Hulaween is a four-day extravaganza of music and art held at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida. The festival is nestled among 800 acres of the iconic live oak trees and Spanish moss native to the area. It’s a natural backdrop that really sets the scene for a spooky Halloween extravaganza. As soon as one steps foot onto these sacred grounds, there is also an electrically-charged energy pulsating throughout Hulaween. It’s a vibration that simply cannot be matched anywhere else.
The fall camping event takes place on the weekend immediately prior to Halloween each season and, every passing year, features a new exciting theme for the attendees to fully immerse themselves in. This past weekend’s theme was a widely-acclaimed favorite: The 90s. With a diverse line-up that spawned a mixture of electronic, jam, bluegrass, and underground acts, loyal festival-goers from all over the world flock to Spirit Lake year after year. They come in all shapes and sizes, from infants learning to walk to elderly Cheese heads perched in chairs towards the back of the music. They’re endearingly known as the Hula family.
Few can hold a candle to Hulaween. From a 90s themed String Cheese jam-party, to getting lost in Spirit Lake, to the unmatched Suwannee campgrounds, here’s a few things that make Suwannee Hulaween the most magical weekend of the year.
The impeccable artists and stages
As many know, Suwannee Hulaween is hosted and headlined by The String Cheese Incident (SCI). Formed in 1993 in Telluride, Colorado, SCI is one of the most widely recognized jamtronica bands in the US. The six-piece band (Jason Hann was added to the roster in 2004) can be heard multiple times throughout the weekend at the festival’s main attraction, the Meadow stage. This year, SCI played six sets instead of their usual seven by combining their ritualistic Sunday sets into one mega-bluegrass block.
The crowd-favorite themed set was a full on 90s-party with extraordinary circus performers and a full fireworks display. Opening strong with “Give it Away” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, String Cheese included songs by Alanis Morisette, Pearl Jam, and Tupac Shakur.
Here’s the best part: the entire band dressed as special agents of the Men In Black.
The second, and undoubtedly most talked about, set of the weekend belonged to Bassnectar. Playing his first set at Hulaween in 2017, the bass music icon was widely and controversially welcomed back for a second year. His Friday headlining spot was the perfect addition considering Bassnectar got his start traveling with and opening for The String Cheese Incident decades ago. His headlining slot was also perfect considering how routinely the magic of Hulaween gets compared to the early years of Electric Forest, where Bassnectar secured a residency after his first performing in Sherwood back in 2015.
The Bassnectar team delivered an insane production to a packed-out Meadow stage, complete with lasers, confetti cannons, and plenty of booming bass. From the front rail to the iconic HULA installment at the back of the main stage to as far as the eye could see, a dancing and flowing sea of people could be seen getting down low to the ground in crazy unison.
The Amphitheater is a permanent structure at the Spirit of Suwannee and is usually the main stage for all other events held at the park throughout the year. Complete with a semi-circle bowl design and trees scattered from one end to the other, the space makes for a perfectly delightful afternoon hammock session. Although it’s too small to sport the mainstage at a 30,000-person capped event like Hulaween, the Amphitheater is still a beloved area of the grounds.
In fact, some of this year’s top sets are found here over the course of the weekend. CloZee has become a Hulaween mainstay as she played Friday night to a packed-out showing at the Amphitheater. Just last year, the French glitch goddess proved she was much too popular for the smaller Spirit Lake stage. Also taking to the Amp stage, Tycho, Jai Wolf, Manic Focus, and Walker & Royce were some other top set features over the course of the weekend.
Tucked away beneath the pine trees on the west side of the venue, attendees will happen across the Patch stage. Comparable in size to the Amphitheater, the stage hosts many other big names on the annual line-up. STS9 gave two riveting performances during the Thursday pre-party as well as a prime time performance on Friday. Bubbles filled the air thanks to the clever Hula fam that unofficially declared that every Tribe set a bubble party some years ago.
Flying Lotus transformed the Patch stage into a prism Saturday night and left many floored as to what they had just witnessed. As one of the most talked about sets of the weekend, Fly Lo conjured up a sound bath that transported viewers through eery time and space dimensions.
The many wonders of Spirit Lake
One of Hulaween’s most prized installations is Spirit Lake, which transforms itself into an immersive wonderland maze of art surrounding the property’s Rees Lake. Two of the festival’s five stages are located within these walls. The area’s namesake stage, the Spirit Lake stage, hosted such names as SNAILS, Peekaboo, and Marc Rebillet, to name but a few.
The Campground Stage is also found within Spirit Lake. A majority of the underground and local scenes can be found here. Late night, the Campground stage is transformed into an impressive Silent Disco where the audience can choose between two acts depending on what channel they want to tune in and groove to.
While beautiful in and of itself during the day time hours, Spirit Lake truly comes to life at night. The space at night likens itself to a burn with all of the fire, colorful LEDs, and interactive art exhibits that attendees can peer into, climb on, and, in some cases, even ride on. Some of the art installations do in fact travel to the playa before arriving amongst the trees and moss surrounding the lake.
One of the most notable stages in Spirit Lake is the iconic traveling Incendia, which traces its roots back to Burning Man. After hours, festival goers flock to this large metal structure torched in flames to keep warm and hear some of the best impromptu secret sets of the weekend. This year, those sets came from Levitation Jones and Manic Focus as well as several underground artists.
Scattered throughout the lake are multiple installs by one of my favorite artists Thomas Dambo. Utilizing natural elements, Thomas builds some of the most incredible giant wood sculptures. Snorra the Lake Monster is probably his most recognized piece when you think of Suwannee and is a permanent resident of the park.
Birdhouse Village, also the brainchild of Dambo, incorporates natural elements found in the park along with vintage furniture and secret rooms. You can dine at their banquet table, channel your inner child in the secret ball pit, or stop for tea and good conversation as you explore the secrets the village has to offer.
The next stop in Spirit Lake is the Mural Maze, which contains works from some of the festival scene’s top artists. A twisting pathway of breathtaking pieces, one could easily lose themselves amongst the UV-reactive psychedelic paintings for hours at a time.
The jewel of the lake is definitely found on the actual lake itself. An immersive art exhibit of spooky sounds, lights, lasers, and projection mapped visuals onto spewing foundations shooting up from the lake itself, attendees will find others posted around the edge watching the display all the way up until daybreak.
Then, of course, there’s the onslaught of professional performers that truly bring the swampy grounds to life at Hulaween. These eccentric, in-character actors can be found at every nook and cranny of Spirit Lake, just waiting for a photo opp or generally getting into spooky shenanigans.
The campgrounds and Suwannee River
The campgrounds at Suwannee are like none other, making the music park truly a one-of-a-kind experience. While many festivals line cars up row by row in a large, open, sun-baked field, Suwannee’s grounds are an amalgamation of tree groves and winding trails, where campfires are welcomed and encouraged. Attendees are also allowed to camp wherever they please no matter what time they arrive at the park. Pro-tip: Camp next to the famed Bat House to witness the thousands of bats leaving at dusk to fulfill their nightly duties of ridding the campground of bugs.
At night, the campgrounds transform into a world hidden of renegade stages and the woods are lit up with each camp’s unique additions. Many campers choose to go all-out for Halloween when decorating their camp, sometimes arriving as early at three days before the festival kicks off, while others even bring candy in the spirit of the season.
For any first-timer to Suwannee Music Park, it’s highly encouraged to make a trip down to the black river at least once. The Suwannee River derives its dark color from the tannins of decaying leaves and other vegetation in the Okefenokee Swamp and maintains a black tint as it flows south. Despite the festival being hosted in October, the Florida days can get sweltering and that cold, black water is refreshing. Not to mention, it’s a complete daytime renegade party, with attendees busting out their coolers and handmade art. If you are lucky enough, you might even make it on a day when the make-shift water slide is up-and-running from atop the hill.
Truly living up to its reputation, Suwannee Hulaween holds a special place in the hearts and minds of many. No detail is spared in the making of this magical transformation of Spirit of Suwannee, making it the premiere fall-time event of the South, bar none. For many in the beloved Hula fam, we speak for everyone when we say we wait to return home in the fall of 2020.
Photo credits: Josh Stolnik, Bryan Edward, Aaron Bradley, Keith Griner, Carolyn Morrell.