Suwannee Hulaween 2023 Recap

Hulaween has become one of the best, most popular multi-genre festivals in the East since it’s inception in 2013. I’ve now attended seven in a row since 2015 (no event in 2020) and somehow it keeps getting bigger and better.  It’s a split of live bands and electronic music, five stages from very large to intimate-sized, spread out among a tree-canopied campground for four days, Thursday to Sunday.

String Cheese Incident is the headliner always — it’s their festival — and they typically perform six sets, two each day, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  Back in 2015, I didn’t know much about ‘Cheese’ but I quickly grew to appreciate their remarkable musicianship,  being able to play anything and everything from jazz fusion to funk to jam to bluegrass and more. My first year I heard them cover “Birdland” from Weather Report’s Heavy Weather album and I’ve enjoyed them ever since.

Each Hula Saturday night, Cheese does a themed-set and it’s always a festival highlight — this year’s theme was disco and it was incredible. I don’t typically catch a lot of Cheese during the fest because I’m at some of the smaller stages but I never miss the Saturday theme set and in my experience, this was the best. The musicianship, showmanship and effects including fireworks at the end make it a magical festival spectacle.

As usual, most of my time is at some of the smaller stages where there’s always some fantastic live bands across the stages. Here’s a recap of my journey filming and otherwise chilling  around the whole fest.

Thursday

I rolled up a little bit later than expected on Thursday but still managed to get a full day of listening and recording in and found a couple of new bands for me to keep an eye on

Trevor Bystrom was first up for me – a band that I didn’t know anything about other than a quick look on YouTube.  They were definitely a nice surprise with a mix of reggae, world, latin and other genres in the mix. I particular like the multi-instrumentation of Trevor and the keys/sax player. A highlight for me was when they played Jingo from Santana, a long time not heard favorite.

The Main Squeeze was up next on The Amphitheater Stage, my favorite of the five stages and typically where I spend a lot of time at Hula.  This year, this was the only set that I captured there but I did hit several other great sets there.

The Main Squeeze is a perennial Suwannee favorite and they were one of the highlights of the Thursday opener. Each member is a top notch player and they mesh like a well oiled machine. One of the set highlights was Chocolate Salty Balls near the end.

After being Squozen, I bounced from Twiddle to Ajeva to Disco Biscuits fitting in some refueling at the trucks as well. My buddy Lee Rissin highly recommended the next band for my adventure and I’m glad he did.

The Iceman Special was the Thursday night cap for me and a shocker. Coming on stage as Teletubbies was a strange juxtaposition with their swamp funk music. Coming out of the great music city of New Orleans they play some nasty grooves with the edginess of punk and metal. They’re one band new to me and I’ll keep an eye out for them if they are anywhere near my location.

Friday

I’d scoped out the Friday lineup and recognized it was gonna be an end to end sprint if I was gonna stick with my plan. It featured three bands that I’d seen before and marked as can’t miss – LPT, Wednesday Night TItans and Franc Moody. On top of that there were two bands, Cimafunk and Blaque Dynamite, that I was familiar with but hadn’t seen and I knew I wanted to catch.

LPT kicked off the day on the huge Meadows stage and built a crowd as people heard them playing their bona fide, qualified salsa music. The band as they say on their website is a 10-piece orchestra, featuring the dynamic Josué A. Cruz on lead vocals and a full four piece horn section.

I first caught them live at Suwannee Rising in April 2019 and was looking forward to this set – definitely worth getting out early. A super fun highlight was a band’s revenge on the now pervasive fan calls for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird. LPT answered the call and kicked ass!

Cimafunk was recommended to me by my buddy Radames after checking them out on YouTube, I knew I’d have to hit this set. It’s kind of like James Brown meets Harry Belafonte and Fela Kuti, a mix of funk, caribbean and African music in a fiery blend. The whole band was fire and it was another set where people were talking about it a lot on social media after the fest. So glad I hung out in the hot sun at the Meadows again for this blazing set.

Blaque Dynamite aka Mike Mitchell was up next on the Spirit Lake Stage. He’s an amazing drummer that I’ve seen perform before, most notably with Shaun Martin of Snarky Puppy but I’d never seen him as a leader. He came out with a quartet including Tommy Shugart, keys; Brad Adam Miller, bass and Thomas Griggs, guitar. I’ve also seen Tommy many times with different bands so I knew it would be good and funky.  This was another set that pulled in a huge crowd of passers by once they heard the groove emanating at the lake.

Wednesday Night Titans, I’m happy to say created a sensation on the Campground Stage Friday night. I can’t do better than the way I described it in my preview – you gotta see it to believe it — the most unique set you can see all weekend and will alter your already altered state. It’s the brainchild of drummer Zach Danziger and bassist Kevin Scott. I’ve caught WNT a few times and it’s a multimedia, Championship Wrestling-fueled extravaganza that’s one-part NASA-like brain challenge (Google “Zach Danziger TED Talk”), two parts interactive video shock treatment, and three parts future-music language lesson.

This is another one that was blowing peoples minds for weeks after the festival with people still mind tasered.

Franc Moody was one of my most anticipated sets of the weekend and exceeded expectations. The British pop-synth-funk-electronic band knits heavy beats, catchy melodies and lyrics, and flat out funk in a non-stop dance mix.  This was actually my third time seeing them after Suwannee Rising in April, Terminal West in Atlanta in May and this one.  A highlight for me was Amber Simone, percussionist absolutely slaying the tune In Too Deep.  

People were lined up well in advance for this one, people that knew or people that were just curious and this one rocked the Hallows Stage, my first trip there for the weekend. The location, view lines and audio were all much improved from last year and that was a good omen as I ended up spending more time there than any other stage.

Saturday

Saturday is traditionally the big one for Hula – for me it was all about catching Lawrence and Lettuce back to back on the Hallows stage. But, as I mentioned in the lead String Cheese Incident blew me away. There’s plenty of comments and videos up on YouTube for them but the showmanship and musicianship of that theme set was a Hula memory for the ages. I’d be hard pressed to imagine any other setting coming up with such a superb stage show as that one. As the nightcap I swung over to the Amphitheater again to catch STS9, another jamtronica band that I’ve seen multiple times. The set at Hula was probably the best I’ve heard. Admitedly, I’m not a 9 expert but the sound was as lush and melodic as I’ve ever heard and the laser bouncing around the Spanish Moss is just super comforting to close the night.

Lawrence is a band that just hits me in the solar plexus. They’re led by Clyde and Gracie Lawrence, brother and sister from Long Island, NY where I grew up.  They both are amazing vocalists with Clyde also playing keys. Gracie has tremendous vocal chops and is a non-stop kinetic force. This band has it all – great vocals, harmonies, horn licks, catchy lyrics, stage presence, audience involvement and tons of fun. I first got wind of them at Sweetwater 420 in Atlanta this year and marked them down for another look as soon as the schedule came out.  One of my personal favorites is Do You Wanna Do Nothing With Me?

Lettuce…..the band I’ve seen the most out of any band here and once of the most in my life.  Yet, still the band that I most look forward to seeing at any festival I’m at — they’re that great — the funkiest band on the plane bar none. They are the reason that I’m at Suwannee in the first place — I was seeking out where I could catch them back in 2010 and saw this crazy, no where place called Live Oak with a festival called Bear Creek and I made the sojourn. I was hooked on Lett for life!

The band’s album Unify is the third in the trilogy following Resonate and Elevate and all three are masterworks. The band always puts new spins on every song and I love everything they do – super cool vibes every second, from old to new and covers to boot.  Two highlights for me were All Night Long (Mary Jane Girls cover) and Hawk’s Claw, a killer James Bond-themed ominous funk feast from the Unify album.

Sunday

Sunday was another day that I’d been training for – nonstop funky fun from one end to the other in a tighter schedule and no relief. Fortunately the first three bands were a triumvirate back to back on the Hallows Stage – Mark Lettieri Band, Cory Wong and The Fearless Flyers (featuring Mark and Cory). It was amazing and worth sweating it out. Toubab Krewe, an eclectic genre-bending band was also on tap in the evening. I love their vibe – they were actually my first Suwannee festy band. Back when I was due to come to my first Bear Creek Festival in 2010, they were up on the first day in the old Purple Hat Circus Tent! Last and not least was a new found favorite Butcher Brown featuring Nigel Hall of Lettuce. They worked their magic blend of funk, jazz and hip-hop seamlessly and for me closed out a superb festival perfectly.

Mark Lettieri Group was one my most anticipated, under-the-radar sets of the festival. Anyone who knows FunkCity.net knows my passion for Snarky Puppy, of which Mark is a long-term member. He’s also been extremely successful with his solo work including “Deep: The Baritone Sessions Vol. 2” a kickass album reviewed here that got widespread acclaim. Mark brings his group that includes Jason “JT” Thomas (Snarky Puppy, FORQ) on drums, Wes Stephensen (Funky Knuckles) on bass and Daniel Porter on keys. The band made their first trip to Live Oak for Suwannee Rising in 2021 and so many people got turned on to them for the first time there.

MLG opened the day at the unfriendly hour of 12:30 pm on the Hallows Stage. People that made it out said it was one of the best sets of the festival. Mark is magical on guitar and baritone guitar and he plays all kick ass funk jams. A particular favorite of mine is Star Catchers but you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Cory Wong is a straight up, no holds barred helluva guitarist, song writer and bandleader.  He’s got a fantastic band (The Wongnotes) and writes super funky tunes and is a pleasure to watch on stage.  After first gaining fame as an adjacent Vulfpeck member, he struck out on his own toured with small combos, horn enhanced bands and of course as a founding member of The Fearless Flyers. A favorite that showcases Eddie Barbash on sax is the tune Smoke Show but the whole set is lit.

Fearless Flyers were at the top of my list for Hula must see acts. FF is a super group comprised of Joe Dart (bass) and Cory Wong (guitar), both of Vulfpeck fame, Mark Lettieri (guitar) and Nate Smith (drums). Each player is a master of their craft – Nate is one of the best pocket drummers on the planet and Joe is recognized as one of the top funk bassists around. Fearless Flyers started as a ‘side’ project but has emerged as a headliner in their own right with three studio albums plus a live recording from their set opening for Vulpeck at Madison Square Garden!

What I didn’t realize is that that FF had only performed live less that 10 times I think, prior to Hulaween. Despite putting out a few albums and a tremendous YouTube following, their schedules had not permitted may live performances so this was a rare delicacy that smashed my musical tastebuds.  Again, the full set brought the heat but naturally the closer Ace of Aces was a fave.

Toubab Krewe as mentioned is personal favorite. They meld great Mali West African band music with sounds of southern funk.  Justin Perkins is a maestro on kora, kamelngoni, guitar, and percussion and his partner Luke Quaranta on percussion form a dynamic duo along with the rest of the Krewe. The pulsating rhythms and beautiful melodies were a great way for me to close out my recordings at this wonderful festival.

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