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Tuesday, November 26

Review and Photos: Suwannee Hulaween - SCI, KIMOCK, Big G, J. Hartswick and More - Oct 31 - Nov 2nd, 2013


It took no time at all before realizing this was not going to follow the familiar formula of the vast majority of modern music festivals. Upon my late arrival at 6:15 p.m. Halloween Night with the assumption of missing at the least the first, of a scheduled three sets from the master of ceremonies, The String Cheese Incident. To my amazement the entrance did not resemble a border-crossing and nobody was having their cars ripped apart like drug mules sneaking into another country. Instead, my vehicle was politely directed towards a bevy of breathtaking campsites. While rushing to the main stage the sun painted the sky making it impossible to ignore the sheer beauty of The Spirit of the Suwanne Music Park. Darkness setting on this historical venue only fueled an electric holiday vibe. Excitement oozed from the fevered fans in costumes while the actual park transformed into a psychedelic freak out waiting to reveal itself. It was 7:15 and all was right in the world.
The band put together their biggest Hulaween party to date, but make no mistake about it – it was a String Cheese Festival. The band was to play seven sets over the weekend with dozens of other acts set to perform. But Halloween belonged to them alone. They were to play three sets, including the special theme set.

S.C.I. strolled onto the stage similar to how a group of friends would walk into their local watering hole. The comfort level was as refreshing as they took to their instruments with huge grins. After a few friendly words, the party got started with a smoking Desert Dawn. Billy followed by leading the band through the appropriate classic, Rhythm of the Road. The band was a little rusty at first, in all fairness, it’s to be expected, as incidents are few and far between nowadays. What they lacked in timing, they more than made up for it with pure energy. By the time they arrived at the musical journey, “Valley Of the Jig” the painted crowd rejoiced with approval while dancing. Kyle confidently showed off a few new tricks. He would set the beat while Billy and Michael traded solos, producing a jam that exploded and covered immense terrain. The first stanza ended proper with the old school anthem, Texas. Keith, with an evil grin, warned us of the insanity that lay ahead.

The VOODOO theme revealed itself with the musicians being dressed as elaborate witch doctors and African medicine men. The stage antics made one feel they were in New Orleans in a time long forgotten. The colorful S.C.I. kicked into the consummate song with AC/DC’s, Hells Bells. They were joined by The Antbalas Horns and vocalists, Rhonda Thomas and Tony White, joined the band for the complete set of madness. The covers would all have a connection to… you guessed it! VOODOO! This, ironically enough happened to be the next song, borrowed by The Neville Bros. The eye candy that makes holiday incidents coveted was in full display. As fire balls warmed the crowd, the dancers and actors almost convinced us we’d taken the wrong turn off Bourbon Street. The set that followed was a Halloween show at its finest. Hearing a band cover fun tunes they would otherwise never play. This was no more obvious than when Jason appeared out of nowhere and frantically covered, Monster by Kanye West, coming out of the funkiest version of The Police’s Spirits in the Material World, his rap set the crowd ablaze. The chaos concluded with the return of Voodoo Child, into a blistering Black Magic Women. The last two numbers clocked in at over twenty minutes. The images coming from the stage flooded the senses as the music took everyone to that sacred place we all seem to chase. The horn section along with the soulful guest singers, actors, dancers and wild song arrangements made this set an instant classic. Everyone picked their jaws off the ground and tried to act natural for another set of Cheese lied ahead on this mystical night.

The party took a brief intermission, but picked up right where they left off with the Antbalas Horns joining Cheese for the upbeat number, Rosie. This already funky opener benefited with a full horn section, steering it in more of a jazz direction. The following two hours took me back to The Rockies in the early nineties, as the band was firing on all cylinders. Doing what only they can achieve by mixing every conceivable genre of music and turning into a sound all its own. This was on full display during their classic, It is What it Is. What started as an upbeat folk tale grew electronic arms and engulfed the crowd as they danced in a tribal fashion, hanging on every note. This electrifying music evolved into the Spirit of the Suwannee Jam. We all danced as one with shit-eating grins plastered to our faces, while all the forces combined in creating a jam worthy of such a name. This bliss bled into Keith’s Joyful Sound, once again the band knowing what I wanted to hear before I did. This was a healing song as we all sang together into the night. The third set ended with an On the Road, although the band encountered a few hiccups during the closer, it did little to hinder the vibe. Even with the show being over, S.C.I. saved the best for last during an encore that dominated the conversations around the campfires. The Antbalas Horns rejoined the boy’s as they got things crackling with a Miss Brown’s Teahouse for the ages. They took this classic for a spin incorporating the extra brass on stage. The vitality displayed produced the best version of this song, I have heard since the glory years. In seemingly an odd choice, the guest vocalists joined the fun for a cover of Hank Williams’s, I Saw the Light. I suppose they felt obligated to play one gospel song after dancing with the devil all night. It also gave Rhonda Thomas another chance to show off her angelic voice. We all suspected such a hell of a night would not end on such a holy note, and those expectations were answered when the band kicked into Peter Gabriel’s eighties opus Sledgehammer. The band shredded this cover with the horn section adding to the authenticity of the classic. The delirious assemblage seized the last opportunity of the night as they reached a fevered frenzy as Kyle led the theatrics with a spot-on vocal performance. What an incident! The band knew it was special as they took their time exiting the stage basking in the moment. It was a heroic Halloween and best of all, it was just the first day of this musical escapade. The plan was to go to the car for a hoodie and return for Larry and Jenny Keel‘s main stage closing set.
Plans are great until you wonder off on Halloween in a majestic park decorated by the String Cheese Incident. Words could never give the illumined forest and voodoo props justice; it was like we went down the rabbit hole. Time had lost all meaning around the moment my photographer pushed my swing inside a two story glowing jellyfish. We finally came to the conclusion it was time to get to the car, make camp and call it a night. It was a beautiful evening to say the least.
The next morning arrived earlier than I wanted, but compared to most camping festivals it was quiet and secluded. I woke with a grin that only Steve Kimock performing that day could produce. My amigo was fast asleep so I wanted to explore the grounds with clear eyes, as it were. The sun really exposed this music sanctuary in all its splendor. It was created with music festivals in mind. They had thought of everything from V.I.P. cabins to a General Store with reasonable prices. I mean, a case of Sweetwater 420, smokes, and a bag of ice for around twenty-five dollars, reasonable. They have everything you could possible need, or that item you always forget, for more than a fair mark up. I left the store mystified that more festivals don’t take this approach. It makes too much sense, does it not? One of the endless friendly people had a cart the festival rented by the day, and gave me a ride back to my camp. My photographer and partner in crime was stirring about and day two had officially begun.

The park was full of smiles all afternoon as we all enjoyed being free in our private Shangri-La. The crowd was peaceful and I did not witness one negative event. By now, Suwanee already had its hooks in me. Before we knew it, Steve Kimock and Friends were getting set to start the music. The magic that followed can only be created by one man, as his fingers danced seductively with his guitar. The crowd responded in kind. Bernie Worrall was extremely vibrant on this day, so Steve was more than happy to let the legend take over. From behind his keys he led the band through inspired versions of Red Hot Mama and Take Me To The River. Just as the band was catching fire, it ended. My only complaint of the whole festival was that Steve only played a little over an hour. The best picker does not play in the South often, but luckily we had not seen the last of Steve or Bernie.

String Cheese followed with two inspired sets. They might not have had devils dancing in midair, but such stunts were not needed. Daryl kicked off the dream set, while any rust that lingered on night one was clearly gone. Mr. Kimock and Bernie joined the boys for Freedom Jazz Dance and the music that followed suited the name. It was improvisation at its best as the song took on many forms, depending on any given musicians’ suggestion. The set closed with Big Shoes into Just One Story, while it was evident the thousands in attendance left their troubles at home and were engulfed in the moment.
Unfortunately, String Cheese’s second set would be the last one played this night. A massive thunderstorm descended upon the grounds, but who can the weather command. It was a bummer missing out on a whole night of music, but luckily S.C.I. sent us to our tents wet, cold and content. The set that preceded the wrath of Mother Nature was a beast to be reckoned with itself. Opening with Sirens into Way Back Home, the band was patient and let the music soar to places too precise to speak of. The highlight of the night was the Bumpin Reel with Dominic Lalli of Big Gigantic on the saxophone. The tender closer Restless Wind literally brought them, as we all got soaked dancing to the dramatic encore BollyMunster. Even though such acts like Big Gigantic and Conspirator were cancelled, everyone stared at the ceiling of their tent with a smile listening to the rain.
The next morning I could not believe my eyes. I saw bulldozers, sand and a staff with a plan. All the water was gone by two. It was so refreshing to see a festival actually care about our comfort after they had our money in their hands. Many festivals should take notes, as this park has perfected the festival experience.
Saturday’s music started with Leftover Salmon and the weather was perfect. Halfway through their always fun show, Billy joined for the remainder of the set turning it into a good, old-fashioned Colorado hoe-down. After Leftover, we stumbled across Elliot Lipp and his band. He had the auditorium stage in a panic with his impressive sampling catalog and his impressive band.
We rushed over to catch the last Incident of the festival and luckily they saved the best for last. I had to leave after the show and miss another all-nighter of incredible talent. The show that followed was a culmination of the band getting comfortable with each other from the first two nights and a touch of magic. Early in the first set, Leftover Salmon returned the favor and sat in playing their fitting original Zombie Jamboree. Once they exited, things got wild and weird. It felt like dancing a mile high at times. The delirious crowd danced to such gems as Howard, Rivertrance, and Shine. The boys sent us on our long drive back to Memphis with the Led Zeppelin classic, Kashmir.

I pulled out of the breathtaking venue with STS9 jamming in the background. It did not hurt near as much as I expected. My cup was full, my soul recharged. The best news I bring to you is this was the first annual. I know where I will be next year and the line-up is inconsequential, because they have me at seven sets of cheese and Suwannee. There is a reason a Cheese show is referred to as an incident, not just a concert. Here is hoping you know or find out as soon as possible. 
Words by Kevin Long
Photos by Ellis Jones IV
 ©Grateful Music LLC