You CAN’T NOT love that!
Evan Gila (AMP) is a female vocalist entertaining at the Amphitheatre, but the bass was (say it with me) WAY TOO LOUD.
Mize’s DJ set (SL) seesaws back and forth from fun dance music to noise.
I need to see Jungle (HS) in a setting with less noise and confusion. What they do should be straight up my alley — a mix of Earth, Wind & Fire and Thievery Corporation, but in the swirl of Sunday evening the magic that Brits Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland have created didn’t translate well. As usual, if you made it down front, this was probably killer.
(AMP) had the Amp bowl filled again.
Players from across the Florida/Georgia line form Tire Fire, and their tremendous set of Americana, bluegrass and more veered awesomely into “Bombs Over Baghdad,” with Trey Miller spitting the OutKast rhymes. They romped through their hit song “Pile of Dust,” truly augmented now with drums (Dave Gerulat) to match excellent bassist Sean Hartley. They also offered up a heart-grabbing dedication to two members of the Hometeam family no longer with us: Rev. Funky D (Darryl Quesenberry) and Matt “Dub” Warren.
I missed Surf Mesa and Lane 8 and caught all I needed of Mersiv. Kindly remember that YOUR MILEAGE WILL VARY.
I am still absolutely floored by Khruangbin, whose stunning set included numerous teases such as Laura Nyro’s “Stone Soul Picnic” and an out-of-this-world medley that included “Summer Magic” (Kool and the Gang) and “Sukiyaki” (Kyu Sakamoto), not to mention the encore: “Halloween > Ghostbusters > Thriller.” This has truly caused me to reconsider the guitar (no, not me playing). What Mark Speer was doing as a rhythm player and his stunning ability to flow from song to song to song blows my mind.
Remember that mob scene Saturday evening at the Campground Stage for Funk You? Repeat that, and you’ve got the Dr. Bacon (CS) show. Those Asheville boys just ain’t right, and the wall-to-wall crowd loved every second of it.
Roosevelt Collier Band and the last word. Collier often mixes up open jams, Hendrix tunes, and more. This time, he had Blaque Dynamite on drums, Tommy Shugart on keyboards, and two of the boys from Electric Kif: Rodrigo Zambrano on bass and Jason Matthews on keyboards. Zambrano and Matthews helped steer Collier into Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” to open the set and Miles Davis’ “It’s About That Time” (with Hancock) to close it. Levine was there to introduce Collier, who is such a gift to Florida and to all of us.
There are always aspects of an event as huge as this that can be made better. Rest assured that the staff are working on that as we speak. So much was right: mind-blowing art installations, new and improved bathrooms and showers, the fabulous lineup and stages, myriad volunteers of all stripes, very chill security, hugs, kisses, fist bumps, more hugs, more kisses, more fist bumps, Lee Rissin’s lettuce, the aerialists, the stilt-walkers, the acrobats, just everything.
We just wanna go back.