Hulaween takes orbit at The Mothership

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The String Cheese Incident & The Disco Biscuits
Hulaween at Hampton Coliseum
Hampton, Virginia
October 29 & 30, 2010

Norfolk, Virginia may not be considered the place to be on Halloween most years. However, this year, beginning on the morning of October 29, the area was starting to get that crazy electric feeling. At the airport, where many were arriving with baggage in tow, the feeling that something epic was about to happen was abound –  the energy in the air was already ripe and ready.

spady_hulaween-14.jpg"Hulaween," a two night party headlined by The String Cheese Incident, would begin that night. Just taking the walk up to the famous Hampton Coliseum is magical. More affectionately known as The Mothership (coined by Phish’s Trey Anastasio during a 1998 run that was subsequently released as Hampton Comes Alive,) Hampton is a venue that is steeped in both jam and overall music history. Within its walls was one of the only "incomplete" Led Zeppelin shows, 21 Grateful Dead performances (one of which was billed as The Warlocks for permit purposes), 15 Phish shows (including the monumental beginning of Phish 3.0 in March of 2009), and late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton’s last US gig in 1986. On this night, its parking lots were filled with anxiously anticipatory fans gazing upon the UFO like venue in anticipation of what was sure to be another monumental event. 

The temperature began its descent as the sun set, and the wind also seemed to pick up, blowing the still residents of Mother Earth into the place where lift-off would occur at the approximate hour of 2000 that night.

As patrons of the ride that was about to ensue entered, all were aglow with what could be the  potential happenings over the next two nights. Always preparing in the most elaborate way possible, String Cheese has never been an act to let its faithful down during its Halloween/Hulaween Incidents. As the masses made their way onto the floor of the venue, the giant multi-disco-ball that hung over the soundboard and the tapestry-like art installations added to the adornment. It was clear that this tradition would not be broken in Hampton.

Friday, 10/29/10

spady_hulaween-12.jpgFriday night saw special opening act The Disco Biscuits take the stage first, opening with "Hope," a song with a subtle beginning that segues into nothing higher than mid-tempo by Biscuits standards. It was perhaps the best song selection they could have made for a show where many had more questions than answers in regards to the lineup pairing. After a long day of travel for some, many were still finding their way to their seats or spot as the song winded down.

The subdued style would not last long, as next the Biscuits blasted off into "Astronaut," which again was the perfect selection considering the setting, and set the tone for what would be a thematic two day affair. It also provided the crowd with their first glimpse of The Disco Biscuits amazing display of their still relatively new, but nonetheless astounding, laser lighting show. "Astronaut" segued into "Spacebirdmatingcall," and with lasers spread across the roof top of the ship, bouncing off the disco balls, and beaming into the seats surrounding the main floor, many SCI fans got their first true taste of exactly what Bisco does. Through the interplay of keyboardist Aron Magner, guitarist Jon "The Barber" Gutwillig, drummer Allen Aucoin and bassist Marc Brownstein, the Biscuits took their listeners on a sonic journey that abandoned time but held true to beat. "SBMC" segued back into "Astronaut," making the outer space orbit complete.

spady_hulaween-17.jpgThe set rounded out with a well played "Basis for A Day" wherein Brownstein provided a true and thorough exhibition of his deeply grooved front and center chops for the first and only time of the evening. All followed his lead and the closer provided the perfect intro to what would be next: bathroom breaks, beers, cigarettes, and The String Cheese Incident.

Although there were still some who questioned the lineup post-Bisco set, they were much fewer. What the set provided was an extended hand to garner the correct mental space. Some SCI fans shook it, while others, to their loss, turned away.

After an extensive gear change, The String Cheese Incident made its collective way to the stage. Wasting no time, they sat down into the driver’s seat and took control with the perfect opener, "Best Feeling." Although the beginning had an air of sloppiness to it, once the song hit its first true chords past noodling, it bore all of the fruit that one can hope for in perhaps one of the happiest songs ever written. The display of lights along with SCI’s amazing musical visuals amalgamated perfectly inside the coliseum core.

As the set progressed, the general consensus was that the guys had found a groove.  With the familiar organ intro from Kyle Hollingsworth, "Got What He Wanted" was next and the moments of vocal harmonization between Billy Nershi, Michael Kang, and Keith Moseley, in conjunction with the omnipresence of Hollingsworth, was a nice way for all to sit back in a "Cheesy" moment where all members had a part in the composition, exchanging and yielding leads and reminding all of the unity that makes this outfit one of such beauty.

spady_hulaween-32.jpg"GWHW" provided segue into "Black Clouds." With an immediate raucous yell of approval from the crowd, "Clouds" subsequently took the throng to church. There was seemingly not an ass in the building that wasn’t jumping, jiving, and singing in unison. Yes, the SCI crowd is a coordinated lot. Providing a much needed breath catching pause, SCI made a "Miss Brown’s Tea" and "Lil’ Liza Jane" sandwich to close out  set one, and what a magnificent set it was.

SCI started the second set with "Song in my Head" followed by "Just One Story" with "Joyful Sound" as its successor. Beginning with a percussion and drum exchange between Jason Hann and Michael Travis, followed by the integration of the talk box, the hip-hop elements of "Joyful Sound" had everyone beaming. When the grimey exchange between Hollingsworth and Moseley flowed into Kang’s shred and fret board ride, the crowd could not have approved more.

The second set brought what many String Cheese fans of old have deeply longed for since their departure from active touring: their bluegrass roots, or as Bill Nershi calls it, "grasstronica." It was front and center with "Rollin in my Sweet Babies Arms," with the splendid fiddle work of Kang, the classic piano play of Holliangsworth, the hoe down snare drumming of Travis, and the ever-skilled acoustic play of Nershi. It was rootsy, and the whirling dervish sounds kept the girls’ skirts twirling and boys’ boots stomping.

"Sirens" reintegrated the funk into the mix, which in actuality simply didn’t provide the proverbial tongue to the groove that had been provided by "Baby’s Arms," and a portion of the energy that had been built was lost to the point that even the proficient play of Hann on bongos could not bring back. Even after a stellar improvisation was slammed in the middle of the tune, the crowd’s response was obligatory at best.

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"On the Road" closed the set and in this case, Hann’s play did exactly what it is designed to do. As though providing invitation, the heaviness in the percussive intro allowed Travis into the mix and then completely yielded to Kang, whose trickling soon became full frontal melting. This tune provided the redemption that was needed and what all knew was possible. It served as a frenzied set closer that left the crowd wanting more.

"Jellyfish" was first to come in the double encore of the night, and the familiarity of this gem brought the SCI faithful under its spell. As it wrapped, the crowd’s chants for more would soon be answered in a way that made even the most seasoned SCI vet do a double take. At some point during the jam, Michael Travis snuck off stage and Jason Hann switched over to the drums.

As soon as the song wrapped, Travis would reappear as a mocking version of David Lee Roth, sporting a skin tight red outfit with a long blonde wig. To the complete delight of all within the coliseum, the synthetic opening key riff blared, signaling the 80’s Van Halen classic, "Jump." Travis’ lyrical abilities were on display and despite a few truly sour notes that only added to the hilarity, he was actually quite impressive.

To top it all off, he climbed into the pit before making his way to the rail, and like a wrestler from the top rope, he took a dive into the arms of the beloved SCI faithful, crowd surfing as eager fans held him afloat. It was a moment. It was String Cheese.

Saturday, 10/30/10

Saturday began with a lack of sleep for many, but still plenty of energy for the night to come. Using the past to predict the future, excitement was high. Saturday night would prove predictions correct. With SCI’s three set night quickly approaching, the pace of all walking toward The Mothership was abrupt and filled as heavily with smiles as with Halloween spirit. The SCI crowd is known for their campiness and the majority was dressed for the affair, prepared to rage to a full night of, the only people campier than the crowd, String Cheese.

The night began with "Come as You Are," a wise choice since everyone was dressed to the hilt in a costume of their choice. A "Restless Wind" that was owned in full by Moseley provided the most gleaming example of the joy that SCI brings to its flock. The ecstatic bliss that was flung through the air was almost as, if not equal to, the waves of sound that pierced the same.    

spady_hulaween-40.jpgThe first song sandwich of the night came by way of "Turn This Around" > Pink Floyd’s "Breathe" > "Turn This Around." The run opened things up significantly and in retrospect, its intent was more than likely to clear the runway for what all knew was eventually to come in the second set. As a set closer and in what many perceived to be a tribute to the last Halloween Incident at Vegoose, "Las Vegas" was played.

Upon Cheese’s entrance to the stage for the second, dressed in what can only be described as "Mad Max" themed outfits complete with leather and feathers, it was clear from the beginning that the Hulaween would not even resemble disappointing. Michael Kang opened things up with a few brief words, proclaiming "when we found out that we were coming to The Mothership, we wanted to come up with a set for you guys that was going to take you through a journey through space. Let’s get this mother off the ground!"

With that, a cover of REM’s "It’s the End of the World" was the opener, with guest Liza Oxnard providing intermittent vocals. A large video screen projected images of war and politics, aliens and people. While there was nothing spectacular about this offering except for the fact that they seemed to get all of the lyrics right, it was a fun number and let the crowd know what Cheese’s intent was for the remainder of the night: heavy doses of hilarity, showmanship and sound fit for a king, all at the hands of the always and embracing band of Coloradans.

With only one original SCI tune, "Born on the Wrong Planet," the second set was a collection of cleverly handpicked cover songs that ranged from Steve Miller’s "Fly Like an Eagle" to Parliament’s "Mothership Connection," with Keller Williams sitting in. The tastiest portion again came in the form of yet another well-made sandwich, the meat of B-52’s "Planet Claire" between the bread of "Major Tom (Coming Home)," Peter Schilling’s memorable but only hit from 1983. The latter seamlessly smashed back into the REM cover opener to close things out. 

The second set was an incredibly well-orchestrated maneuver. Within its confines came the aforementioned sit-ins, back up dancers sporting disco ball helmets, what seemed to be truckloads of confetti peppering the air, and a musical costume of sorts that managed to reflect the venue and spaceship-like atmosphere in a way that fans had wanted from the beginning. The space analogy could not have been played into any better. It was entertaining, but most of all, it was demonstrative of two things.

spady_hulaween-18.jpgFirst of all, it demonstrated the band’s high level of musicianship, evidenced by the flawless play of extremely versatile numbers. Second, and perhaps most importantly, of all, it was indicative of how Cheese interacts with their fans – they thrive on the relationship. Had the show ended here, there would have been no warranted complaint. But alas, there was still set three to cap it all off and it would bestow itself on the throng next.

The pilots stepped back into the driver’s seat for the final set of the run and almost immediately sent the crowd into trance-dance frenzy, with "Bumpin’ Reel" that shone elements of all of Cheese’s members’ separate careers tie beautifully into their "together" gig.

Within this 12 or so minute complete instrumental, it encompassed the bluegrass fuel that Billy Nershi has almost solely gone after, the guitar and fiddle work of Kang that many have become familiar with through his work with CB3 and Particle, the jazzy under layer that Hollingsworth’s band thrives on, and the completely improvised splendor that EOTO brings through Hann and Travis. The latter would actually provide the true set highlight that solidified the journey with a spacey "Drums" that was nothing less than otherworldly until the rest of the band rejoined to close the set with a segued "Desert Dawn" that blistered and gave the final feeling of celebration for which this run called. It was as though all had landed safely back on Earth and were overjoyed, not only with the journey that had just taken place, but with the memories thereof to carry back into the ordinary lives that we live on a day to day basis.

As the brigade disbanded into the chilly night, camaraderie was abundant. Awe and amazement was in the air, but some were still in disbelief. The String Cheese Incident had spared no expense, nor barred any holds, which was no shock because it was String Cheese and it was Hulaween.

Click the thumbnail to view Brian Spady’s Shots from Hulaween!

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