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Festival Review: Hangout Music Festival 2013

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hangout 2013

As I tucked a second swimming suit into my bag that was probably too large for the three days I’d be away, I actually said aloud to myself, and I suppose perhaps my cat, “I’m going to a music festival. On the beach. As a VIP. With a press pass.” A little yelp came next, accompanied by an involuntary jig I can only assume looked like a combination of the Bluths doing their respective chicken dances. Such behavior showed up in spurts since [CoS photographer] Josh [Mellin] texted me on a cold March morning and said, “Um, guess what I won” followed by, “Let’s just say I’ll be listening to Kings of Leon, Tom Petty, and Stevie Wonder all day to celebrate.” Chicago radio station 93XRT had awarded him passes to the Hangout Music Festival thanks to an Internet contest. We suddenly found ourselves determined to get to Gulf Shores, AL.

Bear in mind that, initially, we didn’t know that XRT was going to supply us with a beachfront condo with an ocean view or that the tickets he won were actually VIP. We didn’t know we’d get free drinks and food, access to a special swimming pool by the main stage, as well as umbrellas, lounge chairs, and hammocks in “VIP Grove”. One thing we did know was that it wasn’t too late to secure press passes, which would get us into the photo pits (my first time!) and the breezy media area overlooking the festival in the Phoenix Hotel parking garage.

Hangout aerial view by Amanda Koellner

Photo by Amanda Koellner

As the pieces of our plan hitched together, excitement ballooned. I used nearly my entire vault of Southwest points to purchase round-trip tickets from Chicago to Atlanta to Pensacola and back. We talked the lineup top-to-bottom, and once it was revealed, Josh annotated the schedule with places to be and things to see. We purchased shuttle passes that would easily get us between our condo and the festival. I bought a new camera a week before the trip and quickly did my best to learn it well enough to not seem like a total novice in the photo pits.

Josh even found a video of this guy, a fan whose leg had been run over by a dump truck on a sunny day when he was listening to none other than Tom Petty. He was left with one wish: to see the legend at Hangout because “Tom Petty rocks.” This phrase became our mantra, and we repeated it in our best Southern accents during the days leading up to the fest. Server refills your drink at a restaurant? “Thanks a lot, Tom Petty rocks!” A kind gentleman holds the door open for you? “Thanks a lot, Tom Petty rocks!” Rinse and repeat.

When the time finally came to depart, we did so with enthusiasm and excited wide eyes. Because Tom. Petty. Rocks.

Friday, May 16th

943589 2172883804175 1540045527 n Festival Review: Hangout Music Festival 20133:49 a.m. – Our alarm goes off. It’s so goddamn early. I feel like a newborn deer trying to open its eyes and walk for the first time. That kid-on-Christmas-Eve adrenaline quickly kicks in and I start gathering my luggage.

4:30 a.m. – We have a Groupon-type thing for a town car, so we’re riding to the airport in style, mostly because taking the CTA to Midway isn’t even an option at this ungodly hour. Our driver gets us there in 15 minutes. Good work, Lee.

6:27 a.m. – Our captain’s gentle Germanic voice drifts over the intercom, and Josh turns to me to say, “Christoph Waltz is flying this plane.” I laugh. It’s uncanny. “It is a beautiful day for flying,” he says, immediately leading the passengers to believe what he’s actually saying is, “It’s a beautiful day for killing [insert unlucky victim in a Tarantino film here].”

7:00 a.m. – I put on the smooth sounds of Rhye and sleep the rest of the flight.

10:02 a.m. – We’ve jumped to Eastern time, but we’re heading back to Central. Time zones confuse me so I don’t spend too much thought on this. The Atlanta Airport bustles a little too much for my liking. There are people occupying every available space, and I’m ready to roll out.

11:47 a.m. – We’re riding in a mini van across the Florida/Alabama state lines. I’m laughing at the absurdity of this Friday morning compared to most. I call my mom to touch base before ceasing most communications with the outside world. She is utterly excited for us. It makes me happy. I’m excited too. We find our condo, home sweet home for three sweet days, and settle in.

1:13 p.m. – We’ve arrived at the festival after one of many very pleasant shuttle rides. We stroll toward the second floor of the Phoenix Hotel’s adjacent parking garage where the press area is located in an open, breezy area overlooking the festival and oceanfront. We’ve just gotten my photo pass after a touch-and-go-moment at the media tent. Lissie is playing the Chevrolet Stage, covering “Pursuit of Happiness”. We’re yelling and running up this ramp and wind is blowing and the sun shining and it’s invigorating and beautiful. We’ve arrived.

Hangout 2013 Pool by Joshua Mellin 2_8758528233_l

Photo by Joshua Mellin

2:38 p.m. – From the Chevrolet Stage through the food and merch tents around the Ferris wheel and down to the main stage, we’ve wandered – toes deep in the fine, white sand – nearly everywhere. The lay of the land had been gotten. We sit on some lounge chairs in VIP grove and I go order a drink. Walking up to a tent, ordering a white wine, and walking away without being prompted to pay is maybe the best feeling on Earth. I can hear The Sheepdogs playing in the background; my ear is fine-tuned to their sound having reviewed their album late last year. Josh takes a catnap, and I drink wine and groove in the chair, taking it all in.

2:45 p.m. – A band I don’t recognize starts to soundcheck on the small stage within the VIP area. I can’t hear The Sheepdogs anymore, which is sort of a bummer, so I check the rest of the day’s schedule and get butterflies. I’m about to go in the photo pit for the first time. Jim James, Grizzly Bear, Passion Pit, Kings of Leon. I repeat it in my head like Arya does the names of those she wants dead on Game of Thrones.

3:30 p.m. – We wait for Jim James at the entrance of the photo pit at the main Hangout Stage. Josh gives me pointers and my nerves grow.

Jim James at Hangout by Joshua Mellin 7_8758542329_l

Photo by Joshua Mellin

3:45 p.m. – I’m so fucking close to Jim James. Ten to 15 feet from Jim Fucking James. I’m passing as an old pro and almost getting results on my par with my attitude, to my serious surprise. James comes closer to where I’m standing in all his shaggy-haired goodness, and my composure is gone. I can’t even take a photo. I dance and grin like an idiot, and at one point I turn to Josh and actually say, “I’m tearing up this is so exciting!” He and his band are opening with “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U)”, which had to have been written for the sole purpose of kicking concerts off in the best possible way. The budding instrumentals grow, and the way the singer delicately annunciates those five titular vowels with concentration and precision is amazing, especially at this proximity.

4:16 p.m. – After our first three songs come to a close, we retreat to listen from the VIP area, which we literally spill into from the photo pit, in perhaps the most convenient setup possible. I may or may not have, at this point, ordered yet another free wine. You guys: FREE. WINE. Not one to discriminate, I will later order more than a couple beers and a vodka pineapple. James continues to roll through his solo material. Seeing him in his signature suit while bikini-clad girls groove and the Gulf of Mexico’s wave crash so close by makes for a fantastic juxtaposition. The weekend’s only just begun.

Grizzly Bear at Hangout by Joshua Mellin 1_8758546351_l

Photo by Joshua Mellin

5:00 p.m. – Back across the beach at Chevrolet, Grizzly Bear takes the stage, and my first thought is how adorable Ed Droste looks in beachwear. He’s donned a patterned navy, short-sleeved button up with light-blue striped shorts and a pair of Ray-Ban aviators atop. He could nearly pass for a Tommy Bahama mannequin, and it’s fabulous. One of the reasons I love Hangout is also one of the reasons I’ll jump on any chance to see Jimmy Buffet with people I adore (my parents, old friends, and the like): I can’t help but feel like life is a party when surrounded by people dressed in beach/Hawaiian wear. Everyone’s on a mission to have a good time. So why not get in on that?

5:17 p.m. – Droste informs us the band has never been to the great state of Alabama. “Check that off the list!” he yells. I think about tossing my sunglasses onstage for Daniel Rossen. The way he’s squinting is giving me a headache. We’re enjoying the set, but we stroll on. So it goes in festival land.

6:03 p.m. – Josh is enjoying shade and getting some water in the Grove. He’s not a fan of Passion Pit and he’s also not feeling too great. I check my watch. They go on in 12 minutes. I decide I’m getting into the pit.

6:08 p.m. – I do my best run through the sand to the main stage. Passion Pit is set to go on in seven minutes. It’s a long jaunt, but I’ve committed and I feel determined. I stop for a brief moment when I’m near the ocean to take a slow, 360 degree turn and appreciate the scene for a moment. Moment absorbed. Back to the task at hand.

Passion Pit, Michael Angelakos at Hangout by Amanda Koellner 2

Photo by Amanda Koellner

6:15 p.m. – I tumble up to the photo pit entrance panting. This is an exciting solo mission, and I realize I now have a grasp on the duties of covering a festival as a photographer. I’m impressed with those who do it often. I collect myself and dart in the minute Passion Pit saunters onstage. The opening of “I’ll Be Alright” rattles and takes over my whole body; I’m actually leaning on the speaker at one point. I start snapping away, but I can’t stop holding my camera down to smile at frontman Michael Angelakos because he looks loose yet sprightly, and it’s so fun to see him happy.

6:19 p.m. – My second song in the pit is “The Reeling”. Still a dance track, but it’s more concentrated. I get in the zone and take some of my best photos to date.

6:21 p.m. – “Carried Away”: At this point, I’m in between having a party for one and turning to dance with the people who’ve arrived early and are having the time of their lives in the front row. The band is having a blast and so are we. I leave the photo pit grinning and fist pumping with the crowd.

6:30 p.m. – I retreat from Passion Pit, which is harder emotionally than it should be. I find Josh. We gear up and head east for The Shins.

The Shins at Hangout by Amanda Koellner 2

Photo by Amanda Koellner

6:45 p.m. – I’m waiting to enter the photo pit for James Mercer & Co., and I’m freaking out to say the least. I’ve loved this band for so many years yet this will be the first time I see them live. There are a myriad of reasons for this, but they don’t matter now. It’s happening.

7:00 p.m. – My settings are off. This keeps happening to me when I first enter the photo pit, and for about 20 agonizing seconds, I think that I’m not going to end up getting any good shots. I momentarily give up to actually enjoy the music, recollect myself, eventually seizing an opportune moment to fix the settings and carry on. Now, James Mercer is crystal clear on my LCD screen, and I realize, holy shit, I’m seeing The Shins.

7:05 p.m. – “Caring Is Creepy”, and I’m locked eyes with James Mercer. Is it embarrassing to admit I cried in the photo pit? Because I did.

7:25 p.m. – Despite the loss of Jessica Dobson, who left the lineup for solo project Deep Sea Diver, the band is on point. The fact that I can see The Shins and the ocean is overwhelming and I can’t stop wiping stray tears from my somewhat sweaty, somewhat sandy face. “Australia” picks me back up, though, and as we retreat into the crowd, I embody Elaine Benes dancing on a beach vacation.

The Shins at Hangout by Joshua Mellin 6_8758523167_l

Photo by Joshua Mellin

7:50 p.m. – We begin our trek toward the main stage because Josh has informed me the photo pit will be crazy for Kings of Leon. The Shins are ripping through “Kissing the Lipless” and I dance, trying not to think about the fact that I’m walking away from a forthcoming rendition of “Sleeping Lessons”, and begin to grow antsy for KOL. I’ve seen them several times, but always from the lawn of an amphitheater or upper-levels of an arena. This is going to be insane.

8:30 p.m. – I think about how the most exciting time of any festival is when it gets dark that first night. It’s nice.

8:33 p.m. – We’re waiting outside of the photo pit…and it’s crazy. There’s an overflowing army of photographers and they’re dividing everybody up into two groups. I’m told this often happens for big headliners. I sign a release form and am given a Kings of Leon bracelet which feels like a prize. It’s going to happen.

Kings of Leon at Hangout by Joshua Mellin 10_8758224993_l

Photo by Joshua Mellin

9:00 p.m. – They kick things off with “Radioactive”, which is fun especially because it means they know not to save it for an encore or anything despite the fact that it was the lead single off their most recent album. From there, the fuzzy power of “Crawl” pounds into my chest like a sledgehammer, and I’m rocking out on the railing waiting to shoot. The band looks thrilled to be back, and they’ve never sounded better. None of the Followills seem the least bit inebriated, either. At least not yet.

9:27 p.m. – By the time we secure a spot in the crowd, Kings have launched into “Fans”, which I’ve listened to driving with the windows down approximately 1 billion times. I realize the rest of this blurry dream of a Friday is happening right now, and I dance.

10:37 p.m. – I’ve had a lot of free wine. When you’re on the beach and Kings of Leon are playing and you’re dancing in the sand with an unlimited supply of alcohol at your fingertips, the songs all blur into one big party – but hey, just as the Followills would have wanted, right? I have the time of my life though, rest assured.

Kings of Leon at Hangout by Joshua Mellin 2_8758529071_l

Photo by Joshua Mellin

11:00 p.m. – Fireworks and the encore: “Closer”, “Use Somebody”, and “Black Thumbnail”. The entire beach is drunk. Heading toward the shuttles during the last song, we see a thousand big-group, four-person, couple, and even solo parties happening in little circles throughout the crowd. The collective mission is to get to that place where you’ve let go and real life doesn’t even exist. Mission accomplished. It’s a mess in the most beautiful way possible.

Saturday, May 18th

Public Enemy at Hangout by Amanda Koellner

Photo by Amanda Koellner

1:40 p.m. – We arrive at the fest in time to see Public Enemy, but our expectations for having a chance to shoot the rap group are low. We go to the right side of the Boom Boom Tent, but the security guard tells us the pit entrance is on the left. We speed walk around the crowd and tent to squeeze through a small passageway. I’ve been at the festival for no more than 7 total minutes today, and Flava Flav is all up in my face. I get one of the best shots of the day and look over to see Josh having a ball. I haven’t had coffee this entire trip, but Public Enemy has proved to be the perfect morning boost.

2:20 p.m. – I’m lying in a hammock drinking a screwdriver in the VIP Grove when Josh tells me Dirty Projectors go on in 10 minutes. For some reason, I thought they were playing on Sunday. Despite feeling as comfortable as I’ll ever feel, I rally up because I sure love that band.

2:30 p.m. – Dirty Projectors open with “Swing Lo Magellan”, and we roll up to the photo pit about 20 seconds in. Watching David Longstreth’s tribe is interesting and meaningful for me, but it’s hotter and less exciting than the mayhem and shade of Public Enemy in the Boom Boom Tent. Shortly after evacuating the pit, we head for the media area and enjoy the music beneath comfort of the breezy shade.

Govt Mule at Hangout by Amanda Koellner

Photo by Amanda Koellner

3:30 p.m. – To be honest, I don’t know much about Gov’t Mule or Warren Haynes. I’m told he’s a festival mainstay and guitarist for the Allman Brothers. I’m sold and also perplexed by my previous lack of this information. We enter the pit, and his powerful electric guitar grabs strangles me, though his set doesn’t fully sell me until I hear him cover Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You” toward the end. It rocks.

4:30 p.m. – We’re heading back across the beach toward The Roots. We decide to enter the pit at the Chevrolet Stage on the right this time, which means we need to walk through the crowd, toward the ocean and around. The crashing waves serve as a constant reminder of the surrealistic nature of the weekend, and I’m grateful for each and every one.

4:45 p.m. – The Roots remind me that Saturday night is upon us. They’ve arrived to party, and their mission seems to make sure we’re all on board, too. I’m always star-struck when I see Questlove, and tonight he’s looking fresh. The afro: tamed and braided. The ensemble: chic and classy. I read a Q&A with him in the most recent Esquire I picked up at Midway, and today he looks like he’s straight from the menswear magazine’s glossy pages. Totally adorable.

The Roots at Hangout by Amanda Koellner 2

Photo by Amanda Koellner

5:55 p.m. – Josh has a hunch that Snoop Dogg is going to join Kendrick Lamar on stage after organizers seemingly sent out his publicity information along with that of those playing the fest. We’re crammed into the left side of the Boom Boom Tent, and even though he’s supposed to go on in five minutes, they haven’t let the photographers in the pit. There’s nowhere to stand, and people with red artist wristbands keep asking to pass by us. It’s hot and unpleasant. The crowd starts an “LSU” chant followed by “Let’s get weird! Let’s get weird!” Sway, the MTV VJ, takes the stage and yells, “This is my first time in Alabama!” I grow excited because hip-hop shows in the pit have been a blast thus far, and it seems like Lamar is set to immediately follow Sway.

6:27 p.m. – But he doesn’t. Instead, the VJ holds a rap-off contest between crowd members and we’re packed, sardine-style, with fellow photographers and those with unrealistic dreams of the front row. I’m having trouble breathing. A very large photographer who is apparently well-known on the festival circuit won’t stop pressing up against us, and it’s the only time I feel unsafe the entire weekend. In that moment, staying doesn’t feel the least bit worth it. We retreat, and I’m so happy when I breathe regular air again. We’re told Lamar showed up about 20 minutes later. I never would have lasted.

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Photo by Joshua Mellin

6:55 p.m. – After much debate, we’re at the top of the Ferris wheel. It gifts one of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever seen. The festival surrounds us, people litter the white sand, the Gulf of Mexico beats against the beach, and the sun is setting over the bay. I can’t opt for one view or the other, and I rotate my head like a hyperactive owl in an attempt to take in as much of it as possible. I say “wow” a lot both during and after the ride. Josh seems thrilled I peer-pressured him into it. Everyone has won, yet again.

7:15 p.m. – We’re strolling into the VIP area when we hear “Hard To Handle” by The Black Crowes. I only know the name because I later Google it. I find the fact that it’s happening quite humorous as drunks try to sing the infamous gibberish chorus.

8:06 p.m. – We’re waiting in line at the photo pit where they’ve handed out release forms for Tom Petty’s set at 9 o’clock. Josh and I are numbers seven and eight of a plethora of photogs. He reiterates what a big deal this is, and I once again feel half completely lucky and half totally out of place.

8:46 p.m. – I ask Josh what time Petty’s set to go on. “8:45,” he says. I reply: “It’s 8:46.” I see on his face that he’s nervous for the first time all weekend.

Tom Petty at Hangout by Amanda Koellner

Photo by Amanda Koellner

8:47 p.m. – The lights darken, signaling Petty’s arrival. As we wait, we overhear police talking about a man along the rail brandishing a weapon and threatening to kill Tom Petty. I only catch bits and pieces of this from Josh; there’s a lot happening, and I was nervous before there was a weapon in our midst. The police bring the suspect in front of us, and I freeze when they actually pull a knife off of him. Josh looks equally as shocked, especially because in this moment, Petty has just taken the stage, and normally the photographers would be flooding in the pit by now. The police quietly and calmly talk to the man, and they’ve confiscated his weapon. The publicity people who have been handling our release forms and organizing our pit entrances look anxious, but the cops give them the go-ahead to let us in, so we dart past the criminal. We’re in, and no one was hurt. Especially not Tom Petty, who is henceforth known as Cool Jesus.

9:01 p.m. – Petty plays The Byrd’s “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, “Love is a Long Road”, and “I Won’t Back Down” while we’re in the photo pit. Petty’s grinning and raising his hands in the air to one section of the crowd and then another. Add in those blonde locks, that scruff, and his general aura: Cool Jesus. The Church of Petty plays on, and he rolls into “You Wreck Me” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”. After “Good Enough”, it’s time to really please this crowd. “Free Falling” awards a few of those sweet festival moments where literally everyone is singing the same words and seemingly experiencing a collective liberation while doing so.

Hangout Ferris Wheel by Joshua Mellin 1_8758532163_l

Photo by Joshua Mellin

10:04 p.m. – Halfway through “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”, Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers have lost us a bit. He eases into a series of deep cuts, which is a tall order for attendees who’ve been broiling under the Alabama sun for two days. Soon enough, he eases into a downtempo and lovely version of “Learning To Fly”, which reels the crowd back in.

10:45 p.m. – Fireworks: round deux. Petty closes with “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “American Girl”. We really hope “Tom Petty rocks!” guy is somewhere under the same Alabama moon as us, dancing on one leg, crutch in the air. Exiting the fest, we shout a few “Thanks a lot! Tom Petty rocks!” to the heavens, just for the man in the video.

Sunday, May 19th

Hangout 2013 by Joshua Mellin 7_8758537041_l

1:06 p.m. – We decide to cut out any running around on the last day and set our sights on just three acts: Ellie Goulding, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Stevie Wonder. I’m already sad to leave tomorrow. I make a rule that we’re not allowed to talk about our 6 a.m. – flight on Monday until it happens. Josh agrees.

2:16 p.m. – There’s a light film covering the sun, so it still looks like a bright and beautiful day, but it’s just the slightest bit cooler. We walk in the media gate we’ve used all weekend, and the same security guard has been there all along. He’s high-fived us upon each entry and exit, and yesterday he complimented Josh’s Beastie Boys shirt. Today he tells us, “The party’s really getting started now that you’re here!” He’s a peach.

2:45 p.m. – Grove time. I say “Treat yoself!” with a nice big glass of wine and some delicious tacos – fried avocado and southern-style chicken. Josh enjoys chicken-on-a-stick. The food is excellent, though priced slightly higher than at other festivals (the average price for a chicken pita, burger, tacos, what have you was $9).

Ellie Goulding at Hangout by Joshua Mellin 1_8759642496_l

2:58 p.m. – We’re heading toward the main stage where we will stay for the rest of the day and, consequently, the fest. A gaggle of photographers gather for Goulding. Having only seen her at Chicago’s crowded Aragon Ballroom with a less-than-ideal spot in the crowd, I’m excited both from a fan and photographer’s perspective – a trend before every pit for me.

3:38 p.m. – After an exciting pit and gems like “My Blood”, Goulding has slowed things down. For a minute or two, I’m slightly bored, which I realize sounds ridiculous but the entertainment thus far has just been too good. I take the chance to grab a beer. When I return, Ellie’s auto tuning her voice, and I file it away as another gimmick comparable to her small drum kit. She’s good enough to go without. She proves just that with “Anything Could Happen”, and the crowd’s energy swells.

5:03 p.m. – I call Karen O. a queen. We compare her to Khaleesi. Four minutes later, a line has finally congregated, and we’re photographers three and four of 32. I’m relieved we’ll get in there before some of the giant lenses do. We’re about to shoot the god damn mother of dragons: rock ‘n’ roll edition!

Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Hangout by Joshua Mellin 21_8759633796_l

Photo by Joshua Mellin

5:15 p.m. – Rushing so close to the stage for one of my favorite bands whom I’ve never seen live before means yet another unbelievable adrenaline rush. Karen O. is wearing a beach version of her latest ensemble – complete with shorts, a custom bedazzled Michael Jackson tee, and killer Yeah Yeah Yeahs belt. She’s singing “Sacrilege” right in my face. I’m dancing and clicking away, and as soon as I hear the opening drums of “Gold Lion”, I look for Josh. A head-turn to my left and he’s rocking out, too. This band is fucking doing it for me, even though it took us four albums to finally unite.

5:51 p.m. – The opening notes of “Maps” dramatically flow in. Karen O. begins to yell. “We’re on the beach! It’s Sunday! Stevie Fucking Wonder!” Everyone cheers. She follows up, more quietly, as if talking to herself: “I love all of those things.” She dedicates the song to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs crew, and to Stevie, too. The song draws several salty drops from my eyes, but eventually, with all the warning in the world for anyone who’s listened to the song over and over at home, the breakdown hits and we’re all rocking out to the same track that drew tears moments prior. That is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s quite possibly the best show of the weekend.

7:47 p.m. – We’re sitting by the pool in the VIP area, and the spot where photographers line up is just a few feet from there, so why not? We can hear Trey Anastasio’s guitar solos on the distant Chevrolet Stage, and I’m briefly bummed I’m missing both the Phish frontman and Bloc Party. But excitement escalates when the publicity overseers come to hand out release forms, which will act as a ticket to get into the pit. We’re numbers seven and eight in a line already snaking back around. We all write down our names and outlets, and we’re informed the list will be vetted by Wonder’s people who will then decide to whom the 20 or so coveted spots in the pit will go.

Hangout VIP area by Amanda Koellner

Photo by Amanda Koellner

8:20 p.m. – We still don’t know if the odds will tip in our favor. Sway pops out in front of us yet again. We’ve gone from, “Ooh, Sway!” to “Ugh, Sway again?” There’s just been a lot of the VJ (and a lot of his obnoxious partners), and I think my annoyance is rooted in my former Kendrick Lamar discomfort. I just want some Stevie!

8:26 p.m. – The man with the approved and rejected release forms is making his rounds. I’m standing with Josh and a friend of his who’s been waiting with us. Everyone is nervous, and Josh randomly says he thinks they’ll be rejected and I’ll get approved.

They each get rejected. I’m told I’ve been approved. Holy shit, I’m going in there alone. Anxiety attacks me. Josh asks me if I want to shoot with his camera, and I shake my head – I’m finally getting to know mine. I almost immediately regret the decision when, as Josh and his friend leave me to find a spot in the crowd, I realize I’m among people who have been doing this for 20 or 30 years.

I’m holding a Sony CyberShot DSC-HX200V: a glorified point-and-shoot that aesthetically passes as a professional camera. At one point, I even hold my release form over it to keep my cool when I realize there’s a man who earlier informed us he shot Nirvana in the early ‘90s to my left and two women discussing specific types of film to my right. I’m the smallest fish in what feels like a huge pond. Deep breaths. This is amazing. Deep breaths. This is amazing.

Stevie Wonder at Hangout Fest by Amanda Koellner 3

8:30 p.m. – I shed my anxiety the minute my right foot digs into the pit’s sand. I’m bounding toward the stage and instead of worrying about anyone around me, I just repeat Stevie Wonder, Stevie Wonder, Stevie Wonder to myself. I pick a spot near the railing with a security guard to my left and a less-intimidating photographer who looks like a friendly, dorky dad on my right. One of Wonder’s people tells us to gather round, and we’re told we can shoot as long as her thumb is in the air. I have no idea where she leaves to go stand for the show, and I never see that thumb again. No one stops shooting the entire time we’re in the pit, which Josh later estimates was about seven to 10 minutes, and I refuse to cease etiher.

I guess that thumb stayed up. As my confidence builds, I’m springing from side to side of the huge stage. I’m taking time to compose each shot, changing my settings as I need to, and kicking ass with this glorified point and shoot. It’s exhilarating. Wonder goes on a long, probably quite powerful, rant about love or equality or something inspiring. I’m even more starstruck than I was for Petty, so I’m almost hearing his words like a Peanuts character listening to an adult’s inaudible wah wah wah. It doesn’t matter. Josh will later perfectly tweet: “Stevie Wonder for President of the Universe.” Yep.

Stevie Wonder at Hangout Fest by Amanda Koellner 2

Photo by Amanda Koellner

8:46 p.m. – I’m in the thick of the VIP crowd and have reunited with my people. Relief washes over me, and I take a quick peek at my LCD screen. Wonder’s playing “The Way You Make Me Feel”, and he’s making me feel quite close to perfect.

9:00 p.m. – He’s covering Lennon’s “Imagine”. Everyone is holding hands or swaying or hugging. The moon twinkles high above him, and I think of how badly I wish he could see the scene he’s created. We all sing along to convey the sight through sound. Yet again, tears stream down my face. I will later call the song my Moment of the Year. It’s May 19th. I’ll take it.

9:07 p.m. – We decide to retreat a bit for a different spot. Wonder’s set to play ’til 11 p.m., and we want to move around. We swing by the pool on the way to perch on the corner and overlook the VIP area and main crowd. Josh taps me to point out a big guy in a black Tom Petty tour T-shirt with red type from 2003. “Maybe it’s the Tom Petty rocks guy!” We laugh. But from there, a series of unbelievable seconds unfold that lead me to believe that Tom Petty, Cool Jesus, has led this man to Hangout. Both my eyes and Josh’s dart from the man’s T-shirt down to his side. He has a cane, and it’s clear he’s suffered a massive leg injury. Josh is staring at me wide-eyed, and I tell him he has to ask him about the video. He does. It’s him. The two share a moment, and Josh genuinely congratulates him on making it to the festival. We’re in utter disbelief. “That made my festival,” Josh says.

Hangout Pool by Joshua Mellin 3_8758525849_l

Photo by Joshua Mellin

9:40 p.m. – We’re retreating yet again for the final meal. We want to get back in the crowd for Wonders finale, so we’re dance-walking out to “Sir Duke”. As long as you can hear Mr. Wonder, it doesn’t really matter where you are because everyone is smiling and giddy. I wonder what life would be like if his music was constantly playing in the streets.

Probably much happier. Josh and I split chicken fingers, and we try to order loaded Cajun fries. The man is out of bacon, has placed the chicken fingers on top of the fries, and is perplexed about our order. “Can we just have some cheese … somehow?” I ask. He hands me a small boat full of melted nacho cheese. It’s delicious. “Isn’t She Lovely” is echoing throughout the beach, and I say, “I wish my mom was here!” She sure loves Stevie.

10:16 p.m. – We’re back in the crowd. We’re all told we’re now in a band: Stevie’s Incredible Singers of Alabama. “We put every other singer and group in Alabama to shame!” Wonder yells.

10:27 p.m. – “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”. It’s the best dance party I’ve ever been a part of.

Hangout Pool by Joshua Mellin_8759644816_l

10:47 p.m. – After getting down to “Superstition”, we dance-walk toward the shuttles. Our ride to the airport is coming at 3 a.m. and I’m going to work in Chicago on Monday. The fireworks seem brighter than the past two nights, and we stop to watch the finale when the ones that look like gold, shimmering weeping willow trees rain from the sky. I get that pang of homesickness for the place I’m still at and have never actually truly called home that I always get when a trip comes to a close. I try to fight it and hold onto every second of the rest of the night.

I feel incredibly lucky when I reflect on the weekend’s experiences, moments, laughs, dances, drinks, tacos, and company. I’m thankful for the ocean, the palm trees, the Ferris wheel, and artists. I’m grateful for the shuttle drivers, festival organizers, and attendees that traveled across the country or maybe just across town. I’m thankful for remembering how beautiful life is. And I’m thankful for music. Especially music.

Gallery

Photographer(s): Amanda Koellner, Joshua Mellin

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