Words by: Billy Jack Sinkovic | Images by: Dave Vann
Hangout Music Festival :: 05.20.11-05.22-11 :: Gulf Shores, AL
Jump right to Dave Vann’s killer pics here!
Ah, summer vacation. Swaying palms frame the cloudless blue sky. A salty breeze cools your skin while you dig your toes into fine white sand. Hot sun, cold drinks, boats, bikinis and your best buds. Sounds just about right doesn’t it? Now, add one of the best lineups the 2011 festival season has to offer and you’ve got the Hangout.
In only their second year, the organizers of the Hangout Music Fest achieved every event promoter’s dream - a sell-out. 35,000 festival fans descended on Gulf Shores, Alabama, a long-time summer vacation destination that is still reeling from the effects of a painfully slow economic recovery and the devastating Deepwater Horizon spill that occurred just a few weeks before last year’s inaugural festival. And although the 2010 fest drew less than half of this year’s numbers, it was more than enough for the word to get out that a music festival on the beach = best idea EVER.
The linear layout of the fest [a similar but thoroughly stretched out version of last year’s] consisted of two massive stages facing each other, approximately one-third of a mile apart, and flanking a neatly ordered configuration of vendors, carnival rides, and various V.I.P. accoutrement, as well as three more venues. The Boom Boom Tent hosted the first act [and first highlight] of the weekend, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. Folks who were just arriving were treated to a feast of funky grooves from Karl D’s soulful sax. A little further down, the Grooveshark Stage featured a duo of sunny, beach-friendly acts from Easy Star Records: Cas Haley, a big ball of fun with a huge and heroic voice, who ended his set with “Got My Mojo Workin’;” and the Easy Star All-Stars, the reggae collective that brought us island adaptations of Pink Floyd and Radiohead, among others. Covers from those two iconic acts, including “Money” and “Paranoid Android,” were interspersed with dread-bobbing originals from their recent release, First Light.
|Beats Antique by Dave Vann|
Seattle songstress Brandi Carlile opened the Surf Style Stage at the eastern end of the beach. After a sublime rendition of one of her early hits, “What Can I Say,” she gushed a bit about how happy she was that it was 3 pm on the first day of a festival on the beach and everyone was singing along. Her joy seemed to prompt another sing-a-long, a cover of Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” featuring some serious rockabilly cello action. But fans feeling the pull of the Hangout Stage began to flock westward with the sun, stopping only to swivel their hips with the belly dancer that makes up one-third of the East Indian industrial grooves of Beats Antique. It’s hard to pull off a late-night dance party at four in the afternoon, but these gypsy music makers, with their heavy low end and entrancing visuals, nailed it. Those able to break the trance and complete the journey to the other end of the beach were treated to a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Girlfriend is Better” by Umphrey's McGee that noodled its way into their jam anthem “1348.”
Overheard halfway back down the beach: “Man, she is smokin’ even from all the way back here!” Whether the comment was directed at the rock vocals howled from behind her Wurlitzer or the long legs that sprouted from beneath her signature short skirt and her Flying V guitar, there is little doubt that Grace Potter knows how to draw a crowd. She and The Nocturnals treated fans to a fantastic cover of the Stones’ “Happy” sandwiched between two of her biggest hits, “Nothing But the Water” and “Paris.” She stopped only to exhort the crowd to toss their undergarments onstage, promising, “We’ll be accepting panties all night.”
|Grace Potter and The Nocturnals by Dave Vann|
Those racing for a slightly different dose of soul-tinged rock at the other end of the beach were slowed by the dense crowd of fans of the wobble and whomp that is Bassnectar. And because of that slight road hazard, Grace got there quicker. She walked out onstage - in a different short skirt, no less - with the Warren Haynes Band for another Stones cover, a blistering hot “Honky Tonk Women.” Warren had assembled this particular all-star ensemble to record and support his most soulful record to date, Man in Motion, and after backing up Ms. Potter, they returned to their set of brilliant new tunes, which was capped off by, you guessed it, “Soulshine.”
As the sun descended on Gulf Shores, My Morning Jacket, the first of two Friday night headliners took the stage. Known for their deep and diverse live shows and their – dare I say epic? - late-night festival sets from that other huge southeast summer festival, the real question was how they would contain their magic in a mere 90 minutes. But the answer was simple: they delivered a tight, concise set of fan favorites from a still relatively short but hardly short-handed career, including “Off the Record,” “Mahgeetah,” “I’m Amazed” and “Gideon” interspersed with highly anticipated new material from an album that drops next Tuesday, May 31st. The most poignant new tune, “Circuital,” the title cut from the new album, left the slightly over-produced feel of the prior album behind and returned to the layered hooks, rock beats and soaring vocals of Jim James that MMJ fans know and love.
|My Morning Jacket by Dave Vann|
For the last four years, southern rock stalwarts Widespread Panic have taken their touring troops of fans to the Gulf Coast by way of The Wharf, just a few miles down the road in Orange Beach. But this year they heard about a party goin’ on, many spirits strong, and they bought their shots and rode their liquor down to the Gulf of Mexico by way of The Hangout. Opening with an old classic, “Pigeons,” they played a concise although not overly adventurous set peppered with covers, including fan favorite “Mr. Soul” (Neil Young), a highlight combo of “Ride Me High” (J.J. Cale) into “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” (Robert Johnson) with Warren Haynes sharing lead guitar duties, and a face-shredding “Fairies Wear Boots” (Black Sabbath) that led into an extended metal jam as gritty as the sand in fans’ swimsuits. A unique “Driving Song” sandwich with “Blight” as the meat drove right into the first of three stellar fireworks displays, lighting the backdrop to the outro of show closer “North.” Some folks stuck around for a moment after, wondering about the lack of encore, while others headed to after-party destinations, which included two on-site affairs - Bassnectar with Beats Antique and Rich Aucoin - and yet others sought to shake the sand from their manes and attempt to rest, despite visions of Saturday and Sunday dancing wildly in their heads.
Day Two’s lineup featured a whole slew of artists who think outside the sandbox, starting with Rich Aucoin. Entering the Boom Boom Tent, first-time Aucoin observers figured they were just checking out another high-energy alt-rock show…until they realized that the frontman was sitting on a towel with a random beach bum in the back of the venue. Quickly jumping up, the sweat-drenched Aucoin ran a lap around the tent, hopped up onstage, and the song came to a screeching halt. The organic set took tons of random twist and turns - “Nah, let’s skip this song.” – Where’d those horns come from? - Where the heck is he going? – with every tune turned into a fist-pumping fight song,with the words flashing across the screen and Aucoin in the middle of the crowd, hollering for everyone to chant along – “Four More Years! Four More Years!” or “We are not dead yet! We are undead!!” As Neil from Terrapins in Revolt [Aucoin’s touring buddies] trotted onstage, parachute in hand, Aucoin paid his respects to the festival and a few of his favorites: Xavier Rudd, Bassnectar, and The Flaming Lips [and, “I say ‘Hang,’ you say ‘Out!’ ‘Hangout!’ ‘Hangout!’” and so on]. And then over hundred fans closest to the stage were under that parachute, jumping up and down and chanting, “You make my heart explode!” SO much fun!
|Festivarians by Dave Vann|
Wandering over to Surf Style for the longtime festival favorites Medeski Martin & Wood, fans of the avant-garde geniuses were greeted by the noisy distortion segment of their show…until a fast-paced and funky bass line emerged and the tight snare drum groove drove some thick, oily Hammond out the other end. Some people couldn’t help but move their feet to the beat, while others chose to just sit and listen to every little nuance. With MMW, either way works well. But just then, a different brand of beat brought the boogiers back over to Boom Boom, where multi-instrumentalist Xavier Rudd was laying down a multi-layered folk groove over a house beat with the help of a loop pedal and some serious training. His primary instrument is the didgeridoo [or should I say primary instruments – he plays up to three at once,] and the versatility of the sound was amazing: the signature indigenous drone, a machine-gun percussive chant, a bottom-heavy grind that could easily have been a power chord thrashed from an electric guitar. But with all of this aural texture, the spiritual sovereignty of Rudd’s songs never ceased. Fans stomped and clapped, responded to calls and lifted their hands in reverence as Rudd sent them along with a sandy slide, transporting them to the deserts of his Australian home…or at least back out to the beach.
By far the biggest mainstream superstar of the weekend was rapper-turned-pop-star, Mr. Cee Lo Green, but after his near no-show at Coachella earlier this year, no one was all that surprised when 3:30 came and there was no Cee Lo. Instead, festival promoter Shaul Zislin came out onto the Hangout Stage with tongue-in-cheek to say, “Forget You, Cee Lo,” and brought out the Foo Fighters. They played a save-the-day set of blissfully note-perfect rock covers, which included Alice Cooper’s “Schools Out,” Queen’s “Tie Your Mother Down,” and Tom Petty’s “Breakdown.” And sure enough, the delinquent duke of the Dirty South came sprinting on-stage just in time for a short-of-breath last verse to Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” After wrapping Dave Grohl in a sweaty embrace, the whole crew left the stage for an almost seamless changeover, leaving Cee Lo just about 20 minutes to barrel through his megahits but sadly no hip-hop. The setlist looked something like “Gone Daddy Gone > Crazy > Fuck You > Rock The Casbah,” all unfinished versions. That whole Foo/Cee Lo mega-set was over in moments, but everyone in that crowd, one of the biggest thus far that weekend, knew they’d witnessed a moment that will live in the annals of rock for ages.
|Dave Grohl by Dave Vann|
Sometimes, when a festival’s lineup is this packed, fans have to make some challenging decisions. At one end of the beach were the King’s of Wierdoland, Les Claypool and Wayne Coyne, with their respective bands, Primus and The Flaming Lips, playing back-to-back sets. The former featured the monster stomp-and-thump of hits “My Name Is Mud > Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” with Les declaring his passion for sunscreen, and the latter featured the usual array of anthems, starting off with “Do You Realize?” and “She Don’t Use Jelly,” punctuated with confetti explosions, a bevy of cheerleaders, and of course, Wayne in his hamster ball.
At the other end of the beach were mainstream music’s newest superstars, The Avett Brothers. Seemingly having left their punk-with-bluegrass-instrumentation roots behind in North Carolina, the Avetts focused on the bevy of hits from their last couple nationally revered albums, including the bouncy pop of “Kick Drum Heart,” the almost painfully sincere “January Wedding,” “Shame,” which features those near-perfect vocal harmonies that only siblings can attain, and the heartstring-tugging sing-a-long hit “I and Love and You.” And for all the back-in-the-day fans, they saved an old favorite for the encore, the fitting “At the Beach.”
|The Avett Brothers by Dave Vann|
In 1994, Kurt Cobain ended his life and left a lot of flannel-clad, long-haired teenagers wondering, “What’s next?” But in almost no time, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl traded his kit for a guitar and a vocal mic, and almost 17 years later, the Foo Fighters continue to churn out hit after hit. And although many of the fans in the audience had their greasy manes shorn ages ago, there was still no shortage of head-banging during those earliest hits, including “My Hero,” “The Call,” and “Monkeywrench.” Dave even commented, “Look at all the old people singing along!” But just because they wax nostalgic doesn’t mean they haven’t remained relevant, and the stream of hits from the past decade and a half proved it - “Learn to Fly” from ’99, “All My Life” from ’02, “Best of You” from ’05, “The Pretender” from ’07, all the way up to “Rope” off this year’s Wasting Light. And after the triumphant “Everlong” finale gave way to a second night of fireworks, the kids ran off to find some late night Pretty Lights while the older folks hobbled home with mosh-pit bruises spotting their bodies and tired smiles lighting up their faces.
Day three of what was shaping up to be a festival-for-the-ages showed that it isn’t just about the headliners, or even the second tier. Relative newcomers Jonathan Tyler & Northern Lights and Roman Street proved that. The former is a Texas quintet that could have stepped right out of Almost Famous. No one has nailed the hard blues rock equation as well in years: the long-haired, shirtless drummer with the massive kit and even greater reach; the comely back-up vocalist with a ‘fro, a tambourine and some serious pipes; two tattooed guitarists who took turns on lead; and aviator shades on every member of the band. And it wasn’t surprising that they had a massive crowd of fans, evident by the number of people singing along way before they strutted into the harmonica intro to Willie Dixon’s [and later, Led Zeppelin’s] “Bring It On Home.” In sharp contrast, Roman Street’s winding, Caribbean grooves sounded like a page right out of String Cheese Incident’s playbook [and did I catch a “Landlady” tease?]. All the folks in the small but sparkly crowd seemed unfettered by three days of hot sun and cold beers as they bounced and hula-hooped to the calypso beat.
|Girl Talk by Dave Vann|
Old Crow Medicine Show has a who’s who of musical festivals on the tour schedule this summer, including Bonnaroo, Delfest, Telluride & Austin City Limits, but they brought their A-game to the Hangout and played one of the more talked-about sets of the weekend. The Nashville-based old-time/Americana act alternately wooed and wired the packed tent with a series of ballads and barnburners. The crowd was particularly quiet as they politely absorbed the emotion of a poignant “C. C. Rider.” But that reverent silence was quickly overtaken by cheers, screams and squeals when the first chords of mega-hit “Wagon Wheel” rang out. Guys were throwing their arms around their buddies’ shoulders, girls were either tearing up or quickly dialing their friends back home for a listen, and everyone was singing along. And after it segued into the fast & furious cocaine lament “Tell It To Me,” the loudest and most sustained applause of the weekend commenced. The band was almost unable to pull themselves off the stage as the cheers kept getting louder and louder.
There are certain performers that one tends to see on every lineup, that is, when they’re not touring relentlessly on their own. This festival featured two such performers, Keller Williams and Michael Franti & Spearhead, presented in a new and wonderful light. Both artists performed two sets a piece - one each on the Hangout Stage and one each on the small, intimate Shaka Island Stage in the kid & family section of the fest, which also included a School of Rock instrument petting zoo, a hip-hop clinic led by the Q Brothers, and a pair of wonderful young women eager and equipped to spray on some temporary tattoos or whip up some wacky hairstyle.
|Keller Williams by Dave Vann|
The barefoot, goofy hippie poster-boy Keller Williams began his mainstage set with the Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain” with a groovy percussion loop and lyrics from Ani DiFranco’s “Freakshow,” but it was the smaller set that really shone. He pulled mainly from his new-ish children’s album, Kids, and standouts included “Mama Tooted,” about how flatulation is both okay and fun [especially if you blame it on mama,] and “Taking a Bath,” which he earnestly dedicated to all his fellow hippies in the audience. Michael Franti & Spearhead took their massive energies down several notches for a scaled-back acoustic presentation for the families highlighted by the hit “Say Hey [I Love You,” featuring a toddler singing the chorus a cappella and a child wearing a turkey hat spraying Franti in the face with a Supersoaker upon request.
With sky getting dimmer and the end growing nigh, the hardcore fans bounced from stage to stage, soaking in as much music as they could before it was all over. Franti flew through his mainstage set with a series of “How you feelin’?’” hits, as well as a few moments to shower some love on the state of Alabama, the Gulf of Mexico and the promoters for having “the balls to put on a festival like this.” Girl Talk threw the final Boom Boom Tent party of the weekend, complete with confetti, balloons, gyrating stage dancers and a finale of John Lennon’s “Imagine” into The Isley Brothers’ “Shout!” All of the revelers from right down the coast still moving and shaking from the previous week’s Jazz fest found themselves right at home with Galactic, featuring longtime recurring guests trombonist-singer Corey Henry and vocalist Corey Glover from Living Colour. And the crowd for recently sky-rocketed The Black Keys was tens of thousands deep. Even Dave Grohl couldn’t miss it; he was easily spotted side stage grooving to the blues-tinged indie rock. But amongst all this extraneous rock stardom, almost everyone was aflutter with anticipation regarding the final night’s main event, Paul Simon.
As the first delicate guitar riff of “Crazy Love Part II” rang out, one could feel the magic of the tiny yet towering icon washing over the crowd. Paul Simon was backed by eight overwhelmingly capable multi-instrumentalists, each with their own vocal mic and myriad instruments. Two keyboard players pulled out horns for “You Can Call Me Al,” seemingly half the stage played drums for “The Obvious Child,” and the a cappella African doo-wop that opened “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” left the audience breathless. And if you’ve ever wondered how to get 35,000 people to go completely silent, just have Simon come out and start the first of two encores with a gut-wrenching solo rendition of “Sound of Silence.”
|Paul Simon Band by Dave Vann|
Perhaps the finest display of Simon’s songwriting prowess was how the four selections off his brand new album So Beautiful or So What, which fit seamlessly with the five decades worth of hits around them. One new tune in particular, “Rewrite,” was a textbook example of how to write a pop song without anyone even realizing you’ve done it. Hit after hit after hit, and once Paul left the stage following the stellar “Late in the Evening” that capped the four-song encore, the roar of the crowd brought him back for two more fan favorites “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “Boy in a Bubble.” A perfect end to a perfect weekend.
Promoters of the Hangout Music Fest have a daunting task ahead of them. How could they possibly improve upon such a stellar weekend? Well, they can start by following the simple approach that got them here in the first place, namely assemble an immensely diverse lineup and put them on the beach. Then, let word-of-mouth take care of the rest. Thanks, Hangout. See you next year.
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