One year ago, the future of the Hangout Music Festival was far from certain. The concept was definitely intriguing: a three day, multi-genre music festival on the beach in Gulf Shore, AL, with high production values and big name talent. The festival only drew about 15,000 people in its first year, though, a number that was well short of the 35,000 capacity. Attendance might have been affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that hit the Gulf of Mexico less than a month before the festival started, but that couldn’t have been the sole reason why 20,000 tickets went unsold. Was there just not enough demand for a beach festival?
Fears about viability mostly vanished once this year’s lineup was unannounced. Last year’s lineup was primarily a mix of mainstream acts like John Legend and jam-band heroes like Trey Anastasio. This year’s group of names was more consistent and more eclectic, resulting in a list that could stand toe-to-toe with other major American music festivals. The top six acts were especially strong: Paul Simon, Widespread Panic, Foo Fighters, The Black Keys, The Flaming Lips, and My Morning Jacket would all be respectable large print names at any of the Big 4 festivals. In fact, most of them are headlining other major festivals later this summer. Tickets sold quickly once the lineup was announced, and Hangout was able to hit capacity in just its second year.
Once the festival sold out, the question became whether or not they could handle 35,000 people. The answer was mostly yes. There were a couple of logistical problems that will need to be addressed next year: some people waited in line nearly two hours after gates opened on Friday, and shuttle lines were absurdly long all three nights. It would have also been nice to have more volume from the Surf Style stage, which needed to be louder to reach the back of the massive crowds that formed for My Morning Jacket, The Flaming Lips, and The Black Keys. But those were relatively minor hiccups. There were plenty of conveniently placed bathrooms and concession stands. All of the stages stayed on schedule. There were no technical failures of note. The biggest hiccup came when Cee Lo Green showed up late in a repeat of his Coachella fiasco, but a surprise set of covers from the Foo Fighters was a more than adequate substitute.
One of the surest signs that Hangout is here to stay? The musicians had a blast. Nearly every performance included some mention of how great the setting was, and most of the remarks sounded genuine. Dave Grohl pointed out that it’s the only festival where you can go for a swim in the ocean after your sound check. It’s as unique for the artists as it is for the attendees, and it shouldn’t be hard to attract top talent in the future.
Overall, it was an excellent three days on the beach. The atmosphere was laid back enough that families with children could relax on a blanket without getting in the way of the sketchier types that show up at festivals, but it was still raucous enough that it felt more like a beach party than it did Disneyland. If they iron out the few remaining wrinkles next year and deliver another equally strong lineup, Hangout is bound to earn a reputation as one the best festivals in the country.
Friday, May 20th
Brandi Carlile – Surf Style Stage – 2:15 p.m.
Photo by Max Blau
As she told past stories to the Hangout crowd about being an opener in the past, Brandi Carlile fondly recalled memories of traveling down the West Coast in a small van, performing at places like Dukes Chowder House and opening for oddly-paired bands like Hanson. Even though she was once again an opening act on the first day of the festival, her avid fans crowded the beach and sang most of the songs along with her. Its easy to not believe that such a powerful sound can come from such a small woman, but when Carlile bent her knee behind her guitar and tilted her head back to let a growling note pierce though the air, fans howled with approval. Just as in her live album, Live at Benaroya Hall with The Seattle Symphony, she also taught three-part harmony to turpentine on the beach. -Laura Medina
My Morning Jacket – Surf Style Stage – 7:00 p.m.
Photo by Max Blau
The beginning of the My Morning Jacket show felt more like some mystic tribal ritual as the opening notes of Victory Dance rolled over frontman Jim James tongue, complimenting the stages foggy haze back dropped against the setting sun. James wasted no time getting into his setting, as he belted out on while pointing to the crowd, Power, hey do you know how it works. The bands movements throughout their set were fluid and transitioned seamlessly from the eerie feel of the opening two songs into the familiar rock ballad of Off The Record. During the bands set, James told stories of coming to Gulf Shores as a Senior in High School and getting kicked out of Technotronics show from retrieving a sweat towel from the pool they were playing around. I hope you have as much fun as I did, he told fans. By the time the band broke into their standout Circuital track, Holdin on to Black Metal, many of the people in the crowd looked as though they were fulfilling his hopes for the night. -Laura Medina
Widespread Panic Hangout Stage 8:30p.m.
While Hangout took pains in year two to make it clear that they are more than just a jam band festival, there was still plenty of noodling on deck to keep those ticket-buying hippies happy. Plus, that kind of music is a natural fit for the beach anyway. Friday was probably the jammiest of the three days, so it was fitting that Friday night’s headliner was long running jam juggurnaut Widespread Panic. The band’s set might have been more focused on their more straightforward rock material than expected, but there were still enough solos and exploratory digressions to keep the faithful happy. The band is currently celebrating its 25th year together, but they still seem enthusiastic about what they’re doing. They might not be for everyone, but it isn’t difficult to see the appeal. -Denton Poteet
Saturday, May 21st
Dead Confederate Grooveshark Stage 2:30 p.m.
Hailing from Athens and showing it, Dead Confederate intelligently combined ambient delays and reverbs to fill the outdoor air of the Hangout Music Fest on the Grooveshark stage. A big success of Dead Confederate is in the dark and sustained vocal melodies with big drums and guitar that rings out from measure to measure. The hard rockers played a daytime set at the peak of Saturday’s heat, but entranced the audience with the mood of their modern rock sound. It’s a tough feat to turn an open aired music festival into a dark, smoky Athens bar, but Dead Confederate did the stage justice. -Scott Greenberg
Minus The Bear Surf Style Stage 2:30 p.m.
When Minus The Bear plays a set like they did at the Hangout Music Fest, audience members leave feeling proud to share their experience with the band. With equal parts Menos el Oso, OMNI, and Planet of Ice, the band made mathrock sexy. Heads bobbed, partners danced, and hands clapped hard. The band really focused on their consistent energy, having seamless transitions from song to song, paying attention to specific midi triggers in songs like Into The Mirror. It was a pleasure to see a well rehearsed band with so much style and stage comfort. Keep it up, boys. -Scott Greenberg
Cee Lo Green Hangout Stage 3:30 p.m.
Photo by Max Blau
Certain moments in concert festivals become ingrained in rock history, and Cee Lo Green‘s time slot this past weekend was easily etched in. As audience members waited…and waited, people began to wonder what was happening. All of a sudden, Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters came running onto the stage, explained that Cee Lo never showed (using colorful language), and surprised everyone with news of an extra, exclusive Foo Fighters set. Crowds in the distance ran up, and audience members up close made sure they got even closer.
It was a covers set – which makes sense given their recent Record Store Day exclusive, Medium Rare, which comprises itself of all the band’s covers to date. However, Dave Grohl & Co. picked their favorites, and even added a few new ones to the bunch. Alice Cooper’s School’s Out For Summer and Tom Petty’s Break Down brought much applause from the crowd who realized how rare of an occasion this was for them.
However, four covers in, the band jumped into their radio-favorite cover Darling Nikki. Question marks popped up above peoples’ heads, recalling that Cee Lo and Foo Fighters had played the song once live on the MTV Video Music Awards. Sure enough, at the tail end of the song, the band looped to the beginning and Cee Lo ran onto the stage. He made it!
Cee Lo only had time for a few songs after showing up late, but he tagged his most popular (or most obvious?) tracks like Fuck You and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy, along with his SNL performance song, Bright Lights Bigger City. Soon after, Cee Lo wrapped up his expedited set, but fans were satisfied to see the moment in history created by Foo Fighters and Cee Lo Green. -Scott Greenberg
Primus Surf Style Stage 4:30p.m.
Primus was one of the heaviest bands in the Hangout lineup, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell it based on the first half of their set. They pursued a mellower form of eccentricity rather than the oddball funk-metal sound that made them (kind of) famous. It suited the afternoon beach environment, but it probably should have been a little louderthey were maybe the greatest casualty of the Surf Style Stage’s curiously-low volume. But that’s no fault of the band, who were airtight throughout their set. They made the audience stick around for the hits, though, playing two new songs and messing around with both a dobro and a whamola before delivering big guns like My Name is Mud and Jerry Was a Racecar Driver late in the set. -Denton Poteet
The Avett Brothers – Hangout Stage – 5:45 p.m.
Photo by Max Blau
In the heat of Saturday afternoon, fans packed beach in front of the main stage. Some were there to catch the soul-stirring sounds of Cee Lo Green, while others had camped out to see Foo Fighters. Sandwiched between a surprise Foo Fighters set (in the wake of Cee Los late arrival) and the headlining set were The Avett Brothers. While their set time initially felt like somewhat of an odd fit, the group played an extended set to a captivated crowed with people pushing to the front as they heard the stage performance. After all, the nature of these North Carolinians music is as close as a folk rock band can come to having a punk aesthetic. Hands waved in the air as the band stomped their feet to Kick Drum Heart as people swayed and sung along to the convincing words of January Wedding. All in all, the brothers play with a fluidity and reckless abandonment that makes their live show something to behold. -Laura Medina
The Flaming Lips Surf Style Stage 7:15p.m.
Photo by Max Blau
Most discussion of The Flaming Lips‘ live show tends to focus on the spectacle instead of the music, but there’s still a real band underneath all that confetti. The band’s Saturday set acted as an affirmation of that. Instead of an extended instrumental introduction and hamster ball theatrics, they took the stage with relatively little fuss and quickly launched into a warm, loose performance of signature song Do You Realize? that was met with cheers of recognition from the crowded beach. The rest of their set stuck to the more popular songs from the latter half of their discography (plus the obligatory She Don’t Use Jelly), and Wayne Coyne seemed to enjoy playing the part of beach party emcee for 90 minutes. The Lips are scheduled to play a ton more festivals this year, but as Coyne pointed out onstage, Hangout was the only chance to catch them on a beach during sunset. -Denton Poteet
Foo Fighters Hangout Stage Saturday, 8:45 p.m.
Photo by Max Blau
When asked the question, “So who was the best set at The Hangout Music Fest?” people have to always respond, “You mean, besides Foo Fighters?” Foo Fighters are a band at the next level, breeding positive lyrics with rock music you are proud to get speeding tickets to. When a band can play a 25 song set, and all of them have been hits, then you know you have seen a good show.
Hangout attendees were treated to new tracks like Bridge Burning and Rope and solid Foo Fighters classics like Stacked Actors or “All My Life”. Pat Smear smiled through every upbeat song, and drummer Taylor Hawkins resembled Sesame Street‘s Animal when doing full speed drum fills.
Another classic part of a Foo Fighters set is the banter that Dave Grohl has with the audience. His fireside chats are a fun way to give Hawkins a chance to breathe. While talking about his day, Grohl had no problem getting 35,000 people to cheer on the fact that he took a nap after swimming in the ocean earlier that day.
Everlong closed the Saturday festivities, and audience members were treated to a heavy amount of fireworks launching from directly behind the stage. The combination of soothing distortion, the visual beauty of fireworks, and the positivity and joy of a Foo Fighters set made The Hangout a top-notch festival experience. -Scott Greenberg
Sunday, May 22nd
Portugal. The Man – Surf Style Stage – 11:30 a.m.
Photo by Max Blau
When the gates were opened on Sunday morning, fans rushed to the front of the stage to see Portugal. The Man. Moments after sound checking, the band rolled onto the stage in bare feet and mussed hair, playing continuously while only stopping for a few brief moments while John Gourley tuned his guitar and Zachary Carothers said thanks for coming out so early to see us. They easily captured their essence as a traveling band, both physically because of their extensive touring, but also their navigation through so many sounds and genres. During their set, the band hinted that their new album, In the Mountain in the Cloud, might stand among their best of the six albums they previously released. -Laura Medina
Girl Talk – Boom Boom Room – 6:00 p.m.
Photo by Max Blau
Gregg Gillis is a mad scientist. Originally with a background in biomedical engineering, Girl Talk melds together his sampled sounds with the precisest of measurements. The big difference, however, is that onstage hes using confetti, balloons and toilet paper instead of beakers and graduated cylinders. Fans packed the Boom Boom Room on Sunday afternoon, causing the Gulf Shores Fire Marshalls heart to race as security beckoned dancing girls to climb down from the supports of the tents. The wave of people screamed at each new mash up, bouncing up and down with blow-up alligators and pool noodles alike. While the essence of his music is a genius compilation of old and new sounds cohesively mixed into one, his live shows are a sweaty mess rivaling any dance party. Each are unique in and of themselves, and each are awesome in their own right. -Laura Medina
The Black Keys – Surf and Style Stage – 7:30 p.m.
Photo by Max Blau
As with any large festival, logistical problems will always turn up somewhere throughout the weekend. This was made apparent at the Surf and Style stage, where flatscreens projecting the videography of The Black Keys set were located only about 10 feet off of the ground. In a crowd of 35,000 standing on level ground, only the front 20% are going to be able to see the sweat of Dan Auerbach or the soft floor tom hits of Patrick Carney. The others had to just find a comfy spot in the sand and listen to the band that made dirty blues cool again.
Despite most of the crowds inability to physically “see” the Black Keys, the set was a die hard Black Keys dream. On the Kings of Leon tour, The Black Keys stuck to a structured setlist, making sure to burn through their singles and popular tracks. At The Hangout Music Fest, it was the opposite. Medleys of antique soulful blues songs were mixed into their set in clever ways. A good indication of how the Black Keys sounded at the fest can be heard in the first 30 seconds of “Ten Cent Pistol”. Quiet guitar string plucks build and build until the duo, 10 minutes later, would be trading energy back and forth in crunchy distortion solos.
Photo by Max Blau
If you were looking forward to hearing an album played live, this was not the set for you. If you were looking forward to a band playing music live, independent of recorded sound structure, then The Black Keys were a huge check mark on your Hangout Music Fest list. -Scott Greenberg
Justin Townes Earle Shaka Island Stage 7:45 p.m.
Justin Townes Earle was in the unenviable position of playing at the same time as both festival mainstays Galactic and white-hot sub-headliners The Black Keys, but he still managed to draw a respectable crowd to the Hangout Festival’s smallest stage. He owned that stage, too. Equal parts singer-songwriter and showman, Earle is a confident performer that knows how to connect with an audience. His gospel-tinged tunes were a good warm up for Paul Simon and a breath of fresh air for festival goers who had been baking in the sun for three days. -Denton Poteet
Paul Simon Hangout Stage 9:00 p.m.
Even if you’re not a student of his discography, odds are high that you probably like at least one song written by Paul Simon. You probably even like a few of them. That’s a strength in a festival headliner it heightens the shared experience between thousands of strangers. Simon’s music is familiar and rhythmic and light as a feather. Who better to close out three days of music on the beach?
For two hours, Simon and his band moved seamlessly between Simon & Garfunkel staples, Graceland-era classics, and selections from the recently released So Beautiful or So What. The setlist perfectly balanced the new songs with the iconic ones, of which there were no shortage; there were appearances from 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Mother and Child Reunion, and The Only Living Boy in New York, among others. It also helped that the new tracks sounded every bit as vital as the classics, with The Afterlife and So Beautiful or So What sounding especially strong.
This was a huge coup for Hangout. Simon is a living legend touring behind a very good new album, but Hangout is his only summer festival date. This was a special set and it felt like it. The crowd erupted when that familiar horn line announced the arrival of You Can Call Me Al”, and they fell into a respectful hush when Simon took the stage alone during the encore to play a solo acoustic rendition of The Sound of Silence. The latter was flat out amazing, with a nuanced vocal performance from Simon that conveys less urgency and more reflection than the original Simon & Garfunkel recording. He’s more thoughtful now, not quite as earnest, but still committed to the sentiment at the song’s core. He’s gained experience and perspective since he wrote it, and you can hear it in his voice. It was the high water mark of an excellent festival. -Denton Poteet
Gallery by Max Blau