The Hangout Beach, Music & Arts Festival | 05.14-16.10

Music festivals: like MySpace, but with more group clapping

Gulf Shores, Alabama
As I wrote in these very pages a little less than a year ago, musical festivals—once limited to a few distant (for most) behemoths that drew tens of thousands—are going local, popping up all over America in cities and towns large and small. These small festivals offer a chance for live music to be taken in, for lack of a better way to put it, more efficiently—and by more listeners. Nationally known artists close out long days, essentially allowing dozens of bands the chance to be an “opener,” which in turn exposes festival goers to music they would probably not otherwise find. In this way, the festival itself has become an extension of the technologically powered democratic musical zeitgeist—a sort of highly personal, completely ephemeral MySpace.
As a fan of a wide variety of music, and a fan of live music in particular, I find this to be an exciting trend. Unlike online-driven musical interactions, the festival is a real, interactive community. Put 10,000 people in one place and let them wander between multiple stages for several days, with new music on offer every hour, and the possibilities for general spontaneity and sudden musical discovery multiply like waves on, well, a beach.
So when I first heard about the inaugural Hangout Beach, Music and Arts Festival, its solid three-day lineup and its setting on the gorgeous white-sand beach of Gulf Shores, Ala., I was thrilled. The Hangout sported four stages (the two mains literally on the beach), three strong headliners for each of the three days, a wealth of smaller bands (some of which I was familiar with, some not), not to mention—have I mentioned it?—the sun, surf and “sugar” sand of Gulf Shores. I was excited to go to the Hangout Festival, and excited to write about it.
British Petroleum: Harshing the Beach Bum Buzz
On April 20, four weeks before the Hangout Festival was set to open its doors for the first time, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers aboard. As the days passed, the rig sank and word came that oil was gushing into the Gulf from the sea bed. There was oil on the surface, and it was spreading. There was oil under the surface, but no one knew how much. There were reports the oil was going to make landfall in Louisiana; there were rumors you could smell the oil on the western Florida coast; my mother, who lives in upstate Alabama, told me she’d heard that dead wildlife was washing up on the beach in Pensacola.
I realized that, in writing about the Hangout Festival, I wasn’t just going to be writing about live music.
Thankfully, I don’t need to say much about wildlife destruction, American energy policy, asshole oil company executives, etc. The beach in Gulf Shores was as pristine and beautiful as I’d been told it always has been. Which is not to say that the oil spill wasn’t present. Several days before the festival began, the organizers announced that all profits would be donated to a variety of coastal relief organizations—essentially transforming the first annual Hangout Festival into a de facto fundraiser. An activist organization called HeadCount was on the scene to raise awareness and gather signatures for petitions and angry letters to Congress. Throughout the festival, various artists had positive thoughts for the residents of the Gulf and harsh words for BP.
All in all, my impression was that the spill was not much more than a news item to most of the festival goers, and like most news items, it seemed abstract. The crowd cheered when Ben Harper announced from the stage during his Sunday evening set that everyone should visit, but that could have been as much for the profanity as it was an expression of real anger at the company ultimately responsible for an environmental disaster we still don’t know the scope of. I admire what the organizers of the festival did in donating the profits, and I admire the volunteers from HeadCount who wandered the grounds, trying to get drunk partiers to sign a clipboard. I hope the sugary sands of Gulf Shores stay white and clean, and I hope that everyone ultimately cares about the other beaches that probably won’t.
In short, I hope there’s a second Hangout Festival on that beautiful beach next year, and I hope it kicks as much ass as this first one did. On to the music, then.
Friday: The South Will Rise Again
After driving nearly 12 hours to get to Gulf Shores (with an overnight stop outside Jackson, Miss., on the way), we arrived ready to soak up the sun and see as much music as possible. Friday’s lineup was solid, but the least remarkable of the three days. We actually arrived a bit late to catch the first acts of the afternoon, but had plenty to look forward to.
First up was the North Mississippi Allstars Duo at the Hangout Stage. Located at the west end of the beach, with about a hundred yards of sand separating it from the Verizon Stage to the east, this was the main stage of the festival. The Allstars Duo consisted, as the name would indicate, of brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, two parts of the normally bigger unit of the North Mississippi Allstars, plus another drummer. As we traversed the sand, passing sand sculptures, a central sheltered area consisting of strips of taut, brightly colored fabric, and more shirtless dudes and chicks in bikinis than I’ve ever seen at any concert, the sounds of a protracted drum solo rang out across the beach. The solo built to a crescendo and was then joined by Luther’s guitar, which sounded so southern it might have been literally deep-fried. The crowd of what appeared to be about 2,000 ate it up and asked for more.
We left the Duo as they finished their set and made our way to the Verizon Stage for a sampling of Robert Randolph & the Family Band. They did seem to be a family, playing deep, throbbing blues with the effortlessness air of a true unit. Randolph anchored the band playing sit-down slide guitar, leading them through what might have been several songs (I didn’t know this group at all before Hangout) that shook and shimmied in and out of each other. The hippies in the crowd seemed to really dig it, and I did, too.
Before the next act, we stopped into The Hangout itself, a cavernous open-air restaurant and bar on the beach that was the namesake of the festival, for a beer and shrimp for dinner. We figured we should get all the shrimp we could while the getting was good. I’m here to report that the getting was good.
Then it was back to the Hangout Stage for The Black Crowes. I was expecting to hear mostly songs from the band’s 2009 album Before the Frost…Until the Freeze, and was (pleasantly, I’ll admit) surprised when they instead focused on the hits and deep cuts from previous albums that most of the crowd would have wanted to hear. They also were pretty jammy, compared to previous Crowes shows I’ve seen. Many of the songs, including favorites like “Thorn in My Pride” and “Wiser Time,” stretched out for extended ambient blues explorations, and the crowd of about 4,000 loved every minute. The Crowes wrapped up with hits “Hard to Handle” and “Remedy” as the sun went down behind them.
After The Crowes, we set off to catch Allison Kraus & Union Station at the Verizon Stage. Rather than walk across all that sand (which gets tiring on the legs pretty quickly), we went up on the boardwalk and paved walkway, which meant we passed the Sony Playstation Stage, third down on the stage hierarchy, just as Girl Talk kicked into gear. Gregg Gillis, the man behind the high-energy digital mashups of pop, hip-hop, metal and classic rock and the name Girl Talk, careened and slammed across the stage from end to end, stopping periodically at his center-stage DJ stand to press buttons and flip records, never stopping his infectious grooving. It was impossible not to stop, listen and watch, and there was an almost palpable sense that Girl Talk was creating his own magnetic pull, as more and more people seemed to wander into the stage area, seemingly without thinking about it. Gillis let about 75 people in the crowd come up on stage with him, and the audience was grinning and dancing and generally giving off the impression they’d never seen or heard anything like this before. It was obvious that they absolutely loved it. We didn’t make it to Allison Kraus after all.
The headliner on Friday was pop-country sensation The Zac Brown Band. I was entirely unfamiliar with the group’s songs (not being much of a country music buff), but they played hard-driving country tightly and with enthusiasm. Moving across the country spectrum, flirting at either end with straight-up pop or down-home bluegrass, Brown led the group through a high-energy, crowd-pleasing set that culminated in The Preservation Hall Band (at the fest as a special guest representing the Gulf Coast, part of the oil spill awareness effort) joining them onstage as the night erupted in an impressive fireworks display. A great way to end the first day of The Hangout Fest, and as we bicycled down the beach back to our hotel, I was looking forward to a full Saturday of even more music.
Saturday: Get Down, Get Down
Saturday dawned bright and clear, and promised from the get-go to be pretty warm. After arriving back at the beach, we made our way once again to the Hangout Stage, where L.A. Latin-fusion rockers Ozomatli were kicking off the day. Say at least one thing for these guys: They’re versatile, shifting effortlessly between rock, hip-hop, metal, mariachi, ska and reggae. Ozomatli also gave the first direct artist mention of the oil spill I’d yet heard: “Thanks and prayers and positive energy to the people of the Gulf. And to the ocean…sorry for fucking you up.” But the band was mostly about demonstrating its thrilling, high-octane chops, and the crowd of about a thousand was in dance heaven. Catch these guys if you can; I’ll be doing so again at Bonnaroo later this summer.
After leaving the Hangout Stage, we stopped by the PS Stage briefly and checked out Toubab Krewe, a group I’ve heard of but never listened to. They were primarily instrumental and jam-oriented, with a unique sound powered by several different African stringed instruments. In the first (and only) overt fashion statement related to the spill that I saw, percussionist Luke Quaranta wore what appeared to be a homemade t-shirt with “Beyond Petroleum” written on it in large black letters—a seeming commentary on both where we as a nation should probably head in terms of energy policy, and a biting satirical usage of BP’s latest ad slogan. Good work, Luke.
Next up it was back to the Verizon Stage for Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, another group I’d heard of but never listened to. Two songs into my time at their set, I wondered what I’d been waiting for. The Nocturnals play big vintage rock, and Potter’s powerful voice soared over the massive, guitar-and-keys-driven sound. If you’ve been looking for a band that is simultaneously paying homage to the female-led rock powerhouses of the ‘70s while also defining their own sound, look no further.
Later in the afternoon came my first really tough choice in scheduling, and I chose to see Rodrigo y Gabriela before The Whigs. I’d seen both of these bands before, and it was an incredibly difficult decision (the bittersweet curse of the festival is making choices like these). If you’ve never heard them, Rodrigo y Gabriela are a Mexican flamenco guitar duo who do more with two acoustic guitars and their combined eight limbs than many bands do with four or five members, a variety of instruments and electricity. And they do so with such obvious enthusiasm, affection for the music, and (there really is no other way to put it) wide-eyed surprise that they’re even playing for a thrilled crowd in the U.S….even if you don’t care for their flamenco style, it’s impossible not to be drawn in and swept away. As for The Whigs, they played a strong show for a pretty small crowd at the PS Stage. These guys rock hard—you can tell they’re really working for it, and that, combined with a solid garage-pop sensibility, makes this band one to keep an eye on.
Then it was time for Gov’t Mule back at the Hangout Stage. The festival had been buzzing with excitement for this show all day—this is a band that is Southern-with-a-capital-S to the core. It seemed like everyone on the festival grounds was there for this set, and Warren Haynes and Co. didn’t disappoint. Cycling through their catalog with Haynes’ (who, rumor has it, came out and joined Grace Potter and the Nocturnals for their last song, and I can’t believe I missed that) rumbling baritone and thick, bluesy guitar driving the show, Gov’t Mule gave the massive crowd everything they wanted and more. It almost felt like this could have been a headlining end to the day, but when this set was over it was not even 8 p.m.—there was still more than three hours left before the festival’s second day would end.
Back to the Verizon Stage for The Roots, who joined the festival roster at the last minute as a replacement for The Flaming Lips (due to Steven Drozd being ill). The band got off to a late start but, as always, was so kickass that no one seemed to care one bit. As high-energy as ever, ?uestlove, Black Thought, Tuba Gooding Jr., et al, moved through songs from across their catalog effortlessly and playfully; it’s obvious The Roots may be more cohesive as a unit (which is saying something) than they have ever been. The crowd absolutely loved The Roots and, as always, so did I. So much so that I decided not to leave and try to catch Jakob Dylan and his new band (featuring Neko Case) at the PS Stage. As I heard later, Dylan didn’t make it to the Hangout Fest due to travel problems, and was replaced by The Preservation Hall Band, which made me feel better about staying to get as much of The Roots as I could.
Last up was Saturday’s headliner, John Legend. Legend seemed to approach his set as if he were truly playing a fundraiser (early on he said, “We’re here tonight to raise money for the people of the Gulf Coast”) and not a music festival which, I suppose, was admirable. The man is definitely a pop star, and his star-wattage was on full shine, but the overall effect felt out of place alongside the laid-back beach attitude pervasive at the Hangout Festival. I enjoyed his set, but after a ten-hour day of sun and music, I was beginning to wind down. We left Legend’s set before it was fully over, with hopes that a good night’s rest would help Sunday be as good overall as Saturday had been.
Sunday: Michael Franti Defeats the Sky
When we woke up on Sunday, it was to a sky littered with torn clouds buffeted by high winds. The weather forecast called for a significant chance of storms throughout the day, but on a coast that could mean everything or nothing. After packing up and loading the car, we drove (a unique experience in itself, as we’d been bicycling exclusively since arriving on Friday) to the Gulf Shores beach. The rain was intermittent, alternating swiftly between an annoying drizzle and a drenching downpour. After parking, we made our way into the festival grounds just as the rain picked up. As we passed the Verizon Stage where Blind Boys of Alabama were supposed to be playing, the crew was covering up instruments with plastic while the moderate-sized crowd huddled under beach umbrellas. Deciding it would be best to have a base of operations to figure out what the plan was, we headed to the only real nearby shelter, The Hangout.
After ordering bloody marys and somehow securing seats at the bar, I sent emails trying to determine how the rain might affect the day’s planned schedule. The place began filling up, and then the real rain came. If we’d thought it had been storming before, we were definitely wrong. This storm sent massive sheets of rain and wind into the side of The Hangout, and the courtyard behind the building flooded quickly. Soon, rumors began to spread: Keller Williams, scheduled to play on the Hangout Stage after the Blind Boys were finished on Verizon, was actually playing for a small crowd, but from inside a plastic tent so that no one could actually see him (this was later confirmed to be true, and apparently he rocked); Matisyahu, scheduled on Verizon just after Keller Williams was done, wasn’t going to be able to play (also true, although he apparently did play later that night to a VIP-only crowd inside The Hangout); they were no longer letting people into The Hangout. As time wore on, The Hangout mostly emptied, and nothing much seemed to be happening other than the weather. Then, at around 2:15, almost an hour and a half since we’d arrived, an announcement came over the Hangout Fest’s radio station that the festival was going to be suspended until at least 3:30 and that all should vacate the grounds until then. The television above the bar silently informed us that a tornado had been spotted about 12 miles due north of Gulf Shores.
All in all, it was shaping up to be a less-than-perfect day.
But then things began to change. The Hangout itself became a shelter for artists and crew, and so those of us lucky to have been inside when the proverbial shit hit the fan got to hang out (albeit at a distance) in a bar with members of OK Go and Guster, as well as Michael Franti and Matisyahu. I felt a bit of culture shock: after all the tanned skin, blonde hair, khakis and bikinis, the sudden presence of so many pale, skinny, shredded-jeans-wearing hipsters (mostly crew and hangers-on of the artists, I think) was a bit jarring, but in a good way.
As 3:00 came and went, the rain gradually abated then stopped altogether and the sky began to clear. A new announcement went over the radio, saying the grounds would reopen at 4:00, nearly all the artists would be able to play, and that the rest of the day would be free to all, regardless of ticket status. I began gearing up for a marathon of music.
The first band to play after the “rain delay” was Michael Franti & Spearhead at the Hangout Stage, and if it hadn’t been for this serendipitous pairing of music and circumstance, I don’t know how the rest of the day might have gone. Energetic, accessible, engaging and hugely talented, Franti was the absolute perfect artist to pick the Hangout Festival up out of the massive rain puddle that was the first part of the day, shake it dry and say, “We’re here, we’re alive, let’s have a good time.” The crowd absolutely adored him. Franti was a one-man powerhouse: exhorting the audience, encouraging everyone to take off their shirts and wave them above their heads; coming out into the crowd and climbing one of the light towers to begin a song before continuing it on his way back to the stage; pulling fans from the front row onto the stage to dance, sing and play instruments; speaking candidly and without hyperbole about the oil spill and directing people to HeadCount. In the end, Franti’s set may have been the best personal experience I’ve ever had of the restorative power of live music—and I doubt I was the only one. The man is good vibes personified, and I can’t wait to see him again.
The rest of the afternoon and early evening continued to be full of highlights, as if the stakes had been raised by the weather and everyone was determined to bring the best game they could. Both Guster and OK Go played excellent sets, with the latter really showcasing their special brand of nerdy, smart indie-pop—odd time signatures, weird syncopation and all. Ben Harper & Relentless7 played a marathon set to an enthusiastic crowd at the Hangout Stage, and Ray LaMontagne brought a particular mellow sweetness with his exacting songcraft to the Verizon Stage after Harper and Co. finished.
Then it was time for Sunday’s headliner—he band I had sort of really come to see at the Hangout Festival: Trey Anastasio & Classic TAB. I am an unrepentant fan of the band Phish, and Trey’s work with his “solo” band is just as good, although in different ways. Where Phish is a band capable of jamming as a unit across multiple genres, states of consciousness and timelines (sometimes to excess, I’ll admit), TAB is grounded in unrelenting grooves that allow Trey and his supporting players—keys, bass and a horn section—to frolic and flourish, with most jams culminating in tension and release peaks that either move you or don’t. The band was in fine form this night, and it was obvious Trey was having a supremely good time rocking on the beach (even unveiling a tune he’d written just for the occasion called “The Sailor’s Song”). It was a fitting way to end a challenging day that capped a solid start to a new and promising festival.
The Hangout Festival: Wrapping Up 2010…and Looking to 2011
So, what are my final thoughts on the inaugural Hangout Beach, Music and Arts Festival? I think that having a festival soaked in beach culture is such a good idea I’m wondering what took it so long to happen. I think that, by and large, this was one of the smoothest-run small festivals I’ve attended, especially given that this was the first year. I think that if the weekend helped one person find new music to be passionate about, or educated one person about the dangers of drilling for oil in fragile ecosystems, then the festival was a success. And I think I’ll be attending the second Hangout Festival next year, or at least I hope I will. Until then, take it easy Gulf Shores, and hang ten. | John Shepherd

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