I was relieved to head out of the city with my festival companion/photographer Annabel and live in the forest for a weekend to recharge my battery. This was my first time attending Purple Hatter’s Ball, but I’m no stranger to The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park. For half of my life, I lived a mere 30 minutes from the park, surrounded by beautiful springs and the sweet tea-colored Suwannee River. As such, I had some expectations for the weekend, but knew it would be far less hectic than other festivals held on the grounds. To be honest, a smaller, more intimate event was just what I needed after working a 9-to-5 all week prior.
I was worried that since we didn’t get there earlier in the day, we might not get a spot close enough to the amphitheater, bathrooms and showers. However, never underestimate the Spirit of the Suwannee campgrounds; if you ask, it provides. We had everything we needed only footsteps away, along with great neighbors kind enough to offer us breakfast in the morning and spicy margaritas in the evening. With our little camp set-up, and with clear blue skies above our heads we headed to see Toubab Krewe, our first set of the weekend.
I had made sure to listen to a couple of songs from the band before the festival, but I knew they would prove best experienced live. From the first drum beat I was hooked; the music crawled under my skin and shook me to my core but still left me content and relaxed. I quickly transcended and forgot that I was in an intimate setting because the energy of bodies around me felt like that of thousands. Just in front of me, there was an older couple wearing matching outfits with the older of the two sporting a purple LED afro and spraying water on those who needed it. We did; the humidity was stifling as the rain held back during the set. The lady with the water alternated between misting the crowd and filling the Amphitheater with bubbles.
After the set we had some time to kill, so we went to see the progress of the painted mural at the entrance to the theater. Over the course of the weekend, three women were combining their talents and energy upon three canvases to make one large painting. The forms and shapes were gradually growing to definition as the main image had become more present upon the center canvas. After watching the painting come alive before our eyes we felt compelled to visit the other tents and be a part of the outdoor art gallery. We hopped from art tent to art tent on our way to the installation area, meandering pleasantly before the next set started.
That next set belonged to The Heavy Pets (check out our past coverage of the band here). Although almost every fest I've been to has had them on the lineup, Purple Hatter’s Ball was my first time watching them perform - and it was amazing. They possessed an upbeat, exhilarating energy which pulled a listener along with ease. At first, their performance gave me some slightly regressive teenage angst, but each song thereafter provided a new experience or flavor to their set. The music reminded me of a funkier version of Jack Johnson while transitioning to Reggie Rock with a kaleidoscopic sense of fusion. I found I never knew quite what to expect from Heavy Pets. As a funky disco basted from the stage, the older couple with the bubble machine from earlier that day re-entered my weekend, this time in matching gold sequinned jumpers. It was the perfect entrance music for them, and the crowd near the rails ate it up when the aforementioned older woman shotgunned a beer. I found myself curious to see how the mural was coming along, but Heavy Pets' cover of Smashing Pumpkins track "Today" pulled us back into the action as we jammed out, before eventually making our way back to our camp to relax in the hours leading up to Spafford's headline set.
I'll admit that, at first, I was unsure how this headline set would go, as I was becoming the kind of person who gets sleepy if they’re not in bed by ten. After an unsure start to their set, Spafford pulled a total 180 and surprised me with riff after riff. I was immediately re-energized, having shaken off any thoughts of going to bed early. I did, however, take a back seat, retreating into the crowd, giving up my spot to those more familiar with the band. From my new viewpoint, I witnessed a lot of white-boy/men dancing, as Spafford moved deeper into the funk. The best part of the set was spent observing an older gentleman with a shirt that said "SPAFF" which I had initially confused for "STAFF." Clearly a fan, he was a kid in a candy store, waving his glowstick to each note, riff, and word.
It was a bright, beautiful, and hot Saturday morning as we made our way to interview Luke Quaranta from Toubab Krewe (read that interview here). As we walked to the interview location, Sex Manatee from Catfish Alliance pointed out Luke’s dope outfit and told him to show it off. He was dressed in all black with an elaborate, almost acid washed cloth vest with a hint of light brown and gold beads - brave for the Florida summer heat.
We saw more of Sex Mannatee during Catfish Alliance's set that afternoon. When I approached the stage for their performance I noticed I was one of the few people there, that is, until I took a look around and found everyone escaping the heat by sitting in the tree line. These hidden gradually emerged when a cowbell signaled the start of a grooving set in which Sex Manatee provocatively put his tambourine up and down the mic stand, mentioning that hot, sweaty sex in tents is acceptable with consent. He went on to call out a man in the audience for looking like Post Malone, inviting him to come up and sing a song, and this became a running joke for the duration of the set, Post bashfully declining each time. The band was fun and raunchy, with a hint of Beastie Boy vibes adding an edge to their performance, the highlight of which was a mention of Rachel Morningstar's mom, Margie, a mention which sparked those on the sidelines to dance with her. One by one she was joined by attendees and embraced them with loving arms, truly in line with the spirit of the event.
Unfortunately, the bad weather eventually arrived and put a temporary halt to proceedings, festival workers were driving golf carts and telling everyone to seek shelter and to stay inside until 8 PM when the storm was scheduled to pass. Luckily, for Annabel and I, we had great neighbors with whom to play Catchphrase with until it was safe enough to join the music again. 8 PM seemed a stretch though, and we left ahead of time because the rain had eased and because others were also emerging from their tents. We made our way to the performance of the Roosevelt Collier Band and, by this point, everyone was out and ready to forget that the storm had occurred at all. Spirits were quickly lifted to the sounds of piano, trumpet, sax and drums, all seven instruments playing as one unit and determined to grab us Purple People by our shirts. The festival certainly wasn't over yet and continued when we interviewed Vlad the Inhaler later that day (read that interview here).
Due to the rain, though, several sets were postponed, including Breaking Biscuits. Given the delays, the crowd seemed restless, and even braved stepping into the mud to get a closer view of the group arriving. Rachel Morningstar was immediately mentioned, serving as a reminder to those in the crowd that she would have loved the bands at this year’s event, as well as reminding attendees that she remains an integral part of the weekend. After the heartwarming opening, things steadily progressed into an eerier territory, with the production lighting combining with the techno, space beats to bring to mind images of a science-fiction movie. A little girl emerged from the crowd next to me with glow in the dark bracelets and a bubble gun to jam out with her dad; it was inspiring to see the next generation grow up with this as one of their first memories. Events like Purple Hatter's Ball lay the foundations for a life-long love of music.
A later start for Breaking Biscuits also meant a later start for Lettuce, but it seemed that the crowd didn’t mind. I was anticipating the band's set more than that of others, chiefly because I had constantly heard almost everyone rave about them prior to the festival, and I hadn’t had a chance to see them perform until Purple Hatter’s. The set was kicked off with another reminder of Rachel, and from there spun straight into its electric groove. The production lighting was on point again, creating a dark red atmosphere which alternated between that and warmer colors in accordance with the sounds coming from the stage. At one point, when the beat was switching up from jam to jam, I was socked on the side of my head by an actual lettuce - after which I decided to hang my purple hat up for the night and listen from the vendor stands.
My first experience at Purple Hatter’s Ball is one I shall hold on to. The weekend had the right amount of twists and turns to keep things interesting, but also made me open my eyes as to the reason why this is such an important event. Purple Hatter's Ball matters not only to festival-goers but to musicians in the industry who loved and miss Rachel. Stay Purple, People.
All photos by Annabel Shettel for Bullet Music