Suwannee Hulaween makes its sold-out sixth year the best one yet!

It just keeps getting better! In its sixth year, Suwannee Hulaween continued to grow upon the momentum of previous installments, constantly curating the best of what music festival culture has to offer. Spirit Lake takes exponential leaps each year to create a completely alien world of art installations and experiential areas, while the musical programming rivals just about any other jam/electronic-heavy boutique festival out there. It’s a huge, sold out event with tens of thousands that still holds the charm of a family affair…only in the Suwannee!

It’s easy for a Suwannee Hulaween recap to turn into a love letter to the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, and that’s because the park is really the determining factor in the festival’s appeal. In 2018, the lineup and schedule seemed to tip the hat to the history of the park and the festivals that it has held over time. There were shades of Bear Creek when Lettuce finally made their main stage debut, or when Medeski Martin & Wood played an afternoon set a day prior. Magnolia Fest and Spring Fest (both gone now) had their moments with The Wood Brothers, Trampled By Turtles, and the late-night bluegrass sets that were hosted in the Spirit Lake. As a recent home to Tipper and Friends, the park is a mecca for mind-blowing beats and ethereal sounds from the likes of Tipper, Opiou, Ott., and Polish Ambassador. Hulaween nods to the roots and looks towards the future of the music that permeates festivals.

Thursday night called itself a ‘Pre-Party’, but anyone in attendance knew that it was very much a real festival day. STS9 played an Axe the Cables set as the sun began to set. “Lo Swaga” filled the air with urgency as an impromptu bubble party took place in the soundboard-left area. The festival feeling washed over everyone as one of the best weekends of the year begun. STS9 ‘axed’ “Kaya”, “Hubble”, and “Mischief of a Sleepwalker” for the first time, showcasing their eagerness to grow their catalogue of acoustic tracks. They’d come back with another huge electric set that included “Rent”, “Metameme” and more.

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead has, in many ways, grown alongside the Suwannee Hulaween festival. The band’s 9th show closed out the festival in 2014, and they’ve returned each year following to play the pre-party. They swelled up the Amphitheatre Stage for two spectacular sets on Thursday, playing explorative versions of “New Speedway Boogie”, “Jackstraw”, and “The Wheel”, among other Dead favorites.

Thursday also hosted a set by The Infamous Stringdusters, who speckled Grateful Dead’s “Dancing In The Streets” and Phish’s “2001” into their wild hour-long set. The string quintet continues to grow and thrive as songwriters and improvisers, proving to be one of the elite bluegrass experiences on the road. Lettuce closed things out on Thursday with a dark and eerie set of their new psychedelic hip-hop sound that continues to get better and better.

Friday and Saturday were non-stop marathons of music that ranged from folky country to the type of dance beats that someone wearing a #vomitstep shirt would rage to. In true String Cheese Incident fashion, it was all-inclusive whether you were into bluegrass or dubstep or just there for a good time, which everybody surely had. I mostly followed along the path of bands as opposed to DJs, but the choose-your-adventure nature of the multiple stages allowed you to vibe out however you pleased. Friday morning hosted some gnarly rain showers that ultimately subsided before The Wood Brothers ushered in the sunshine with some of their country funk.

Medeski Martin & Wood got all sorts of weird on the main stage as people danced and caught their festival footing. Trampled By Turtles played a phenomenal set on the Amphitheatre stage that played into their punk rock energy and elite songwriting. String Cheese Incident came out swinging with “Texas” before bringing Rayland Baxter out for a couple songs. It was a weird way to kick things off, but Rayland’s cool and calm vibe made it nice as they played their collaborative effort “Gone Crooked”. “Let’s Go Outside” ended things on a strong note before half of the crowd migrated to the Patch Stage for Bustle in Your Hedgerow and the other half Emancipator Ensemble.

Whether you chose to get down with the instrumental Zeppelin covers of Bustle or the groovy bliss of Emancipator, you most likely made your way back to String Cheese’s second set that included a no-frill set of “Black and White”, “BollyMunster”, “Illegal”, “Rivertrance”, ‘Drums’, “Joyful Sound”, “Search”, and “Colliding”, completing what was most likely their most thorough set of the festival. STS9 and Odesza ended things on Friday with a huge bang, the latter of which brought fireworks and a drum-line out to compliment their arena-sized EDM.

The String Cheese Incident’s Saturday night Halloween spectacular was incredible. The band worked through The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” to kick things off, complete with aerial acrobats and fire spinners. From there they brought out Jennifer Hartswick to rock Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” both vocally and on trumpet. Rhonda Thomas, a frequent collaborator with String Cheese Incident, came out for Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” before the band revisited their Lauryn Hill Incident with “Killing Me Softly With His Song”. Aretha Franklin got a redux with “Respect”, Amy Winehouse was paid dues with a cover of “Valerie”, Hartswick crushed Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker”, and then Ann Wilson of Heart came out to do Cream’s “Politician” before her own mega-hit “Barracuda”. The band ended things with “Get Up, Stand Up” before returning for one of the most epically thorough encores I’ve ever seen. It was then that the weekend’s ‘Creatures of the Galaxy’ themed was imagined as a singular jam, charted on FriendsofCheese.com as the following…

Rollover> Close Encounters Jam > Star Wars Title Jam > Cantina Jam > Imperial March > Star Trek Next Generation Jam > Original Star Trek Jam > 2001 > Rollover

It was a new, familiar sound at every turn, and it freaked people right out in the best possible way. The production also brought out massive blow-up scrambled eggs that read ‘this is your brain’ with an absolutely gargantuan blow-up UFO to boot. What a party!

Vulfpeck and Tipper split the audience to their respective stages, the former of which had Adam Deitch of Lettuce sit in with them during their funky and razor-sharp set. Jamiroquai held down the late-night headlining slot, and they really laid down the funk during that set. Aside from the hits that they were playing, the most impressive bit was those grooves laid down by a live band. It was house music with minimal electronics or sampling employed. They were occasionally joined by back-up singers and even had the Lettuce horns come up and join them for a track or two.

Singer Jay Kay is an absolute disco queen, and he paraded around the stage with a vocal performance that matched his eccentric dance moves. His hat had a mind of its own, and the long wait to see one of the most popular dance bands of all time was well worth it as they carefully and patiently worked through extended grooves of cuts like “Cosmic Girl”, “Space Cowboy”, “Starchild” and “Canned Heat”.

Over the weekend, festival-goers were faced with a handful of different weather options: it was cold, it was hot, it rained, it was both sunny and overcast. Sunday was festival-perfect weather though: cool air blowing as the sun’s warmth kept the mood vibrant and optimistic. I love the last day of a festival. Everyone’s wearing a single piece of their costume from the day or two prior, and the vibe is as high as it can get. After doing all that hard work of breaking down the walls we keep in regular society, we finally reach a point where we’re all just friends goofing off in the woods together. That vibe worked well for another spectacular day of music.

Yonder Mountain String Band kicked things off on the main stage, playing “Traffic Jam” and a cover of Blind Melon’s fittingly titled “No Rain”. Mavis Staples played a Sunday sermon on the Amphitheatre stage while Ott laid down the funky downtempo grooves over on The Patch, both incredibly different vibes were perfect for the time. String Cheese Incident played a couple more nice sets on the main stage, and although they admitted they were tired when some sloppiness emerged, it was all fun and games for us out in the crowd by then. Bringing the Nth Power’s Nick Cassarino out for covers of “Superstition” and “This Must Be The Place” helped to keep the energy high.

The Revivalists, Janelle Monae, Turkuaz and Gramatik all helped to close things out in the final hours of the festival. It was another long, strange trip down there on the Suwannee River, and solidified the specialness of the park and importance of its pull. As one of the Yoga instructors put it best: this place is a stomping ground for love, creativity, kindness and acceptance that you can use to fill yourself up before you go back out into the real world again. That’s nice.