Ah, music festivals. The prime spot to see flower wreath headbands by the thousands, and the youth of America running a total muck. Yes, festivals make for a surreal experience filled with nonstop people watching, fashion trends I can’t possibly pretend to understand, vegan food (if you’re lucky), and peculiar things on sticks (i.e. horse heads).
At the backbone of the experience is of course, the live music. Live music has always been something I’ve personally connected with, and music on the whole is something that’s had the power to pull me up when I’ve been down, and resonate deep within my soul. At music festivals, while the music may play second fiddle to the explosive chaos and sensory overload, I find solace in the fact that festivals bring together thousands upon thousands of individuals who are electing to disconnect from the harsh realities of the world for a few days and connect amidst a confined utopian community of music and wonder. That in itself outweighs my concern for the youth of today, and perhaps encapsulates my own draw to such experiences.
On top of being a two time Bonnaroo veteran in my early 20s (surviving everything from sleeping in a flooded tent to consuming questionable brownies thanks to a convincing gypsy at a lemonade stand), throughout the past few years since then, I’ve been able to attend several festivals located on or near my home turf. In this past weekend’s case, it was Hangout Music Fest, just over the state line in Gulf Shores, Alabama. At the heart of the festival is an actual restaurant called, The Hangout, and the festival grounds span outward from here, right along the Gulf Coast shoreline.
This year the festival grew tremendously, selling out at around 40,000 tickets. Hangout Fest organizers know how to put together a smooth sailing fest of this magnitude, and the lineup is only getting more and more wow-worthy with each year that passes. The fest has become increasingly reminiscent of Bonnaroo, minus the whole sweltering to death in your tent thing. Although there are nearby camping options available, the bulk of attendees rent condos or beach houses in walking or biking distance to the fest. Instead of trekking through the grass, dust, muck or mud, Hangout Fest allows you the opportunity to bury your feet in sugar white sand while gawking at the Gulf of Mexico. Thanks to the time of year, and a cool breeze coming off the water, by nightfall, sweaters get to make cameo appearances.
Each year the alternative weekly newspaper I write for, the Independent News (IN), puts together an official Hangout Fest Guide. This means that I interviewed several acts pre-festival, and was fortunate enough to once again get to attend the festival as media, which granted me access to many of the Super VIP amenities all weekend alongside my fellow IN crew. In addition to a shaded, raised main stage viewing area housing a VIP bar, there was my personal favorite—the pool deck—where I found myself quite frequently.
My fellow IN writer/photographer Hana and I lounging by the pool with a clear view of the main stage.
This VIP duck haunted me the entire weekend. Each time I thought he was strapped down by the pool deck, he ended up crowd surfing and being escorted from the crowd. Once he even landed on my head, full body weight.
Despite the perks that were included in my experience, if you think a music festival is a time of lazy lushness, think again. The lush part may hold a bit of truth (depending on how much you indulge), but festivals are the extreme opposite of lazy. Truth be told, my legs are far more sore and exhausted from walking and dancing in the sand, and hiking to and from the car over the course of four days, than they were immediately following the marathon. No exaggeration.
My leg tiredness began early on, following Girl Talk. During the Thursday night kickoff party, the photo pit was open to all members of media, not simply those photographers carrying photo passes. Since I’d brought my Nikon along to take photos here and there, I figured I would join Hana and take the opportunity to experience Girl Talk via the pit.
I’m pretty sure my heart skipped some beats and I was blown back a solid foot (or few) when the bass dropped.
Then I was immediately overtaken by a blurry sea of balloons raining down from overhead, and flying toilet paper.
It was during Girl Talk’s set I finally heard the song “Turn Down For What,” and understood what all the hype was about. In fact, by the end of Saturday night, I was dancing to this song on repeat in one of the VIP cabanas at an impromptu dance party. Basically it became our weekend anthem.
While the evening hours of the festival were action-packed, the daytime shows taking place in the heat of the day made for a tamer experience. One daytime act I took special liking to was Tegan and Sara. Leading up to the fest I was able to do an email Q&A interview with Tegan. (I may or may not have gotten carried away and told her that I listened to one of their songs on repeat the last 6.2 miles of the Country Music Marathon). Still, my affinity goes beyond listening to their music while running. I’ve been a fan for an entire decade, since their release of “So Jealous.” Mixed in with their newer dance-driven tracks, they played quite a few throwbacks. Although I can’t be too sure how many of the young kiddos appreciated this, I sure did.
Another particularly nostalgic show for me was Modest Mouse, a band I have been eager to see live for the past decade. For this performance, after some strategic manevuering, I lucked out being front and center in the VIP viewing area.
Despite playing just before nightfall, Modest Mouse drew in quite the crowd, most of whom were singing along and floating on, with arms waving high.
One of the lesser known acts I had the opportunity to interview prior to the fest this year was Wild Cub. This Nashville-based band was recently added to the Rolling Stone’s “10 New Artists You Need to Know List.” Along with being a fan of their sound, one unique selling point for Wild Cub that drew me in is their dedication to doing things the more “old fashioned” way. That, and I’m a sucker for a heartfelt story. Their single “Thunder Clatter” was written right after frontman Keegan met the girl that would become his wife.
On the headlining end of the spectrum, Saturday night during The Killers (thanks to a man sporting a cat shirt), Hana and I left the pool deck behind and landed a cabana view of the latter portion of the show. To my right were the beaming lights from The Killer’s stage, and to my left, a full orange fireball of a moon. It was a heavenly festival moment if there ever was one.
Sunday night, Outkast closed out the entirety of the festival playing every single one of their hit singles, some I had even shamefully forgotten about over the years, but remembered as soon as the crowd erupted in a dance-filled, massive group sing-along.
Even though the weather was considerably mild, things still heated up during the daylight hours since there were zero clouds in the sky all weekend. In addition to making sure I sported sunscreen, I opted to keep my water bottle on hand and filled the entire weekend long, having previously learned my lesson on how fast and hard dehydration can hit. As is the case with many larger festivals, Hangout Fest had several water stations allowing you to quickly fill up your water bottle, and continue onward to your next destination.
If there’s one band that impacted my youth more than most, it was Bright Eyes. I saw them with The Faint on my 18th birthday in New Orleans and still remember moments of that show vividly, nearly a decade later. That said, my heartstrings were firmly tugged during Conor Oberst’s set Friday night and I carried these feelings with me throughout the rest of the weekend. These feelings were only magnified when I continued to have missed connections with him near the VIP bathrooms, which went from entertaining to comical.
Beyond all the music, the weekend experience wouldn’t be complete without making mention of the food. One media advantage that I especially appreciate is being able to stash snacks in your bag to bring them into the fest (i.e. fig bars and mixed nuts). Still, each night during the dinner hours I found myself making a beeline to Southernmost Falafel’s food stand to throw down $9 for a loaded falafel (totally worth it). The guys at Southernmost Falafel make the festival rounds, meaning they are equipped to serve the masses without missing a single beat. They know how to keep the line moving fast, yet manage to remain attentive enough to catch the details, and could even read my lips when I said “No Tzatziki.” I returned to this stand three nights in a row for a few reasons, the main one being I have a hard time turning down a falafel, especially when there is some good looking hummus involved. Although there were vegetarian friendly veggie burgers available and a couple of other veg-based choices at various stands, this falafel was the best vegan bet. As an added selling point, they doused my falafel with Sriracha. My mouth might have been on fire, but my tummy was clapping.
BEACH BOUND 2015
Although I realize I am talking up this festival from a media/VIP perspective, having spent time last year with friends who had General Admission access, I can earnestly and honestly talk it up from that viewpoint as well. If a music-filled vacation in paradise is what you are looking for and you don’t mind a shared experience with thousands of other bodies in bathing suits, you really can’t go wrong by choosing to hangout at Hangout Fest. Of course, if you are an audiophile who has the funds to step it up a notch and splurge on VIP or Super VIP tickets, hands down, go all the way and do it! My weekend experience is what I imagine a musical heaven must be like. In fact, I’m going to be replaying the moments of this weekend in my head for awhile, and am already counting down to 2015.
If you need a little more convincing, here are “3 Reasons You Should Hang Out at Hangout Fest in 2015.”
For a look at the IN’s entire festival guide, including interviews I did with Tegan and Sara, Wild Cub, Matt and Kim, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones, click here.