Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Suwannee Hulaween 2015: A Spectacular Spectacle

String Cheese Incident "Ghoul Train" dancers. Dave Vann photo.
Truth be told, festgrrl is still trying to piece together all the spectacular-ness that happened at Suwannee Hulaween 2015, and she is sure she is not alone. 

Roller-skating disco dancers. Fire-breathing iron sculptures. Primus thump-bass craziness. Head –spinning, hand-springing break dancers. Giant stilt walkers “anointing” fans’ foreheads with orange cheese stickers from a grocery store dairy department. Burlesque ladies twirling on trapeze beside hard-charging British funk band The New Mastersounds in the wee hours. A big swingset shaped like a jellyfish. A giant monster that Danish artists built in the cypress forest out of recycled construction pallets. And, as has been the case during the last two Hulaweens, truly inspired Halloween costumes from the wackiest of fans (A whole CROWD of full-on giant Muppets!)

festgrrl photo.

One of those wavy figures you see at car lots! festgrrl photo.

Gorgeous Earth Mama. festgrrl photo.

festgrrl photo.
This Hulaween was the biggest festival to ever hit the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Fla, with attendance reported at 21,000. In comparison, about 7,500 people attended Hulaween 2014.

Before you say: That’s too big! Let me tell you, it worked out just fine. Yeah, the lines to do stuff were a little longer. And yeah, there were a lot more people moving to and fro. But this is a big park with nice sightlines to all the stages, and I never felt “boxed in,” and even if I had to stand way in the back sometimes, I could see and hear the shows.
An artist paints at Spirit Lake. festgrrl photo.
Creating a dreamcatcher pyramid. festgrrl photo.

Magical campsite. festgrrl photo.

Stilt walkers everywhere! festgrrl photo.

And Hulaween has one thing no other festival at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park has: the amazing “Spirit Lake” psychedelic forest, which dozens of artists work hard to create for our pleasure and amazement. I spent many happy hours in there, swinging on the jellyfish swings, chilling in one of the many available hammocks, watching the professional light show swoop its way around the park’s gorgeous cypress lake and wandering among the inspired art installations, some of which were interactive.

Building the Spirit Lake monster. festgrrl photo.
The finished monster! Josh Timmermans photo.
Spirit Lake. Keith Griner photo.
Spirit Lake entrance. At night, a projector animated it. festgrrl photo.
Saturday night’s “Ghoul Train” (a Halloweeny-twist on the classic 1970s, dance show, Soul Train) set by The String Cheese Incident was one of the coolest, best executed, and creative performances I’ve ever witnessed at a festival.

Not having any idea of what was in store, we arrived for String Cheese’s second set of the night in the Meadow to see GHOUL TRAIN lit up in lights in the Soul Train font above the stage. Then we noticed that they had put staggered risers in place with Solid-Gold style dancers in glitter outfits flanking the band.

Dave Vann photo.
Break dancers came out.

Keith Griner photo.
And roller skating dancers.

Dave Vann photo.
CRAZY! The String Cheese Incident band members were unrecognizable in their Disco costumes as they launched into an infectious retro-licious ‘70s dance party that made it impossible to sit down for even a single minute.
 Michael Kang of String Cheese Incident. Keith Griner photo.

GZA of Wu Tang Clan acted the part of Soul Train’s emcee, the late Don Cornelius.

GZA of Wu Tang Clan (right) was emcee. Keith Griner photo.
Check out this groovy classic hits set list: Brick House, Got To Be Real, Dancing In September, Pick Up The Pieces, I'm Your Boogie Man, Car Wash, Lady Marmalade, Cold Sweat, I Want To Take You Higher > Dance To The Music. Confetti and bubbles showered the dancing masses.

Dave Vann photo.

Thanks to our great and selfless taper, Sober Goat, you can see this amazing set for yourself right here:

The fest kicked off with a badass dance pre party on Thursday night, with New Orleans’ Ivan Neville showing up in a creepy clown mask for Dumpstaphunk’s hard-charging party set.

Ivan Neville of Dumpstaphunk! Dave Vann photo.
The Dumpstaphunk set featured a cool cover of Led Zeppelin’s classic “Ramble On.”

You can see that cover here:

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead hit the stage next, turning out a two-and-a-half hour show full of high-energy, feel-good Grateful Dead covers. They turned a packed ampitheater stage into a grinning boogie communion that started us all off right. Thanks to our wonderful tapers, you can see that set right here:

Hulaween did a nice job of mixing genres: Plenty of thump-thump for the hordes of enthusiastic electronic dance music fans in attendance (who raved about the Pretty Lights, Odesza, and GRiZ shows, in particular,) plus funk, bluegrass, prog-rock, reggae, folk, and a couple of mixed genres that defy description.
Pretty Lights. Photo by Josh Timmermans.

Dave Vann photo.

An intricate Spirit Lake art installation. Chris Monaghan photo. 
The String Cheese Incident continues to be stunning, turning out seven sets over the weekend that each managed to be its own stand-alone kickass show. You can call this band versatile, and the label fits, but it hardly touches the intriguing variety these Colorado players produce. From the afore-mentioned Ghoul Train set to the intricate Sunday afternoon bluegrass set with guests Sam Bush, the Shook Twins, and Elephant Revival to Sunday night’s face-melting closing improvisational jam, String Cheese showed plainly why they are one of the top jam bands touring today.

The Shook Twins. festgrrl photo.
There has been a lot of talk about how this the “last year” for Hulaween, but our hosts, String Cheese Incident, say they’ll be back with bells on next year. You can read all about it in this great interview with Cheese guitarist Bill Nershi by Livefor Live Music.

Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds in "Back to the Future" costumes. Josh Timmermans photo.

Some of the Hulaween shows you just can’t explain with words. Check out this Primus set:

Festgrrl stayed at the park until the bitter end Sunday, and by the looks of things, so did most fans. The field was packed for the final String Cheese shows and the ampitheater was packed, too, for Boston power-funk band, Lettuce. You can see their Sunday night show below, as well as the Sunday night show by STS9.

festgrrl photo.
If you missed Hulaween this year, I’d advise you not to make the same mistake next year. This fest is happening. The promoters did a great job picking bands, keeping on schedule, and creating an intriguing, whacky world for all of us to escape to for a weekend. This is the life, peeps, Get it while you can.

Here's Sunday's STS9 closer set at The Meadow Stage:

'Til next year! festgrrl photo.

Friday, November 6, 2015

MagnoliaFest 2015 Delivers Fine Americana Extravaganza in Paradise

Keller Williams doing "Grateful Gospel." festgrrl photo.
Starting with the first few notes of the Lee Boys’ sacred  steel guitar throw-down on a blue-sky Thursday afternoon, and ending with the swaying love-fest for Donna the Buffalo Sunday night, MagnoliaFest 2015 delivered memorable performances from an nicely eclectic Americana lineup.

MagnoliaFest happens at the nicest time of the year, when Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park struts its fall colors. It’s still warm enough for a dip in the Suwannee River at the park’s beautiful beach in Live Oak, Fla. The nice weather seems to make everybody play with a little more verve.

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. Josh Webster photo.
Friday night headliners Tedeschi Trucks Band seemed to stretch out some, bracketing their hard-charging blues songs with improvisational jams that bent the mind. To call Derek Trucks a great guitar player is a massive understatement, and anyway, it doesn’t seem to quite capture it.  He and wife Susan Tedeschi and the band have mad soul chops and an infectious emotional energy that felt just right under the domed, starry sky of the park’s Meadow Stage.

The Motet's Jans Ingber getting down. festgrrl photo.
We’d already been treated to some fine performances Thursday night by headliners Lake Street Dive, and by the bands that went before, including the Ivey West Band, Band of Heathens, Parker Urban Band, The Congress, The Corbitt Brothers, The Motet, and Nikki Talley.  A fine night of music, indeed, with The Motet presiding over a massively funky dance party that set the weekend mood. Singer Nikki Talley had a tough job, following that party-time. But she took the porch stage with her husband, Jason, and, with a clear, strong voice, showed us all what gorgeous mountain music is all about.

Rebirth Brass Band. festgrrl photo.
The soulful Parker Urban Band out of Jacksonville gave another great showing, continuing their inspiring rise. The indie-rock band The Congress was new to me, and Woah! – I was blown away by the vocals of Jonathan Meadows, a bearded ginger-haired fellow who had a sound like Wilson Pickett. More show-stopping vocals came from Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price. I saw this band at Floydfest in Virginia when they won the “Bands on the Rise” award several years ago – now they are headlining to adoring crowds.

Shannon Bliss, Applebutter Express. festgrrl photo.
On Friday, I caught The Applebutter Express, a bluegrass band out of Tampa with an infectious groove, a great lead singer in Shannon Bliss, and a sly sense of humor. Berry Oakley’s Skylab, which has lineage from the Allman Brothers, rocked the ampitheater stage before The Lost Bayou Ramblers got folks funky-stepping.

Col. Bruce Hampton. festgrrl photo.
Quirky Col. Bruce Hampton drew the faithful together for a solid set before two bluegrass powerhouses, the Steep Canyon Rangers and the Del McCoury Band, played on (unfortunately) competing stages.

Del McCoury Band. Josh Webster photo.
The night rounded out with another set by The Congress, Quartermoon, The London Souls, Doyle Bramhall II, the Travelin’ McCoury’s with steel-guitar star Roosevelt Collier, the afore-mentioned heavenly Tedeschi Trucks Band, followed by another balls-to-the-wall funk set by The Motet late-night.

festgrrl photo.
Saturday morning (OK, it was noon) opened with a wonderful ampitheater set by Steve Pruett’s Back from the Brink, a really good bluegrass band featuring mandolinist Steve Pruett and his daughter, fiddler Lindsay Pruett. One highlight was their killer bluegrass version of Bill Withers’ “Use Me Up.”

Dad Steve, daughter Lindsay Pruett. festgrrl photo
I always love a set by Wisconsin bluegrass originals Sloppy Joe, who graciously host the late-night campfire picking venue, Slopryland, each MagnoliaFest. They performed in the Music Hall Saturday afternoon, even though it was awfully hard to be inside ANYWHERE with the stellar fall weather. Folk artist Whetherman (the nom de plume of Nicholas Williams) hit the Porch Stage, this time bringing a band along with him and turning out tight harmonies and thoughtful lyrics.

Whetherman. festgrrl photo.
 Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons then set the stage on fire with aggressive electric guitar. Bluegrass duo Grits & Soul and Americana legend Jim Lauderdale rounded out the day in the Music Hall.  Jeff Austin, former mandolin player (and co-founder) of Yonder Mountain String Band, kicked off the evening’s entertainment on the Meadow Stage.  Unfortunately, I had to miss this set.

The Quebe Sisters. festgrrl photo.
I caught the angel-singing and fiddle playing of the Quebe Sisters and the brass blast of New Orleans’ Rebirth Brass Band, the fast-as-hell picking of Grandpa’s Cough Medicine and the funky power of The New Orleans Suspects before Friday’s headliners, The Avett Brothers.

The Avett Brothers. festgrrl photo.
I am an Avett Brothers fan from way back, and I have seen a lot of Avett shows, and this one was a straight-ahead gift to the faithful. The band was in turns tender and folky, funny, punk frenzy, boy-band harmonizers, and even a nod to Arena rock. Fiddler Tania Elizabeth, formerly of The Duhks, did a haunting solo French Canadian fiddle and vocal song. The Avetts played some of my very favorite tunes, and came back for two encores  -- one during which they played a very cool old-time instrumental rag.

Donna the Buffalo's Jeb Puryear. festgrrl photo.
The rootsy New York state jamband with a Cajun flair, Donnna the Buffalo, took the ampitheater stage late night for a wonderful show. Jeb Puryear’s guitar playing is complex, soulful and just plain magical, and the band kept the groove high, turning out a passel of favorite songs to a packed, continually dancing crowd. Their music just makes me feel so good, and I love the energy from the dancing fans. Being in that crowd is one of my very favorite things in life.

On Sunday the fest always telescopes down to a smaller, more intimate experience. All the music acts happen on the same stage, the beautiful Spanish-moss draped ampitheater. Again, we had another picture-perfect day, blue skies, mild temperatures and puffy clouds. As most people packed up in the campgrounds, the rest of us grabbed beverages and hammocks and settled in. Big Cosmo, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, and Jim Lauderdale entertained all afternoon, and at 4:30 Keller Williams Grateful Gospel took the stage.

Keller Williams' Grateful Gospel singers. festgrrl photo.
Keller brought along luscious lady backup singers, and they moved nicely through Grateful Dead covers during the afternoon.

Then it was time for the traditional closer, Donna the Buffalo’s Sunday evening set. One more band, one more dance-fest, and it was time to be on our way home, until the magic starts again next year. Lucky us.

festgrrl photo.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Leftover Salmon Has Five Florida Dates

Innovative Colorado bluegrass demons Leftover Salmon are doing a mini-tour through Florida.

They play:

Pensacola     Nov. 4
Ponte Vedra Nov. 5
St. Pete         Nov. 6
Tallahassee  Nov. 7
Orlando        Nov. 8

If you've never seen these pioneers of "Poly-ethnic Slam-Grass," you owe it to yourself to grab your dancing shoes and catch one of these shows. With sly humor, serious musical chops, a tilted approach to the genre and a general attitude of good cheer, Leftover Salmon never disappoints.

Check out this performance of "Aquatic Hitchhiker." (And don't be lulled by the slow beginning, 'cause these boys RAGE.)