White sandy beaches. Clear blue gulf waters. Hundreds of palm trees. Temperatures in the low 80s with a light breeze. Not a cloud in the sky. In a word: paradise. [Words by Stephanie, photos by Tracy.]
This was the scene that awaited the 40,000 concertgoers traveling from over 50 different countries this past weekend to the fifth annual Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Ala. After a wildly successful kick-off party Thursday night that felt like a mini festival all its own with performers like remix mastermind Girl Talk and hard rockers Wolfmother, the stage was set for the biggest and best weekend of music these beaches had ever seen. From rock ‘n roll to reggae, singer-songwriter to soul, and hip-hop to hipster pop, there was truly something for everyone to love about this year’s lineup.
Top billings for the three day festival went to coveted legends The Black Keys, The Killers and Outkast. This was the only festival on the continent where you could catch The Black Keys perform this spring as they’ve opted to spend the warmer months of the year playing the festival scene in Europe. The Killers have just a small handful of shows scheduled in America with Hangout Fest being the last of those before a short run in Canada lands them back across the pond as well. And Outkast’s reuniting after a seven year hiatus for a massive festival run this year during their 20th anniversary is proving to be as monumental as expected. With these big names supported by exceptional acts like The Flaming Lips, Wiz Khalifa, Matt & Kim, Pretty Lights, The Avett Brothers, Childish Gambino and Queens of the Stone Age, it was no wonder Hangout Fest 2014 was a quick sell-out.
Besides gathering together one of the most well-rounded collections of artists you’re liable to see this year, Hangout Fest organizers outdid themselves with added amenities and an extra stage to accommodate the additional 5,000 ticket holders over last year’s cap. One of the first things we noticed walking down the main street through the festival was the increased variety of food options, including Gulf Coast cuisine like shrimp, oysters and crab, not to mention an overflowing abundance of beer and water (in that order, it seemed). Vendors also lined the main drag selling a variety of apparel (fringe, anyone?), jewelry, accessories, and services such as the exceedingly popular face painting and body glitter booths. Also new this year was the Foam Pop tent, a fully enclosed air-conditioned fashion tent where warm bodies could chill and replace their lost sunglasses, buy a new swim suit or a cute dress, or just sit and recharge their phones.
Back outside in the sun, there were a couple of ways to cool down including the giant inflatable water slide and the eagerly anticipated ocean beach access that fans have been begging to see at this festival since its inception. Now you can dip your toes in the ocean while listening to live music from the main stages. Ahhh, pure bliss. You could even get hitched on the beach at the brand new wedding chapel with romantic music supplied live from the nearby stage by artists like Jack Johnson and Ingrid Michaelson.
Speaking of artists, let’s get down to the main reason people flock to this festival: the music. Those eager to get their festival experience started trickled onto the beach early on Friday to find Ozomatli on the main stage, whose high-energy blend of hip-hop and rock with a Latin flare had many early comers wondering why these guys weren’t scheduled for a more coveted time slot. As the sun began to crest its midday peak and the crowds started to fill in, more stages were awoken with sound. Indie-pop darling Ingrid Michaelson’s dulcet tones warmed the crowd on the opposite beach stage, while those looking to escape the sun’s rays could find shelter in the aptly-named Boom Boom Tent which got shaking early thanks to RAC’s unique pairing of electronic remixes with live instruments from their 4-piece band. Both Wiz Khalifa and The 1975 drew impressively large crowds during their competing time slots with their own preferred brand of debauchery – a haze of smoke hanging heavy over the slightly baked (and I don’t mean sunburned) crowd for Wiz, and The 1975 frontman Matthew Healy carrying a bottle of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other for much of his performance.
Over on the main stage, blues guitarist and Hangout Fest 2012 alum Gary Clark Jr. proved that his frequent comparisons to Stevie Ray Vaughn are not unfounded as he bent and twisted those guitar strings to unconscionable levels and left the audience slack-jawed by his skill. Back in the Boom Boom Tent, Childish Gambino turned up the bass and kept things hype with his not-to-be-missed performance, leaving the crowd speechless with one of the most intricate freestyles I’ve ever witnessed. Queens of the Stone Age proved they still have the energy to destroy a stage as well as the young guns as they injected the crowd with pure adrenaline-pumping rock ‘n roll and got them ready to rock with the night’s big headliner, The Black Keys.
Another Hangout Fest alum (2011), The Black Keys’ highly anticipated return to the beach, this time as the headliner, more than lived up to the hype. Having just released their album Turn Blue three days prior to their Hangout Fest performance, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney’s appearance was a timely one for fans who were treated to a couple of new tracks including their single “Fever” and the first ever live performance of “Gotta Get Away.” In reference to the new album, Auerbach joked that he hoped everyone had gone out and bought it “so we can beat Michael Jackson in the Billboard charts”, whose recent posthumous release is running neck-and-neck in the charts with the Keys’ latest endeavor. Fans who had yet to buy the new album had plenty of opportunities to sing along as past hits like “Howlin’ for You”, “Gold on the Ceiling”, “Strange Times” and “Tighten Up” made the set list. After a slightly-longer-than-brief interlude following “Lonely Boy,” the band returned to the stage for a lengthy encore that included a stunning acoustic performance in the opening verses of “Little Black Submarines” that proved to be one of the most memorable moments of the festival for many in attendance.
On Saturday, there was a noticeable increase in traffic on the way to the festival grounds as those concertgoers who were unable to escape the 8-5 grind the day before made their way into town. Irish indie rockers Little Green Cars seemed delighted to be playing at such a beautiful venue, as they joked they’d “never seen so many topless men at one of our shows before.” Needtobreathe had an arguably early set for them during the day but it appeared few people were going to sleep in on the self-proclaimed redneck brothers Bo and Bear Rinehart as the crowds flowed down onto the beach quickly to watch them completely own the main stage. Following them was the incomparable Amos Lee who won over legions of old and new fans alike with his upbeat, eclectic set that included a cover of Queen’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls” melded seamlessly into Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” before being joined on stage by a Mobile, AL based gospel choir.
A difficult choice had to be made late in the afternoon (not for the first or last time during this heavily stacked festival lineup) when Matt and Kim, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, and Moon Taxi as People of the Sun all took their respective stages simultaneously. Nearly every person I talked to walking out of all three of those shows declared it was the best show they’d seen yet, so regardless of where you were you were bound to miss something great (again, not the first or last time that would happen). Moon Taxi took the stage for a second set to fill in for the ill-stricken Chance the Rapper and attracted such a huge crowd that the courtyard filled beyond capacity and had to be closed off to all newcomers for a portion of their performance.
In addition to all the amazing sounds being emitted from each stage were some equally as impressive sights as well. A rainbow of lights spilled out of the Boom Boom Tent as Italian electro house performer The Bloody Beetroots Live and American electronic artist Pretty Lights kept things thumping well into the evening with elaborate light shows and driving performances that gave the crowd barely a moment’s rest. On the East beach stage, The Flaming Lips’ performance was as much a visual feast as an auditory one with lead singer Wayne Coyne dressed in a bloody muscle suit fringed with silver tinsel and running around on a stage that looked like it’d been styled by Willy Wonka. Using slightly less flare (though far from devoid of it), Fitz and the Tantrums had their crowd feeling loved and in love with the upbeat, modern duo of lead singers backed by their extraordinary band and trademark pink neon heart.
All that remained was the night’s big headliner, The Killers, whose pure and straightforward brand of rock required very little visual complexity compared to the rest of evening’s performers. Aside from a single illuminated lightning bolt adorning lead singer Brandon Flowers’ keyboards, the appeal of The Killers’ set rested strictly on their exceptional vocal and instrumental acuity. Their hit-filled set list had nearly all 40,000 people eager to lend their voices to the well-known choruses and kept them enraptured for the entire duration of the late night set. Opening the performance with a highly energetic rendition of “Spaceman”, Flowers quickly removed his jacket mid-song as it became clear his continual movement on stage combined with the warmth of the evening would not be conducive to wearing leather. The crowd went wild as the band moved into hits like “Somebody Told Me,” “Smile Like You Mean It,” and “Human” before inserting a couple of choice covers, CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” and Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” and finally ending the evening with an eruption of screams following “Mr. Brightside.”
On the third and final day of Hangout Fest, despite an abundance of sunburns, hangovers, and the temptation to slow things down in preparation for the upcoming week, the prevailing attitude around the festival grounds seemed to be go big or go home. Fans were eased into the day with Nashville singer-songwriter Josh Farrow kicking off the main stage with a surprisingly rich, soulful voice and bluesy, country influences that had all those arriving early to the beach feeling fortunate to have heard. Turning the discovery of young, talented singer-songwriters into a trend on Sunday morning was Britain’s Tom Odell, who inexplicably “lost” his band (I’m still not quite sure what happened to them), but he didn’t seem to suffer the loss greatly as he and his piano alone on stage proved sometimes the simplest things are the most beautiful.
As the afternoon wore on things got ramped up when reggae artists Soja took the stage and had the sizeable crowd moving and swaying with their beach-appropriate vibe. English rock band Bastille took the East beach stage staring directly into the afternoon sun, prompting lead singer Dan Smith to declare this “the hottest place on the planet.” Temperatures were certainly the hottest they had been on this final day, but that didn’t stop Reignwolf from putting on one the most undeniably intense performances of the weekend, with lead singer and guitarist Jordan Cook playing in the crowd, on the crowd, on the drums, on the ground, climbing up speakers, and just generally abusing his instrument in the most hard rock fashion.
Over in the Boom Boom Tent, German DJ Boys Noize was getting the crowd amped and ready before the young electronic sensation Zedd’s highly anticipated performance closed out the weekend of the non-stop dance party under the tent. Meanwhile, Capital Cities’ covers of the Bee Gees “Staying Alive” and Madonna’s “Holiday (Celebrate)” had the crowds out on the beach breaking into their own dance party, earning them admiration from lead singer Ryan Merchant who appreciated the extra effort required to dance in the sand as opposed to the grass. The Tontons then took the stage in the courtyard and left the audience swooning over lead singer Asli Omar’s sultry dance moves and alluring voice.
Taking the main stage just prior to the night’s big headliner was The Avett Brothers who proved to be another one of the most intense and solid performances of the weekend. Just a few songs into the set, cellist Joe Kwon had to fetch a new bow because his intensity had broken the first one. Seth Avett even made an appearance in the front row towards the end of the set as he jumped down to play his guitar standing on the barricades. Though it was difficult to tear away from their exceptional performance, those who were convinced to shuffle over to St Paul and the Broken Bones were in for perhaps the biggest hidden gem the festival had to offer. With lead singer Paul Janeway’s history as a preacher and possessing the showmanship of Little Richard and the voice of Otis Redding, it’s no wonder their performances are often compared to a powerful religious experience. It won’t be long before they’re headlining festivals themselves.
As the sun fell behind the sand on an absolutely gorgeous day, the perfect scene was cast for Jack Johnson to take the stage for his birthday performance. With his laid-back vibe and calming tunes, there is truly no better place on Earth to experience his music live than at the Hangout beach festival at sunset. This moment was tailor-made for him and he worked it to its full potential. After his set ended, the crowd switched gears as they made the long trek to the opposite end of the beach for the weekend’s biggest headliner, Outkast.
After a short delay from the original scheduled start time, the lights dropped and the curtain went up on the massive transparent box placed center stage, inside of which could be seen Andre 3000 and Big Boi slowly pacing, building anticipation for the moment when they would bust out of their confines, take over every inch of the biggest festival stage and send the crowd into a general state of losing-their-minds as they opened the show with the fast-paced “B.O.B.” Right from the start, there was no question that Outkast was back. Covering the full range of their history with multiple tracks from every album starting with their debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik
, all the way to their biggest commercial success, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
, Outkast won over old fans and new by throwing the biggest party the beach has ever seen.
As I made my way to the ferris wheel with hundreds of others hoping to get a birds-eye view of the tens of thousands gathered for the show, I won’t soon forget the entire line of people, including the ticket takers and security guards, breaking into simultaneous song and dance as Big Boi ended his three-song mid-set solo performance with “The Way You Move.” Andre 3000 took his turn next, bringing down the house in equally uproarious fashion with the close of his three-song solo performance with “Hey Ya!” As the brothers reunited on stage to finish out the set, the feeling in the air was one of sheer jubilation. Young, old, big, small, black, white, drunk, sober – it didn’t matter; every single person had a smile on their face and a sway in their hips. That’s the power of music, to bring together 40,000 people to celebrate life, and I can think of no better way to have brought this momentous weekend to a close than all of those people singing “The Whole World” in unison.