In today’s jam scene, festivals seem to be a dime a dozen. Some pride themselves upon their location. Others’ delight rests in their lineup or make a sole sales pitch based upon atmosphere.
Then there is The Hangout Beach, Music & Arts Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, a unique integration of all three.
Grace Potter referred to The Hangout as being like “Coachella on the beach,” and since Ms. Potter is far too beautiful and talented to argue with, I will choose to take her at her word in spite of having never been to The Disco in the Desert.
There was something for everybody. If lying by the ocean with a boom box is your thing, then prepare to be one upped by lying on a sun-soaked beach as The Black Crowes talk to angels while scantily clad beautiful people stroll by on either side.
The only thing more plentiful than music and positive vibes was unfortunately oil, and lots of it. A little more than three weeks before a note was played and The Hangout was still nothing more than a restaurant at the intersection of the only two real roads in the small coastal town of Gulf Shores, something unprecedented was about to happen that had nothing to do with music: British Petroleum and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
No oil would be seen throughout the weekend nor can it be today in that location, but one could not help but ponder the havoc that was being wreaked just over the horizon on the abyss of beauty that served as the backdrop for the festivities. The cloud of big oil loomed over the weekend, and the powers that be at the festival perceived the potential ominous air, as evidenced by their last minute decision to make the festival a benefit gig and made an invitation to no less than Erin Brockovich to participate in a press junket and environmental platform alongside Grace Potter, Warren Haynes, and granddaughter of Bobby Kennedy and self proclaimed “environmentalist since she could spell,” Kick Kennedy.
Yes, the organizers of The Hangout left no stone unturned, for the most part.
Inaugural years for festivals always include their share of difficulty and this one would be no different. Manchester, Tennessee was in no way prepared for 75,000 people in 40,000 cars, trucks, and buses filling their streets and single exit back in 2002 at the inaugural Bonnaroo. So was the case with The Hangout Fest. In their quest for festy Mecca on the beach with Matisyahu, Robert Randolph, Alex B., and the like, they failed to remember such things as the importance of multiple potable water stations, places for shelter from both the beating sun and heat of Friday and the torrential rains of Sunday, and the all too clutch pocket sized map of the grounds and lineup schedule.
Instead, we were nickel and dimed on such things as $10-$20 per day parking, bottled waters where petroleum was the talk of the day due to the aforementioned, and a five spot for a Ferris Wheel ride. Then there was the magazine (literally) for a schedule that did not include a map.
Nitpicky?Â Maybe. Room for improvement? Definitely.
But in spite of this, the complaints were few and far between. Personally, I snapped a picture of the daily schedule on my phone and saved it as the wall paper, bought one big ass bottle of water and refilled it every two sets or so, and found a restaurant that included a dank meal with parking. There was no time for complaining because just as Michael Franti chanted from the stage on Sunday, in spite of the oil and shitty parking arrangements, there was music, sweet music to see, hear, and experience.
The festival kicked off with the sleeper of the entire weekend, Davy Knowles and Backdoor Slam. This guy and his band literally qualify for the who’s who of “who the fuck is that?” This young chap from the Isle of Man crooned the blues with the soul of Muddy Waters and played guitar with the fervor of Gibb Droll. From opening note to closing riff, his musical prowess was mind blowing although not necessarily danceable. Then somebody said “this is the guy who will be on tour with The Rhythm Devils this summer.” It was at this moment that I realized that the profundity of talent that festival organizer Alabamian Todd Coder had mustered up was as deep as that nagging oil that was making its way toward the beautiful shore upon which we all gazed.
Then I simply had to get a brief look at Orianthi, the guitarist prodigy who was to play on Michael Jackson’s This is It tour, but it was time to move on from blues and shredders to a little pure bluegrass with Jeff Austin and Friends featuring Larry Keel. The group treated the crowd to that sweet sound of pure and authentic bluegrass with a beautiful rendition of “Nice Lonesome Fiddle Blues” that would make Vassar Clements proud.
As the day progressed, so did the heat. The insulation that I thank my loving Deity for while standing in cold lines waiting to get into shows in the winter was absolutely not helping my cause, so I went on a mission….for water. Staring at the vast gulf, the fence that protected the drunks from drowning in the ocean was my own personal Berlin Wall. Then I spotted it during the North Mississippi Allstars Duo show…an outdoor shower! With no hesitation and like a pig in mud, I undroided and bathed my boiling hot blubber. It was better than drugs, better than sex, but not quite great enough to miss out on Girl Talk, who would be performing his usual schtick that is filled with other people’s music.
Girl Talk is Gregg Gillis, a 28-year-old with a gimmick. The catch is quite simple. Find the hottest gals on the festival grounds, distribute playing cards to them, tell them to be at such and such place at a stated time to appear on stage to dance their asses off. If they have boyfriends, well, that sucks but they can come too. Musically, it is the stuff of a not talent ass-clown, but in an odd twist,Â the bit works for the masses because the party on stage transfers to the crowd and provides that lack of distinction between stage and peasant onlookers that so many artists try to achieve. Then, in addition to the ladies, the stunt also includes a guy who appears to be crazed on a methamphetamine intravenous drip and in need of a haircut and bath, Gillis, who bounces around the stage, jumps on his turn tables, and spins the very definition of miscellany. On this night, the stolen variance would consist of everything from The Doors to The Temptations (Alvin and the Chipmunks style) to Snoop.
Shortly thereafter, it would be time to call it a night after seeing what all the fuss was about regarding Zac Brown. I still have yet to figure that out.
Saturday came too early because like a fucking glutton, I could not turn down the late night Keller Williams Electronic Experiment the night before, where Matisyahu joined him on stage for two tunes.
Unfortunately, there would be no sleeper on Saturday as Knowles had been on Friday. Rather, the music really didn’t begin until Grace Potter stylishly took the stage with her always dressed-to-impress Nocturnals. Her set opened with “Joey,” and despite lyrics that state “pay no mind” to a man, every dude fell in love with her while every lady on the beach felt empowered. It was typical Grace, and we all fell for her all over again.
Following a vigorously raw and unadulterated Funky Meters set, it was time for Gov’t Mule. Our old pal Warren had something a little special for us this weekend, rather than what has become somewhat typical Mule. The set as a whole was phenomenal, but its closing was unbelievably grand. As somewhat expected, Ms. Potter would make her second appearance of the weekend with Warren for a stunning rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman.” In a remarkable showcase of Grace’s sultriness coupled with Warren’s undying love of face melting and harmonizing ability, it would be marked as one of two highlights of both the set and the weekend.
The second came two songs later when Davy Knowles paired with Mule for CSNY’s “Almost Cut My Hair.” The set would close with a “Soulshine” that came complete with the mostÂ soul-searching organ intro imaginable. Again, the abyss was pondered, and it was beautiful, spiritual, and sad all splattered together.
Saturday was almost over, but only after some deep hip-hop with The Roots and the closing set, John Legend. Although Legend is not particularly my style, he is certainly an original and remarkable talent who knows his audience – his cover of Marley’s “Redemption Song” was quite nice.
Sunday’s line-up was loaded, complete with Michael Franti, Keller Williams, Matisyahu, and Trey Anastasio and Classic TAB. However, the monsoon-like rain would prevent Matisyahu and Keller from ever making an appearance on the actual festival grounds.
The newb came out in the festival organizers as they realized that they had not prepared for rain at an outdoor festival in a tropical climate, and proclaimed that “everyone must leave the festival grounds.” Party foul?
However, just as we had seen previously with this outfit, they quickly made up for their bozo move by announcing that the remaining portion of the festival would be free.
As fans texted, emailed, and called their local pals, the grounds were packed by the time the music resumed with Michael Franti and Spearhead who brought their usual A-game, complete with a Michael crowd walk through, children on stage for “Say Hey!,” and that general human vibe that only he can bring so proficiently. By the end of the set, no one cared that their sandals were waterlogged. The love was there and the vibe that ensued would remain until the closing note of the night.
Following the Spearhead set, Ben Harper took the stage and with that, he took to the mic like it was a bullhorn, introducing the crowd to fuckbp.net and proclaiming “it’s one thing that (BP) dumped thousands of gallons of oil into the sea and won’t take 100% responsibility and culpability for it. It’s a whole other thing if we pay them to do it.”
This was the moment for which the crowd had been waiting. The love and unity that Franti had spawned turned into a collective and united front as the crowd repetitiously chanted “Fuck BP!”Â This was music at its barrier breaking finest.
And then there was Trey Anastasio.
Ernest Giuseppe Anastasio III took the stage with Classic TAB members at roughly 9:00pm with “Gotta Jibboo.” The set strolled through familiar Trey gems all the way to Charlie Daniel’s “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” and I’ll tell you what you son of a bitch, Trey was the best there has ever been.
From here there were still two hours left of perma-grin on the ginger kid’s face that was unmistakably sober. Trey Anastasio loves life and it shows.
The crowd was on fire in that uniquely Phishy way and there could not have been a better way to close out a remarkable weekend than with a song specifically written for the festival with longtime Phish writer Tom Marshall entitled “Sailboat Man,” trumpeter extraordinaire Jennifer Hartswick’s resounding rendition of Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” and then an encore performance of “First Tube” complete with what seemed like never ending fireworks.
With that, the crowd began that long walk to the festival gate and I noticed that there was hardly any of the typical crowd-left rubbish in their wake. For once, the message that so many events of this type pushes came through.
Overall, The Hangout had been a success despite setbacks of literally disastrous proportions. The rookie blunders were easily pushed aside as the crowd kept their eyes on the prizes. One can only hope that there will be another Hangout next year that is even grander than its former.