The Hangout Music Festival
In its sophomore year, since first being inaugurated into the Music Festival Circuit in 2010, the Hangout Music Festival has made a giant splash into the conversation of coveted musical destinations for performers and memorable experiences for attendees – pun intended. This year’s festival exhibited not only the enticement of bringing a larger scale music festival to the white sands of Alabama but also the evolving ingenuity of the event’s production.
The Hangout Music Festival boasts as being the exclusive weekend music festival located on a beach in the United States. Although there may be similar musical events and concerts that are located adjacent or near the ocean, only the Hangout Music Festival is able to bring the elements of a large multi-stage festival to the sand. The festival is located at the popular beach destination Gulf Shores, Alabama, which is typically a tourist destination for a weekend getaway for residents of the Gulf region.
Normally, The Hangout is simply a restaurant, bar and venue that hosts concerts all summer long. Presented by Huka Entertainment and a myriad of sponsors, The Hangout dilated the normal experience to bring together a large festival that spanned over three days and four nights. The festival sold out to over 35,000 music fans only a few weeks before the festival kicked off. This amounted to being the sixth largest outdoor weekend music festival in the country in only its second year. Furthermore, the fan base is more eclectic than one may imagine being that tickets were purchased in all fifty states as well as twelve different countries. Although a majority of those people are surely from the gulf region, it is intriguing to be at an event where not only can one experience the beach and great music, but also meet people from literally all over the world.
In creating the experience, The Hangout Music festival staffed nearly 1500 people and took two weeks to build the site. Since the festival is located at a tourist destination, one concern by the community may be that this could have a negative impact on their businesses, having 35,000 people in one location rather than sprawled throughout the area. However, this proved to be an unnecessary preoccupation as the Hangout Music festival spurred the purchase of over 10,000 condominiums and an estimated economic impact of roughly 20,000,000 dollars to Gulf Shores and the neighboring Orange Beach area.
In only the past year, the Gulf region has been affected by BP’s infamous oil catastrophe, tornados devastating cities throughout Alabama, and most recently, the flooding of the Mississippi River and its diverted waterways. Given the impact of natural disasters and other tragic events in the region, the Hangout Music festival is proving economically to be more than just an event, but rather a movement that can assist in the resurgence of the region.
The festival featured five stages, including one tent and a smaller children friendly stage. The two main stages were located on opposite sides of the beach, while an additional two stages were split by the concessions near the entrance of the festival. These stages and concession stands were not located on the sand as the two main stages were located directly on the beach. Stationing oneself along the ocean side of the main stages proved to be a surreal experience that captures the essence of the festival while at the other two stages, it would be wise to wear shoes as it was on concrete.
Music began at around 11:30 each day (1:30 on the first day) and ended at 11 each night, with fireworks. Oddly enough, the schedule printed for the attendees at the festival was arranged in an illogical and incomprehensible way. Usually, as exhibited on the festival’s main website, a schedule for a music festival will feature the earliest acts at the top with a standard to-scale grid that clearly shows when an act ends and the next one begins. However, the given schedule featured an inverted sequence of performacnes which showed the headlining acts at the bottom of the grid. Additionally, the boxes and allotted time slots for the acts did not sync up. For example, My Morning Jacket and STS9 had the same time slot on the first day of the festival, yet on the schedule it appears that STS9’s set started later and was shorter. This was a careless mistake that was confusing and frustrating for the average fan.
The Hangout Music festival did not offer camping as an option, like many other weekend festivals throughout the country, mostly due to the fact that the location does not permit such activity and it is, by creation, a tourist destination that hosts its guests in houses, apartments, hotels, and condos. This is an issue that may be a subject for debate amongst experienced festival attendees, being that in some cases, getting dirty and camping next to strange neighbors and campers is ‘part of the experience’. Although such opinions may exist in a small sect of the music loving population, the majority of festival-goers were eager to be able to lodge on the coast, footsteps from the ocean in a fully equipped home.
As far as the average customer was concerned, there were no vacancies in Gulf Shores’ many outlets of accommodation and limited space was available as people ventured for alternatives close by in Orange Beach or other neighboring towns. Clearly, procrastination proved to be a foolish maneuver for anyone who planned on attending the festival (sold out) and then, when the festival ended, walking to their rooms (booked). Ideally, one would want to be located within walking distance from the venue with some sort of lodging located on the beach, to take advantage of the ocean, but such a situation was limited only to those who booked almost immediately upon announcement. Additionally, Beach Boulevard, which was the main road that lined the coast of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, is a dark highway with whizzing cars driving throughout the night. For someone leaving the festival, most likely in some sort of altered or influenced state, it could be a daunting trek to walk along this road with no sidewalk. Parking for the festival was limited so transportation was definitely something that everyone who could not walk to the festival had to consider.
In order to accommodate all of the people who were not in an ideal living situation for the weekend, the Hangout Music festival offered a shuttle service for 26 dollars over the span of the weekend. Shuttle stations were conveniently located near almost all condos in neighboring areas of the Hangout and were running from 11 am to 4 am daily (Sunday the shuttle ended at midnight). On paper, this is a viable and sensible option for all those who booked their accommodation too late to get that ideal spot previously mentioned. However, this shuttle proved to be much more complicated, logistically speaking, leaving many opting for overpriced cabs, cramming into cars, or hoping for the serendipitous lift away from the festival.
On the first day, going to the festival was a bit of a hassle as people were not seated comfortably on the coach buses that the shuttle provided but rather packing as many people as comfortably able into the aisles as well. Everyone was eager to get to the festival so when the bus would finally arrive to the shuttle station, their would be a mad rush to the door. There was no order, line, or staff available at the sites in order to possibly regulate this activity. At the end of the first night of the festival is where the true madness and unpreparedness was evident due to the fact that everyone from all shuttle stations were all trying to get onto ine line of buses.
With 35,000 attendees, a modest estimation for the shuttle users would be 10,000. Logistically, how many buses would it take to transport thousands of people to their respective stations in a timely manner? Too many – which is why the Hangout responded by commissioning all types of vessels in the region to be used as shuttles, along with the originally allotted coaches after the first day of the debacle. This helped for the remainder of the festival in terms of transporting people, but this is definitely an issue that must be addressed for the future.
Being at the Hangout festival is unlike any other festival experience that exists in the United States. One of the best parts about the summer for those littoral folk is going to the beach with your feet in the sand, relaxing to the soothing sounds of the ocean and getting lost in introspection. Hangout was able to embody this spirit as well as provide a variety of acts that spanned from old school favorites to newer more electronically based music that is proving to be more than just a fad.
What makes this festival so special is the fact that it could have been similarly enjoyed without the musical element, just as thousands of tourists who travel to Gulf Shores throughout the summer can confirm. This is a destination for a reason. Although the festival understandably did not include the ocean as part of the layout (seems like it would be asking for trouble with so many people), to be able to wake up each morning and jump into the Gulf before heading to the festival is a luxury that is vitalizing and can completely validate making the trip to begin with. A weekend in the sun with friends is the prototype for good times and this was no different – aside from the plethora of acts and amenities to keep you even more entertained.
The Hangout Festival also provided many places to just… well… hang out. There was a shaded region that was intertwined with colorful webs of vinyl that was next to loads of palm trees and hammocks. This was the perfect retreat or meeting place for festival-goers to escape the sun and just chill by the beach. There also existed a Sky Bar which attendees were able to go to the top and listen to music looking down at the festival and enjoy a fruity cocktail. As the Hangout year-round may have it, the Ferris wheel and MegaDrop were also functional, providing yet another activity to partake in during the weekend’s festivities. Although a bit crowded at times, the Hangout Festival successfully provided amenities and an atmosphere that left everyone smiling, especially those willing to pay for it. The extra, also sold out, supplemental VIP package, which is becoming more and more popular at all festivals, provided an open bar and a pool overlooking the main stage. But for the majority of the attendees, they would just have to suffice with the natural beauty of the Gulf. Not a bad problem to have.
The main stages were completely opposite each other, nearly a quarter mile apart, which when walking in the sand for a weekend can result in stellar calves. Seeing music from these stages is what the Hangout festival is all about – blending the elements of paradisal vacations and a weekend festival experience. As the days went on, people became more and more innovative by not only mounding sand to use as a head rest, but some even spent the time and effort to sculpt couches or lounge chairs into the beach. In the moments where one would sit with a frosty beverage listening to music, feeling the cool breeze waft over the gulfs rolling waves, it is a challenge not to smile, reflect, and be at a warm peace. Even the performers were caught up in this serene spirit as almost all of them, when speaking to the crowd, would dictate how special it was to be at this festival on the beach and how memorable it was for them to play in such a setting. There existed this cohesive feeling throughout the festival, an interconnectivity of elation, one that had everyone just feeling so good to be chilling and hanging out at the beach. To say the music was irrelevant is a bit of a stretch though because, ultimately, this is why 35,000 people bought tickets.
Most of the bigger acts that drew more people were scheduled to play at the main stages. The only major conflict throughout the weekend, in terms of performance, was with Cee-Lo Green. Any fan who traveled to see this act must have been at least mildly disappointed due to the fact that he did not show up until midway through his scheduled set. For a reason not given, the massive crowd was told that Cee-Lo would not be performing and that his set was cancelled. In an act of showmanship and spontaneity, the Foo Fighters took the challenge and came on stage to play a few cover songs, an unexpected supplement to their performance merely hours ahead. Out of nowhere, Cee-Lo then came on stage to perform a few songs, including his biggest hits. A good guess would be that he was simply late to arriving to the festival and got there in a hurry with just enough time to play a few tracks in his allotted slot. It was a strange hour in an otherwise smooth weekend of punctual performances.
Many of the electronic acts including Pretty Lights and Bassnectar were scheduled to perform in the Boom-Boom Tent, a man made tent that was next to, but not on, the sand. Maybe the festival creators did not anticipate just how popular some of these acts were, or perhaps it was the only logical or plausible place to put them, but in doing so, they created an over packed and at times unbearable place to see music as the beating Alabama sun shone down. Not only was the tent too small, but it was unfortunate for both the attendees and performers to not be able to have the same experience as an act that was featured on one of the main stages in the sand looking out at the ocean. All these criticisms aside, Pretty Lights may have had the most powerful set of the weekend. The crowd was intense, the music was innovative, and he exhibited just why that when they print his name on bills, they must use a larger text each successive time.
The most intriguing stage was the Shaka Island Stage, or better yet, it should be referred to as a feel-like-a-kid zone. This stage was secluded from the main areas of the festival as a retreat that was intended not only to escape from the madness and enjoy a Bushwacker (that is the Gulf Shores cocktail that is essentially a boozy frostee), but also as a place where people could have their kids play in a safe and amicable zone. Here, they had an instrument petting zoo, which featured many instruments where kids could learn and practice how to play an instrument or just jam out. The festival did an excellent job in producing a place where children could play in the sand, finger paint, or many other activities. Even the music at this stage was catered to families, playing mostly softer or acoustic tunes. Many times at major camping festivals, the venue can become a host to a party that is no place for children, but this was unique.
One notable act was Primus as Les Claypool stole the show with his unworldly and alien-like bass playing. Big Gigantic was most impressive in how they are able to successfully fuse the saxophone and upbeat hip-hop and electronic beats into a giant dance party. Michael Franti and Spearhead also played a memorable set being that is fit the mood for beach time fun on a Sunday afternoon.
The most poignant moment for this writer came during the set of My Morning Jacket. They opened with this rough hard rock song with lots of screaming and thrashing, unlike the majority of their catalog, which features clear vocals and melodic guitar riffs. They then came to a screeching halt and segued into this blissful tune called Circuital, which their newest album is named after. The contrast from heavy to light, dark to bright, rough to smooth, was the perfect way to start the set and it was quite a moment to experience.
Strangely, there were inconsistencies throughout the soundboards on each of the stages. Some acts sounded loud and clear while other were inaudible, muffled, or just simply out of balance. This could be the fault of the respective band’s crew, but, regardless, as in STS9’s set, it hampered the overall performance.
As each person’s musical taste and personality governs a different sequence and schedule for how to approach a five-stage three-day festival, each person will inevitably have a different experience throughout the weekend. However, during the main act of each night there was only one act performing on the main stage. The first night featured festival staple and Southeast favorites Widespread Panic, who delivered a standard (using this word is not degrading the excellence of their musicianship) set that had the crowd going. Dave Schools, the bassist, continues to impress and steal the show as he battles his six string Modulus.
The Foo Fighters, who featured the largest crowd of the weekend get MVP from this writer for not only delivering an excellent sing along type set of years worth of hits, but also for being great sports and saving the day during the whole Cee-Lo fiasco. The most fitting act of the weekend definitely came as the festival came to a close with Paul Simon’s set. It could have been that everyone was wiped out or that it was familiar easy going music, but there could not have been a better act to close a great weekend. With the ocean in your sights and people swaying to his beautiful music, it truly was a settling way to end a festival.
Being that a sold out festival in such a setting could never be viewed as a failure, there is always room for improvement. This writer has faith that the production of the Hangout Music festival will address some of the complications and hiccups from the weekend while still keeping the elemental core of this experience intact.
For example, aside from the standard festival food like burgers, corn dogs, and nachos it would have been refreshing to have an option of eating a fish taco, snow cone, smoothie, or a cold sandwich rather than typical fried fare. In today’s world, where environmentalism and health consciousness is becoming not only a key value in people’s lives, but also the mainstream way of thinking, it is important to offer a variety of both plentiful and relevant foods in such an atmosphere like the beach.
Cell phone interactions is a problem in any event where masses of people gather as the activity and interference from so many people trying to use their cell phones. Hangout was no different as at times it took literally hours to make a single text. So if you lost your friend, chances were you were going on a lonely adventure for a while before you could make contact.
Although a poor business model, limiting the amount of people at the festival could be a viable solution to solving many of the logistical complications throughout the weekend. Although this writer did not feel so, many people complained about the amount of people being way too crowded. This is understandable for the small stages and especially the tent. Decreasing the amount of people allowed into the festival would result in: more fluid and available shuttle transportation, more prime accommodation for the majority of attendees, an elimination of stages not featured in the sand, and a more intimate festival.
Overall, the Hangout Music festival was an unforgettable experience that is worthy of gushing. It will undoubtedly return as will most of the attendees who want to recreate the same mystical and serene weekend that they experienced. The Hangout Music festival is an amazing event that is one of the best kept secrets of the Gulf Coast, but this writer has a strong suspicion that this whole music festival-on-the-beach-getaway thing may spread pretty quickly amongst veteran festival goers and young fans alike. You will just have to wait for the announcement of next year’s dates to start counting down the days to Hangout – and to book your condo early.
Written by Danny Goodman
Photos by Max Rasche. To see more of his work, click here.