If you know us at all, you know that we love going to music festivals. We even met at one back in 2008. Every year, we try our best to hit at least one new music festival. This year, we decided to finally check Suwannee Hulaween off our musical bucket list. Read on for our recap from the cosmic gathering featuring some of our best photos from the weekend. First, a bit of background on this incredible festival.
An Intro to Hulaween
Hulaween takes place at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida. The festival has been going on every year since 2013 and always takes place right around Halloween. The String Cheese Incident host the festival and thus have three headlining shows. They also bring a few other headliners along, as well as a bunch of other acts that are mostly jambands, bluegrass, and EDM.
It’s a pretty big festival, with a sold-out crowd of around 25,000 this year. That being said, it still feels relatively small and it’s pretty easy to navigate. While most attendees camp out, there are also plenty of RV hookups and even some cabins. It would be awesome to rage this festival in a cabin. Maybe someday (#lifegoals).
We’ve been hearing great things about Hulaween from friends for many years, and have always wanted to go. Since a good friend of ours recently moved to Jacksonville and offered us a place to crash before/after the festival as well as a ride, 2018 seemed like the perfect chance. Plus, we are on a year-long party and everything.
Ok that’s enough of an intro to the festival. Let’s dive into the freaky-deaky psychedelic 4-day party in the trees with our Hulaween recap.
While it’s technically a 3-day festival, the Thursday pre-party is a pretty jam-packed day. You have to pay extra for the pre-party ticket, but it’s well worth it. They certainly didn’t skimp on the Thursday lineup this year, so we knew we had to make it.
As is usually the case, it was like herding cats getting our crew ready to go. Since we needed some extra gear, groceries, and booze, we spent a solid hour in Walmart. I seriously considered buying this ridiculous unicorn mask but decided against it as I had several flights in the near future.
It was smooth sailing all the way to Live Oak from Jacksonville, but we ran into some confusion and shenanigans with getting everyone their wristband. I had mine on, so I jumped out of the car and made a beeline for the STS9 Axe the Cables set. I took plenty of shit for doing so from the ladies, but it had to be done. After all, I had been ready to go straight to the festival when I arrived at the airport that morning…
For those unfamiliar with STS9, an Axe the Cables set is where they play acoustic instruments and leave out the heavily-produced songs full of samples. They very rarely do it and I had never seen one, so it was a nice treat.
From there, I did a lap around the concert area to figure out where all the stages, bathrooms, and vendors were. I had to do something useful after bailing on everyone to catch that Tribe set. During my trip around the grounds, I managed to catch a few tracks from The Infamous Stringdusters as well. These guys are one of the best bluegrass bands in the country, so give them a listen if you haven’t already.
Check out my recap of the Stringdusters recent show in Michigan on the Summer Camp blog!
Rachel, meanwhile, was struggling to find a campsite. Apparently, SCI spends so much on the art installations that they can’t pay people to direct you where to set up camp. It was a complete free-for-all, with people just parking wherever they wanted. Eventually, they found a spot big enough for two cars and a few tents.
After setting up in the dark with a bit of rain, everyone was finally in and ready to go. We pounded some drinks and made our way into the concert area. My recon mission had been helpful, as I knew the quickest way to get us to the Patch Stage for the next set from STS9.
For this Hulaween adventure, we were joined by our friend Rhonda, her boyfriend Will, and our friend Kenzie. The three ladies have seen a ton of Tribe shows together, so they were all thrilled to be back in their element. We only caught the tail-end of their Thursday set, but thankfully we had another one to look forward to.
From there, we walked through the trippy path in the forest over to the Amphitheater Stage. For the evening’s entertainment, we had two sets of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (also known simply as JRAD). This super-group is seriously the best Dead-related outfit in the country. Dead & Company is great and all, but give me JRAD any day of the week.
It was quite cool and the rain was coming down, but we persevered through the entire 2-set show. Watching the almost-full moon coming up over the stage while we boogied down to some good ole’ Grateful Dead was a major highlight of the weekend.
As much as we all wanted to power through and catch the late-night from Lettuce, it had been a long day. We retreated to camp and hung out for a while before calling it a night.
Friday Part One
The rain came back early Friday morning and lasted for a few hours, which we actually welcomed. It was great being able to stay in the tent past 9AM at a festival. That pretty much never happens.
Usually, you’re gasping for air at 6AM and crawling under the easy-up.
We got to linger around camp for a while, making some breakfast and having coffee. Then it was time for Bloodies and some brews, as we geared up to head in.
First up on Friday was an afternoon set from Medeski, Martin & Wood. I love this acid-jazz trio and have for many years. They don’t play together very often, so it was a nice treat to get them at Hulaween this year.
From there, we headed into the trees to catch Break Science Live Band, which is basically Break Science with Lettuce. I enjoy the normal Break Science sets, but it’s always better with a horn section.
After their short but fun set, we headed back to the main stage for Dr. Dog. These guys are the perfect act for a hot afternoon at a music festival.
After the Dr. Dog set, we finally headed off to explore the famed Spirit Lake. This is a major highlight of Hulaween, so it deserves its own sub-heading.
Hulaween Spirit Lake
As with SCI’s Electric Forest, Hulaween is known for its amazing production value. They really put a lot of time and effort into the art installations that fill the Spirit Lake area.
Honestly, wandering around the Spirit Lake was half the fun of the festival. I would pay money just to go hang out in there and get weird.
The lake itself is kind of like a stage at Hulaween. At night, it comes to life with an amazing light, sound, and fire show. It’s a very impressive set-up and something you’ll just have to experience to really appreciate. Photos do not do it justice, especially not from our iPhones.
Around the lake, there are tons of different art installations. Some of them make for great photo opps…
Some of the other highlights of the Spirit Lake area included a trap door that led to a ball pit, a “Complimentary Bar” where random people give you compliments, a casino, haunted houses, interactive art exhibits, and so much more.
Without even seeing a lineup for Hulaween 2019, I already know I’d go just to hang out in the Spirit Lake. Seriously – it’s that amazing.
Friday Part Two
Ok now back to the action! While wandering around the Spirit Lake the first time, I caught a bit of The Malah. I’ve been listening to these guys a lot while I work, as most of their stuff is really chilled out. They got in the Halloween spirit by dressing up as Coneheads, which was pretty funny to see.
While I watched The Malah, Rachel and Kenzie hung out in some funky tee-pees around the lake. There are so many great places to just chill out at Hulaween, making the experience that much more enjoyable.
We decided that we’d skip out on the SCI show that night just to take in the scene around Spirit Lake. While I can appreciate them and used to be a big fan, I’m just not that into Cheese anymore. I sure am thankful for them throwing this awesome festival, though!
Honestly, it was nice being at a festival where we didn’t really care about the headliner. It just made the whole weekend that much more relaxing, as it freed up several hours to explore the festival grounds or just hang out at camp. We don’t go to many festivals these days, so half the fun for us is just catching up with friends and partying around the campsite.
Nice and loose after a few drinks and various other party favors, we were ready to hit the Amphitheater for the Emancipator Ensemble set. We’ve been listening to Emancipator for a long time and have seen him a few times, but this was the first time catching him with the band. His incredible band includes our friend Colby on drums, so it was great to see a buddy absolutely killing it onstage with one of our favorites.
After Emancipator, we lingered for a bit and tried to make a game plan for the night. In the back corner of the Amphitheater, we saw a small crowd gathered and went over to check it out. Turns out there was a little stage there called the Dragon’s Den where they had aerial performers. Just another cool thing about Hulaween!
Rather than rush over to SCI with the masses, we opted to meander around the Spirit Lake. It really comes to life at night and is quite the sight to behold. Adding to the sensory overload were all the people dressed in costume. Many went along with the “Creatures of the Galaxy” theme of the festival, but we went with a Day of the Dead theme to honor our new sort-of home in Mexico.
Eventually, it was time to snap out of the weirdness and get our shit together. There was another STS9 set, and we had to make sure the girls saw every note.
While Sound Tribe has definitely played some “festy sets” in the past – where they kind of half-ass it – that was not the case at Hulaween. We got an excellent set of Tribe, including my favorite song “Circus.”
Although we planned to catch some of the Odesza set, it just didn’t happen. We were so close to camp after Tribe, and everyone was in need of water, beers, and some warmer clothes. It’s all good. The older I get, the less I care about missing sets at a festival. It was fun just being silly with my crew at camp, and we could hear the music just fine.
We did manage to make it back in for one more show that night, as we caught Garaj Mahal at Spirit Lake. I listened to these guys way back in the day but had never seen them. They don’t play much, either, so Hulaween really did a good job bringing some jamband heroes back.
Friday was a late night, but thankfully we got to bed before the sun came up. I had hoped to get in to catch Toubab Krewe, but realized their 12:30 set was going to be too early for our crew. Instead, we set our sights on Lettuce, who thankfully had another set. We hustled over to the main stage in time to catch most of their show, which included some pretty unreal visuals on the giant screen behind them.
How fitting that after Lettuce we got to go partake in the devil’s lettuce while watching Stephen Marley.
When the clock struck 4:20 during that set, the Amphitheater was enveloped in a cloud of smoke. Marley played a solid set full of his dad’s classic tunes, with a few of his own originals peppered in.
Once again, we decided to skip out on a set of Cheese. They had three on Saturday, so we figured we’d catch the last two.
Back at camp, we put on our ridiculous costumes. Rachel and Rhonda donned some old lady garb – wigs, robes, and goofy pajama pants. Will rocked my awesome Jack-o-Lantern hat, while Kenzie and I went the onesie route – she was a zebra and I was a uni-cow. It’s a unicorn, but a cow. That’s even more unique!
We hustled in for Cheese’s 2nd set thinking it was their Halloween set. It was just a regular old SCI set, but it was actually quite good. I had seen several disappointing Cheese sets at festivals past, but I guess it’s no surprise they turn it on for their own fest.
The other guys ended up going back to camp at set break, but we stuck around and borrowed some lawn chairs to conserve our energy. After all, we had a super funky disco dance party to look forward to in just a few hours.
Soon enough, Cheese hit the stage for their “Women of the Galaxy” set. For this special set, they invited a bunch of badass women on stage to join them.
Throughout the set, Cheese and friends played several classic tunes written by women, from Roberta Flack, to Amy Winehouse, to Tina Turner. They honored the recently departed Aretha Franklin with her hit “Respect,” which was an amazing moment to be a part of. Heart singer Ann Wilson joined the band to play their famous song “Barracuda” as well.
While I definitely prefer a Phish Halloween show, I’ll give credit where credit is due and say that SCI put on an excellent show at Hulaween.
For their encore, Cheese went through a massive medley of Star Wars and Star Trek tunes, and even played a bit of “2001.” That was the song of the month for me, as I saw Phish play it three times and both SCI and the Stringdusters play it as well. What a fitting tune for a festival with a Creatures of the Galaxy theme.
After Cheese, we packed into the Amphitheater with what looked like every single person at the festival for Tipper. I dig his music and love the visuals, but that set was just too much. It’s hard to enjoy a show like that when you’re shoulder to shoulder with people way in the back. I convinced the group we were better off bailing to get a good spot for the next set on the main stage, which was the whole reason I came to Hulaween – Jamiroquai.
Ever since they came out with the video for “Virtual Insanity” back in 1996, I’ve been a huge fan of Jamiroquai. I’ve listened to all of their albums countless times, yet had never seen them live until Hulaween. It makes sense, considering they hadn’t played in the US in over 15 years. They had a handful of shows in the US in 2018, with Hulaween being the last one. Finally getting the chance to see them live was enough to get me down to Florida.
Skipping out on half of Tipper allowed us to get up front just as they were opening the area up. We settled on a spot right in the middle on the side rail, about ten rows back from the stage. Anticipation was high, as we had to wait a good hour for the band to hit the stage.
When they finally came out, we were thrust into the wildest non-stop dance party I’ve ever been a part of. Seriously, this was 90 minutes of pure musical bliss.
With Jay Kay’s futuristic, color-changing hat and an arsenal of space-themed songs, Jamiroquai fit right in with the vibe at Hulaween. Throughout the set, they played “Use the Force,” “Space Cowboy,” “Starchild,” and “Cosmic Girl.” Of course, we also got “Canned Heat,” the song that Napolean Dynamite cuts a rug to in the cult classic film.
I go to a lot of shows, and I can honestly say right away that this one is in the Top 5. It was just that damn good.
There were some late-night shows going on after Jamiroquai, but we all danced so hard at their show that we just weren’t feeling it. We went back to camp to re-group and grab some more beers. It was actually really chilly on Saturday night, so I was feeling really good about my onesie purchase. Despite my best efforts to rally, I was totally spent. The rest of the crew headed out for a wander around the woods, but I crawled into the tent and got under all the blankets.
It’s a good thing I stayed home that morning because I was actually up around 12:30 rallying the troops to make it up. We had to get to the main stage at 1 for the Yonder Mountain String Band set and we actually ended up catching most of it. The band had some silly glasses on for their costume, and they treated us to a well-placed cover of Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein” in honor of the holiday.
Next up, we cruised over to the Patch Stage to catch Ott. I’m not sure why a super psychedelic DJ got the 2-3PM slot on a Sunday, but it was great to see him live. He played in Detroit a few weeks earlier, but I couldn’t convince anyone to go and ended up sitting it out.
While the music was awesome, a highlight of his set was definitely the witty banter. The Englishman said something to the tune of “Despite wandering around in shit for a few days, you all look very bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Now go take a shower. And brush your teeth.” We were pretty grimy by day four of Hulaween, that’s for sure.
Once again, we skipped out on a Cheese set. Since music was ending early, we decided to high-tail it back to Jacksonville instead of camp out another night. As such, we went back to camp to tear it down and pack the car up. We made it back in for the second and final set of SCI, and we finally took our group picture in front of the Hula sign.
It being the last night of the festival, we all happily custied up for some vendor food, coffee, and beers. You can only eat so many cold sandwiches with water-logged lunch meat in a weekend. We smashed a gyro and I got one last IPA before heading to Spirit Lake to catch the end of Opiuo and do one more lap around the psychedelic playground.
The final headlining set of the weekend belonged to Janelle Monae. I’d listened to her albums but wasn’t sure what to expect live. She put on one hell of a show and was the perfect headliner for this festival that was all about honoring badass women in music. We only planned to watch half of her set but ended up staying for most of it. If you get the chance to see her live, don’t miss out.
Our last show of Hulaween was back at Spirit Lake with the funk outfit known as Turkuaz. We only caught a couple of songs, but grooving hard to them was a great way to end the festival.
With all music finished at 9:30, Spirit Lake became the main attraction for the last few hours of the festival. Our crew took turns lounging in the hammock and exploring all corners of the woods to make sure we didn’t miss anything.
They say time flies when you’re having fun, and it sure flew by this weekend. Just like that, we were back in the car and saying goodbye to Hulaween.
At first, I had doubts about putting forth so much effort to get to Hulaween. It didn’t help that Phish was playing three shows in Chicago the same weekend. Going there would have been much easier and cheaper, and Phish is definitely our favorite band. However, I think we made the right choice by going to Hulaween.
We had an amazing crew and got to spend quality time with friends we rarely see. Over the weekend, we crossed several bands off our live music bucket list, and we saw some amazing sets from some of our favorites.
The Spirit Lake area was absolutely mind-blowing, and certainly better eye candy than a cold parking lot near O’Hare Airport in Chicago.
We’ve been to lots of festivals over the years, but Hulaween already ranks among our Top 5. That’s pretty impressive considering we aren’t huge fans of the headlining band. If they deliver another stellar lineup next year, we just might have to be repeat offenders.
Hulaween was an incredible experience, and we’d love to get back again and bring some more friends along.