The String Cheese Incident produced their second Suwannee Hulaween festival this past weekend. After taking a break from the Halloween theatrics following 2010’s Hulaween at the Hampton Coliseum, the spooky extravaganza found a new home last year at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Festival.
Combining the successes from last year and adding to the fun, Hulaween was bigger and better in 2014 than in its inaugural year. Spirit Lake, the Electric Forest-esque tripster village, was bigger and better, with more engaging installations and Burning Man art present.
The multi-media festival has become the String Cheese Incident’s flagship event in its second year. With an extra set of Cheese and a lack of Insomniac’s DJ roster, it’s definitely more SCI-oriented than Electric Forest.
And with their first tour in years kicking off at the event, String Cheese Incident displayed that their band is in the best place it has been in years.
With three sets slotted for the first day, Halloween, SCI kicked things off with a “Friday the 13th Jam” straight in to fan-favorite “Restless Wind.” “Joyful Sound,” “Pygmy Pony,” and a set-closing “Can’t Wait Another Day” rounded out an 8-song set that took it easy with the theatrical Halloween set looming. And what a Halloween set it was…
Dawning white suits and looking straight outta heaven, Cheese & the gang hopped right in to The Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy For The Devil.” “Ghostbusters” segued in to “Time Will Tell” by Bob Marley which segued in to “Live and Let Die” which saw the massive pyro rig flexing its flames on the lyric “live and let die.” The renditions were tight and well-executed with a little help from the Antibalas horn section and backup singers Rhonda Thomas and Tony White.
The Paul McCartney cover segued straight in to “Just Passin’ Through,” the original by Billy Nershi and Grateful Dead lyricist John Barlow, before the unthinkable happened.
Could it be? There’s no way. Is this fucking “Stairway to Heaven”!?!?
It is. The String Cheese guys take a step back from the mic for Rhonda Thomas to make Robert Plant proud as she belts out the sultry opening lyrics to the song my mother told me nobody would ever cover. It’s perfect and it’s difficult (actually, damn-near impossible) to execute. String Cheese messes up their own songs upon occasion. “There’s no way they’re going to nail this,” I’m thinking
Then a flute comes in during the “really makes me wonder,” bit, marking the importance of this talented Antibalas horn section in addition to Rhonda & Tony providing the vocals. As Nershi later put it, “the String Cheese Incident Big Band sound” was about to execute a perfect “Stairway to Heaven” cover.
The cover clocks in at 9:35 on the soundboard, just a minute and a half longer than the original. I hope somebody plays the solo for Jimmy Page, because I truly feel Michael Kang did Page proud in nailing that epic, infamous, mind-melting, face-shredding solo. He made it his own just enough to keep it integral while the horns and vocals added a melodic accent that differentiates it from the original.
While many audience members were searching to ground-score their own brains, Cheese wasted no time before hopping right in to Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper.”
Kyle Hollingsworth lead the introduction with a nice organ-driven diddy. “Break On Through” by The Doors (sang by Nershi), “Heaven” by Talking Heads (sang by Hollingsworth, naturally), a “Live and Let Die” reprise and a “Thriller” cover rounded out a jam-packed Halloween set of everybody’s all-time favorite songs. The band executed everything above expectations, setting the bar even higher for whatever comes next.
It’s hard to follow up the energy of a set like that one, they did as well of a job as possible at it. “Miss Brown’s Teahouse,” a “Hollywood Swingin” cover and a 14-minute “Zombie” sandwiched in between “Rosie” can do the trick, as we learned. “Just One Story” capped the set before coming back for a “Superstition” encore, one we heard them sound-checking earlier in the day.
The theme of night two was getting a little help from their friends. Nicky Sanders, fiddler of the Steep Canyon Rangers, joined the group for “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance” and “Resume Man” and Keller Williams added vocals and guitar on joints like “Resume Man” (no Keller guitar) and “Alligator Alley.”
The bust out of the night, however, was certainly the set-one-closing “Franklin’s Tower,” marking the second time we’ve heard a rendition of that song on the same stage after the Allman Brothers Band brought out Trey Anastasio during Wanee earlier this year.
Second set was pretty remarkable as well. “Sweet Spot” got the jam treatment and Dominic Lalli joined in on “Birdland” with a “Flying East Jam” in the middle before getting to one of the best jams of the weekend.
“Sirens” > “Live Oak Jam” > “Rivertrance” > “Drums” > “Swamp” > “Rivertrance” was an extended stream of classics and improv of the finest caliber. “Bollymunster” was an unfortunate choice of an encore, in my opinion, at the end of a fine night of Cheese. (I say this because of the similarity to “Rivertrance” and the fact that they encored with it on night 2 of Hulaween last year. I think “Colorado Bluebird Sky” would have really sealed this as one of the finer Cheese shows I’ve seen, in addition to being a very reasonable, if not obvious, request.)
The third day’s theme was jamming. Each song was stretched out, and with no guests involved, the group truly synched up with each other to deliver fine renditions of “Close Your Eyes”, where Nershi and Kang traded licks on their guitars, and “Round The Wheel”, where Hollingsworth channeled his love for the Talking Heads with some wonky keys. Additionally, the first set kicked off with a heartfelt “Sometimes A River” and contained a strong version of the salsa-jazz-fusion “MLT.”
In the second set, “Look At Where We Are” and “This Must Be The Place” reminded everyone of how damn-lucky they were to enjoy the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park for three days of debauchery, despite the frozen weather. “On The Road” primed us for the next days travel, while the “Texas” encore ensured we stay out of trouble by the painful lament of SCI’s run in with the law in the Longhorn State.
With the tour kicking off in Washington DC last night, String Cheese Incident has apparently hit a stride that proves them to be the strongest they’ve been in years. The energy on stage is positive and fun, and they’re connection with the fans is at an all-time high. We’ll catch a handful of the shows on tour, so be sure to check back for your Cheesy updates!