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Cheese in the Trees: An Enchanting Weekend at Suwannee Hulaween

[information]Read the preview of Suwanne: Hulaween here.[/information]

I’d heard a lot of things about The String Cheese Incident leading up to Hulaween this year. A LOT of things. I was nearly overwhelmed with anticipation by the time I settled in to my campsite late Wednesday night. “They’re more than a show, they’re an experience; a celebration of expression!” one of my friends said to me as we sat around the campfire passing a bottle of Wild Turkey and swapping stories. Hulaween would be my first Incident, and although I was excited, I had no idea what SCIchedelic majesty I would experience in the days to come.

It was certainly a pleasure to wake up onsite for the first official day of the festivities. The positive vibes were palpable, saturating the forest with love and excitement. It was Hulaween, and thousands of crazy costumed Cheeseheads flooded Suwannee. Larry and Jenny Keel opened the festival with a very intimate and welcoming early evening set.

As the sun began to set, the sky wore an amber mask and the Incident ensued. A rare opener, “Desert Dawn” shot tingles through the brains of all those in attendance as the crowd came to life. Thousands of masked maniacs flailed in unison as the band provided a supreme melodic translation of the enchanting environment. The first set packed a heavy punch, featuring a fantastic “Let’s Go Outside” and closing the set with a scorching “Texas.”

The break allowed for some much needed regrouping and Hulaweenies tried to wrap their minds around what they had just experienced. After a few drinks at the campsite (and minor costume adjustments for some) everyone made their way back to the main stage knowing only one thing about the upcoming set; it was about to get weird.

I happened to be in line for a drink as Cheese took the stage. Church bells and rock n’ roll echoed through the trees and a thunderous roar erupted from the audience. I gulped my drink and bolted towards the stage. The band was covering “Hells Bells” by AC/DC, one of my favorite bands as a child. I was overwhelmed with nostalgia as I sang all the lyrics along with the band. The experience was all the more powerful by the band’s costumes. Complemented by the Antibalas horns and vocalists Rhonda Thomas and Tony White, everyone was drapped in psychedelic voodoo-esque attire. Other highlights included classic covers such as “Spirits in the Material World” by the Police, “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix and “Black Magic Woman” by Fleetwood Mac. Jam-packed with circus performers, voodoo dancers, giant pumpkins and pyrotechnics, this was certainly a set to remember.

The final set of the evening laid all the cards out on the table, featuring even more heavy-hitters. The set opened with a ferocious “Rosie,” followed by mind-molding “Black Clouds” into “Big Mon”, back into “Black Clouds.”  After an extended jam session, “Joyful Sound” segued into “On the Road,” providing a supreme vessel for some of the best music of the weekend, bridging the gap between the heartfelt lyrics and face-twisting insanity. After a much-welcomed three-song encore: “Miss Brown’s Teahouse,” into “I Saw The Light (Hank Williams),” into “Sledgehammer” (Peter Gabriel), the band bid the crowd adieu, but just for the night.

After SCI’s final set, I had the opportunity to wander through the dazzling Spirit Lake, which was teeming with interactive and visual art installations, late-night music and circus performers. Very akin to a transformational festival or Burning Man, there was always art going on somewhere, and everything was very audience-oriented and interactive.


Music began for me on Friday as I arrived at the main stage promptly in time for Steve Kimock and Friends (Jennifer Hartswick, Natalie Cressman, John Kimock on drums, Ron Johnson on bass, Bernie Worrell on keys). The set showcased a wonderful fusion of classic rock n’ roll and funk, featuring covers of the Beatles’ “Come Together” and a fitting “Take Me to the River” by the Talking Heads.

Up next was my happiest surprise of the weekend, Moon Taxi. As I found my way to the front of the stage, the sound that followed was beyond anything I could have anticipated.  It was a magnificent psychedelic explosion of progressive rock. At the beginning the band’s set, there were a few hundred people crowded around the Amphitheater Stage and by mid-set, there were thousands. The siring psychedelia lured a stampede of music junkies out of the woods as the spine-curling guitar licks sliced the minds of all those in attendance. High points of the set included “All the Rage,” “Change” and “Morocco.” Needless to say, after that set, I was hooked for good.

The following Cheese sets provided a joyous dance party and aided in some fantastic collaborations. During the first set, Steve Kimock joined the band for a spicy “Freedom Jazz Dance,” easily the peak of the set. The second set highlights included a wild “Sirens” into “Way Back Home” opener, as well as a Dominic Lalli sit-in for an especially bouncy “Bumpin’ Reel.”

The rain began to fall toward the end of SCI’s second set, and picked up as fans scurried over to the Amphitheater Stage for The Main Squeeze. Known for a unique breed of high-energy post funk, the bad boys from Bloomington only let the rain fuel the funk as they unleashed a powerful energy unto the crowd.  Decked out in everything from morph suits to feather boas, the Squeeze provided a great show on all fronts. The musical highpoint came in the form of a cover of the Allman Brothers Band’s classic, “Whipping Post.” As the band concluded its set, the rain escalated past the point of control. Lightning cut the sky and thunder echoed through the woods. The stages were flooded, and sadly, the venue had no choice but to close down the stages and cancel the music for the duration of the night.

By Saturday afternoon, the rain had cleared up, and few clouds remained in the sun-soaked sky. Brock Butler’s acoustic set established a great tone for the rest of the day. The highlights of his cover-filled afternoon set included a heartfelt rendition of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” and “No Rest for the Wicked,” originally by Cage the Elephant.

Later that afternoon featured a welcomed blast from the past from jamgrass aficionados, Leftover Salmon. Highlights of the set included an audience-evoking “Mama Boulet,” Billy Nershi joining them for “Down in the Hollow” and “BooBoo” to close out the set.

A quick change of pace, Pretty Lights Music’s latest prodigy, Eliot Lipp took the Amphitheater Stage with one of the premier appearances by the Eliot Lipp Live Band. Lipp’s latest album, Shark Wolf Rabbit Snake was an experimental game-changer and he displayed perfect translation into the live setting. Fusing trip-hop, old school hip-hop, jazz, funk and soul, Lipp’s performance was an excellent display of depth and talent as a producer.

The final night of Cheese was certainly one for the books.  The first set maintained an extremely tribal feel throughout, and the band’s synergy was almost overpowering. As momentum built, the band transcended the audience with a monstrous “Windy Mountain” into “Shine,” into “Colliding,” concluding the segment with “Drums.” Jeffery Lerner (STS9) and Luke Quaranta (Toubab Krewe) joined Michael Travis and Jason Hann on percussion to finish the set with a bang. The band left it all out on the stage with a passionate and emotional final hurrah of music. Jennifer Hartswick and Natalie Cressman joined the band for an extra funky “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground” which really got the crowd moving. Next, after teasing it throughout the weekend, the band finally busted out a huge “Rivertrance” into “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” originally by the Talking Heads. I had been anxiously awaiting both of these songs all weekend, so when they finally came, it was truly moving.  After a rocking rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” as a final encore, Cheese thanked the audience and left the stage, this time for good.

Although the main event had finished, the festival was still very much alive. Following SCI’s set, Future Rock stirred up a robotic dance party at the Amphitheater Stage. The livetronic trio provided a great means of gearing-up for STS9, who would go on immediately after.

Tribe came on with more energy and determination that I had ever seen from them. The band sync’d up early and led the audience on an odyssey through time and space. David “Murph” Murphy (bass) and Zach Velmer (drums) fed off each other’s rhythmic energy flawlessly, and Saxton Waller’s lighting display provided a pristine visual complement.  Highlights included “Move My Peeps,” “Wika Chikana,” “Rent,” and “Inspire Strikes Back.”

Following STS9’s set, Emancipator took the Amphitheater Stage and led the audience through a journey of his soul. His downtempo, emotionally gripping tunes were aided with the addition of his Shaman-esque voodoo-themed costume and makeup and, as always, his live violin player, Ilya Goldberg.

An Afterthought
It was clear the members of String Cheese Incident were true experts of coordinating an ultimate festival experience. The weekend incorporated virtually all genres of music and art, and emphasized audience involvement and interaction. Spirit Lake was very similar to how I have heard Sherwood Forest looks during Electric Forest, and was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Although Friday was cut short due to rain, the festival as a whole was a huge success. Hulaween was my first Incident, and I can happily say that by Sunday morning, I was officially Cheesed.

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