Thursday: In The Dark
It’s 7:30 pm on a Thursday. Fresh off the plane and a shuttle ride from Jacksonville Airport, I’m standing in the pitch black woods of The Spirit of Suwanee Music Park. We’ve been accepted to cover this event, and with our single pass, I elected to represent our publication at Suwannee Hulaween.
At this moment, I’m wondering: “What the hell did I get myself into?” The sunset was 30 minutes prior, and I’m hanging by a few vendor stands with absolutely no idea what I was going to do. My original planning had fallen through, I was supposed to meet another friend in the media, but due to unforeseen circumstances, she had dropped out. The friends that encouraged me to apply wouldn’t be arriving until Friday. I was riding solo, and frankly, I was afraid. What was I going to do? I had no place to sleep.
I made arrangements to stay with a group of solo campers to hold me over for a day, but with no cell service, the prospect of finding them was getting as dim as my surroundings. I had a Google screenshot of where I was supposed to go, but with my only landmark being the “metal playground” and the pitch black surroundings, I was starting to panic.
Desperation or The Best Decision?
I eventually made my way to “E-3.” This is what I thought was the solo campers’ sector (I later found out I was a sector off.) I wandered and then wandered some more, and like a moth to a lamp, I was drawn to the only source of light in the area, a set of illuminated canopies. Initially, I was there to catch my bearings, unpack a hi-power flashlight, but after 10 minutes of more wandering, I gravitated back and posed an awkward question.
“Would you guys mind if I crashed here for the night?” I asked. It ended up being the best question I asked all weekend. These people had no reason to host me and had no relation to Minnesota in any shape or form. I was just some guy that wandered, desperate for a halfway decent place to sleep. And yet, they accepted me with open arms.
I’d call it a case of Southern Hospitality. This group ended up being my anchor and rock for the rest of the weekend. My stay became so much more than a last-minute, one night crash in desperation and instead became a group I can safely say will be a lifelong crew I can visit in Florida. This was festival culture at its peak; only a festival like Hulaween could create a story such as this.
After a few introductions, we were off. Guided through the dark by a pink flamingo totem adorned in pink flamingo Christmas lights named Sassy, we traveled to our first show of the Thursday night pre-party: The Floozies. And, what way to start the fest it was. The rain was beginning to come down hard, but it only made the set even better. Each light beam that radiated from the stage illuminated the raindrops like glitter, and the Floozies played a killer set to back up the spectacle.
It was complete with their best Prince impression (Holla Minnesota), a cover of Runaway by The Old Kanye, some Caribou Lou and a hard rock cover of…..Despacito. The crowd wasn’t feeling that last one, but everything else was perfect, it was a wild way to start the festival.
Next up was Minnesota. And before I begin summarizing his set. Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, I’m from Minnesota. Yes, I was at Minnesota wearing a Minnesota Timberwolves Jersey telling people I’m from Minnesota and agreeing with them how funny it is that I’m from Minnesota. Yes, fellow Floridians, Minnesota like the DJ and the state. Sorry, I only heard that every single time I was asked where I was from, accompanied by a good old hard-O MinnesOta. Yes, I watched Fargo, no we don’t all sound like that. Are you listening to my voice? I don’t sound like that.
Anyways, Minnesota the DJ was impressive. His music was way harsher than I remembered but kept up with the wave of solid performances to start the festival. It was drop after drop after drop, and my first taste of the hard EDM I would be experiencing the rest of the festival. Eventually, we moved onto the amphitheater, where we caught the tail end of Lettuce and frankly I don’t remember a lot, mostly because the image of a woman in the audience stuffing her face with raw lettuce is burned in my eyeholes forever. This image is only beaten by a man in a Ghillie Suit at Electric Forest screaming “Are we in Hell? I LOVE HELL” during CloZee. I’m still waiting for something to top that. But, I digress.
Friday: Production Is King
Day 2 started in Spirit Lake, with MZG. MZG stands for Monozygotic, which after a quick Wikipedia search will land you on the page for identical twins. These two DJs are identical twins from Jacksonville, and they play a very energetic set, they were bouncing around and having the most excellent time while their day one fan was jumping around half shirtless up front, and their mom was handing out swag in the crowd. Maximum hometown vibes. I Loved it. This set would be one of two sets of theirs I caught, but more on that later.
After that, I caught another mainstay from Minnesota, Lizzo. You may know her for the going hard on the Flute on a recent barstool sports video. She was her usual self, yelling “bitch, you emotional” in between trills of the flute, and going hard in the paint with every dance move. She also got chased around the stage by a bee, which was hilarious in only the way Lizzo can make it that funny. Lizzo killed it, even with her early time slot.
I took a break to return for a Snakehips DJ set eventually. They mostly stayed away from any of their hits during their show, I was hoping for “Gone feat. Syd” but with that being a deep cut, I was a bit hopeful. However, their set was still excellent, featuring pretty much all the big pop hits of the last two years, and a few deeper cuts. It was a real crowd pleaser and a fantastic dance party.
Next up was supposed to be Action Bronson, but he canceled AGAIN. I was supposed to see him at Electric Forest as well. Tisk tisk man. So, we decided to see Fisher instead, and it was a fantastic decision. His music almost reminds me of jock jams; it’s just music that is going to hype you up and get you going. Every beat was worth head bumping to; it was a non-stop dance party for one straight hour. No one took a break. Moving up and down, side to side like a roller coaster x10…
Hello To The Cult Of Rezz
After that, Rezz was next. I ended up seeing Rezz four days later in Minneapolis for Halloween proper, so comparing both sets, I saw a lot of similarities. It was a hard-hitting set as I expected, but the speakers couldn’t carry a lot of the sound through the trees, so where I was located unfortunately didn’t grant me the hard-hitting bass that Rezz’s music needs for the full experience. One notable difference though was an absolutely phenomenal rendition of “Killing In The Name.” When that song dropped you could hear the entire amphitheater erupt, a smile immediately was plastered to my face till the end of the set. That was a strong ending.
Finally, the night ended with ODESZA. My feet felt like they were worn to the bone, but ODESZA is a headliner you have to see. The most recent iteration of their A Moment Apart tours features top-notch production. Everything seemed so well thought out and choreographed down to the smallest detail. Fireworks went off on cue, animations were solidly in sync in the music, and the drumline was clean as could be. It brought out the music in nerd in me that used to be in drumline, I geek every time I see their set, even though this is my third ODESZA sighting in recent years.
Saturday: The Gamut of Music
Saturday was my first bout of recovery. It started with the coldest shower of my life in the nearby campground stalls. You could hear the yelping of every single person that showered for the first time. I walked around, visited the media tent and caught The String Cheese Incident for the first time this festival.
It was kind of hard not to catch one of their sets, as they played for the most of the day on the main stage only stopping in between their sets for a quick break to catch their breath. Listening to Cheese is a lifestyle. No, this isn’t some highly choreographed set like ODESZA. Cheese jams, and covers songs for hours on end. You’re going to hear some of your favorite classics with a twist and in this year’s case a space-themed medley. That means star wars and all.
Looking at the crowd, it was indeed a lifestyle way of listening. People were bringing entire camping canopies, chairs and from what I heard even heard, a George Foreman Grill. People camp for Cheese, and props to the Hula for letting it happen. Cheese makes a festival happen within the festival. It’s a unique experience I didn’t catch at Forest, the timing just didn’t work out.
Trap & Tipper
TroyBoi was at the Amphitheater following my bout with Cheese, and I heard rumblings from some friends he was a set I had to check out. I met up with my crew and my found out that my friends were very right with their recommendation. TroyBoi threw down for his set. So much so that even he seemed a little surprised at the end saying “Wow, I think that might have been one of the best sets I’ve ever played.” Cue the swoons from the crowd over his British accent. If you want a sampling of his music check out “Afterhours” and “ili.” It doesn’t have the same punch of a live set but pretend you’re there.
The next highlight of the night was built up by camping crew and other random festivalgoers alike. Full disclosure, I’m still getting into the EDM life, and so I had never heard of Tipper before this festival. Cue the incredulous faces of everyone around me, apparently, I’m some weirdo. I was told, “Tipper is an experience.” “Tipper makes sounds that don’t exist man.” “There’s always someone at Tipper who can’t handle what they’re seeing or hearing.” (We did see someone wigging out of the set, midway through)
I’m inclined to agree with all of the above. Tipper was an audio-visual experience. The beats were unique and almost aquatic in the way they flowed. It was something you were supposed to get lost in, and the visuals were on a whole different level. Consisting of fractal patterns, Rick & Morty, and Marge Simpson turning into a fractal, It reminded me of that weird fever dream episode where Homer Simpson eats the super hot chili. (Anyone remember that?) Images would drift in and out at a moments notice, and your eyes would be focusing on a vague glimpse of something, only to have it shift into an entirely different image. It’s a lot for the brain to pick up on at once.
Canned Heat In My Heels Tonight
After Tipper, it was time for a giant shift. It was time for 90s legends Jamiroquai, pioneers of their unique house/funk/disco style. Their tour only made five stops in the United States, with Hula being one of the lucky festivals to get them. Jay Kay, their lead singer, is known for his elaborate headdresses when he performs on stage. And he’s still got moves, breaking into dance moves I couldn’t even begin to try to make, pretty impressive for someone on the verge of 50 years old.
It was a funk disco party, complete with that distinctive violin sound, and funky slap bass. Jay eventually balanced on the rail to greet his superfans who were camping out up front. Including someone who had a working replica of Jay Kay’s automation headdress. So cool.
Jamiroquai played all of their major hits, except for one glaring omission. “Cosmic Girl” got play time and so did “Little L.” My personal favorite “Canned Heat” came on near the end of the set, and I couldn’t help but dance even though my legs felt like giving out once again. However, when everyone expected the encore of “Virtual Insanity,” Jamiroquai left the stage, and the lights stayed dim for a whole minute before they finally went up. There would be no “Virtual Insanity” for what I can assume is because they’re probably sick of playing it.
The Allure of Spirit Lake & The Moments In Between
So, what do you when the final headliner is done at around 1 am? This is when the forest comes the most alive. The big music acts take a backseat to artistic experiences. Whoever is still awake goes to Spirit Lake. The large art installation at the center of the park filled to the brim with unique experiences put together by local and national artists alike. There were stages and sculptures enveloped in fire. A casino that is entirely run on the barter system. A hidden ball pit, I never found. A silent disco and an elaborate light show projected over the lake and 100s more installations all across the park.
I found myself wandering multiple times through the park, just taking in the sights. I sat watching fire dancers in front of the lake, and while they danced with fire, the lake did as well with jets of fire shooting out of teacup sculptures on the lake. In tandem with the laser light show, this was a fantastic spectacle. As I was leaving, I was yelled at by a girl to “STOP, and smell the roses.” After which, she put a giant rose in front of me. A message that became more relevant, the more I walked around. The journey was the most important part of Spirit Lake. It emphasized that the festival experience was so much more than rushing from stage to stage to catch artists and all about the experiences you have in between.
At this point it was 3:30am, and I decided it was time to check out the silent disco everyone has been raving about. I’ve been to a few silent discos in my short festival career, and honestly, they’ve been lame. Either the music was sub-par, or there just were not a lot of people participating. However, at 3:30 am the grounds were packed to the brim with people and the music was a pleasant surprise.
There were two channels to pick from at any given time, and when we stepped in and put on the headphones, it was heavy funk dub much like GRiZ and a non-stop mix of sad emo songs from the mid-2000s. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but my cup of tea, I was reliving my very emotional days in middle school and was loving it. Probably, one of the best surprises of the festival, to be honest. We stuck around all the way to 5:00am, and eventually, I went back to friend’s camp to take a load off.
For a whole hour, we heard house beats ring through the campsite while we were relaxing, there was no sleep to be had. Eventually, when it was time for me to head back to camp, I decided to check out the music with a friend. We turned the corner, walked through a canopy, and encountered the twins. MZG was playing a secret set out of an RV campsite, and their DJ table was the grill of an old car. The energy among the crowd was a 2nd wind for me, as the party continued well into the dawn. These were the experiences you would hope for in a festival, the spontaneity of being in the right place at the right time. Much like the group of campers that became good friends of mine.
Sunday: Slow Flow
After a late night or early morning, depending on what you want to call it. I was exhausted. I slept comfortably in my sleeping bag as it dropped to “bone-chilling” 48 degrees at night. Bone-chilling in quotes because as a Minnesotan who loves to brag about how much he can handle the cold, it was totally fine. But, I get it Florida, you have a different definition of cold. I got my start checking out the park and media area and eventually making my way to see Kasbo.
I cannot recommend his studio work enough. It’s criminally underappreciated, but I also realize he is still a relatively new artist. I just noticed that every single venue or stage he’s played has been tiny. His live act was alright, he performed many of his hits like “Your Tempo,” “The Little Things – Remix,” and “Lay It On Me.” The last one sounds like it should be a much bigger pop hit than it is. But that is just my opinion. Opuio was on next, and boy did it get crowded. I couldn’t even get remotely close to the stage to hear or see what was going on. I’ll just the say the guy needed a different stage than the one he got.
I decided I was going to close out the festival a little differently, as much as I like Janelle Monae, I decided to stick with back to back set at The Patch stage with NGHTMRE & Gramatik and honestly, it was a fantastic decision. NGHTMRE played one of the strongest, if not, the strongest DJ set of the weekend. Every song felt like it punched hard, the transitions were seamless, and no track lingered on too long. Every single song hit the note, and the energy was intense from both the stage and audience. It was my unexpectedly stunning set of the weekend.
Gramatik also ended out very strong. With similarities in almost every aspect of the NGHTMRE set. I was easy to get lost in the music and dance. It ended up being a string of emotional goodbyes, as the first of my camping crew started to make their way out of the campsite back to their homes.
Overall, I had unexpectedly amazing time at Hulaween, not that I didn’t know I was going to have fun. That apparent from the moment I got approved for a press pass. However, the experiences and the incredibly meaningful interactions I had will sit with me for the rest of my life. The things that are difficult to write about in a festival review, the moments in between. Those are what stuck with me the most.
I have to give a shout out to everyone that made those moments in between magical. You flipped the script on my Hulaween. I went from just another guy from Minnesota wandering the campsites in the dark to being part of a crew. To sharing moments with phenomenal people all across the park and genuinely understanding the magic that comes with being at a festival like Hulaween. A middle-sized festival that still has its luster and a certain kind of magic you can’t get a massive nationally publicized festival.
I bid farewell to the 2018 festival season; it was my first summer where I toured the country a little bit to catch what other states had to offer. It was terrific, and I can call myself blessed to be given the opportunity to do so. I can say that Hula was the perfect cherry on top of a fantastic summer, and I can’t wait to return for another year.