Where Happiness Resides: Suwannee Hulaween 2016 [Review]
When you think of Florida, you probably envision sandy beaches and swaying palm trees. But tucked away in the north Florida woods, near the city of Live Oak, is a place that far exceeds these common expectations. That place is Suwannee Hulaween. It is almost impossible to describe Hulaween to someone who wasn’t there because words completely fail to do it justice or capture the magnitude of the festival. From the minute you set foot in this beautiful park, you are overcome with happiness and overwhelmed with the feeling that something amazing is about to happen; and it will, if you are open to it.
The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park is located deep in the forest just above the city of Live Oak in north central Florida. You wouldn’t think much of it as a place to hold a large music festival like Hulaween, but once everything is set up and the patrons are inside, it is nothing short of magical. The venue spans such a distance that many people prefer to travel around by bicycle or golf carts. When you go to Suwannee, be prepared to do some serious walking and bring a bandana, because it is seriously dusty. The amazing thing about the venue’s vast size is that it allows space for a large amount of people but it never feels overcrowded.
The main area of the festival — where Spirit Lake, the stages and most vendors are located — is (for the most part) in the center of the park with the different campsites located around the perimeter. This year, Hulaween added a new stage called The Patch, which was off to the left of main stage (The Meadow). Although The Meadow was the main focus for most attendees, The Amphitheater stage was – and always is – a favorite of Hula goers. The architecture of the stage allows for perfect acoustics and is shaded by numerous trees that allow you to escape the hot Florida sun, chill in your hammock and just listen to the music.
I don’t even know where to begin with the art installations at this year’s Hulaween. I will say that much of the art – probably 90 percent — was located at Spirit Lake. It was great to look at during the day, but at night, it truly came alive. Many of the installations were interactive, like the Geo Dome swing set and the life-size Lite-Brite board, among many other amazing activities like slack lining and ceremonies under the Oasis tent.
Wandering around Spirit Lake at night was like being transported to a different dimension. The more you explored, the more you realized how massive this area was; like you took a trip down the rabbit hole and there was something new to discover each time you entered this mystical, illuminated world. At night, there were places you went and things you saw that you didn’t experience during the daytime.
If you make it to Suwannee Hulaween, I highly recommend getting lost in Spirit Lake for a few hours. It will most certainly change — or at least alter — your perspective and expand your horizons of what you thought was possible.
I’m not sure where to begin with the music. This year was unbelievable, with so many talented acts and of course The String Cheese Incident putting on probably one of the best shows I have yet to see from them; seven mind-blowing sets to be exact. The Thursday night pre party had a higher attendance than last year; the energy was palpable as EOTO tore into the audience with their intergalactic improv jams and Umphrey’s McGee finished out the night with two rockin’ sets.
A major highlight of the festival was SCI’s Saturday night show. The theme this year was “Stringier Things,” a play on the hit Netflix series, Stranger Things. Their set was straight out of the ‘80s, covering songs such as Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Billy Idol’s “White Wedding,” Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” and Talking Head’s “Burning Down the House.” SCI definitely burned down the house that night with their music and the spectacle was mind blowing, reminiscent of their EF Saturday set, with giant inflatable Rubik’s Cubes, heart-shaped balloons, confetti, fireworks, and performers flying back and forth in the air on giant poles. It was ridiculous in the best way possible.
STS9 was another highlight of the weekend. Even though they performed on the new Patch stage – which barely allowed room for everyone who wanted to see them – they played one of the best festival sets I, personally, have ever witnessed from them. Playing banger after banger, including “This, Us,” “Blu Mood,” “Grow” with “Doom Doom” tease, “20-12” into “Modular” and “Baraka” — which many have been waiting to hear live for a while. They ended their set with a massive “EHM” improv jam encore that left everyone wanting more; which is definitely not uncommon for Tribe shows.
Another outstanding show of the weekend was Lettuce. Playing at the Amphitheater stage from dusk and into the evening hours, it was anything but a typical Lettuce set. It got weird… it was the greatest festival performance I’ve seen from them in a while. As the night progressed and they got deeper into their set, they started incorporating these trippy, wobbly, psychedelic undertones into their songs that I’ve never heard from them before which took it to a whole other level.
There were many other amazing acts of the weekend; it’s nearly impossible to name them all. The last night of the festival, Big Gigantic performed on main stage with The Motet and surprised everyone by playing Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with members from The String Cheese Incident sitting in. Other stellar acts of the weekend included Rebelution, My Morning Jacket, Gramatik, Greensky Bluegrass, Manic Focus, The Claypool Lennon Delirium, Claude VonStroke, Snarky Puppy, Twiddle, Thriftworks, Sunsquabi, and many more.
The variety at Hulaween didn’t stop at the music; the vendors at the festival were just as diverse. My friends and I constantly talked — and overheard others talking — about how amazing it was that Hulaween had such a plentiful selection of food and merchandise vendors; more than any other festival we have been to this year. Hulaween goes all out in more ways than one, and the massive amount of vendors was proof of that. There wasn’t just one area of vendors either. Inside the main venue was where most of them were located, but there were also many outside of the main gate so you didn’t have to walk exceedingly far every time you wanted to eat, drink, or shop for merchandise.
Like I said before, it’s hard to put in words what Suwannee Hulaween is like; you just have to experience it for yourself. There is really no accurate way to describe this festival because everyone’s individual experience is completely different. The vibes you get from being at this festival are unreal. When you go to Suwannee, it’s like everything else that was in your head or bothering you before you got there just cancels out. You become free, like the shackles of everyday life suddenly break loose and you have not a care in the world.
Everyone is there for the same reason; everything around you is sensory overload in the best possible way. It’s a place where you can go to escape the trials and tribulations of everyday life. A place where you have no worries or stress, where everything is as it should be. A place where your heart and mind become open and receptive to new experiences; where you can expect the unexpected. A place where you can experience absolute HAPPINESS in its purest form.