I’ve been fortunate enough to attend every run of the Hangout Festival in Gulf Shores since its inception five years ago and plan to head down for more sun damage and tunes this weekend.
While I can’t say I’m the most seasoned of music festival veterans, I have noticed Hangout has developed its own style over the years. The only other major festival with which I am really well acquainted is New Orleans’ JazzFest, having attended throughout much of the ‘90s.
Comparing the two is difficult since they are so very different. JazzFest is much older and more established. It’s also a two-weekend event and takes place on the infield of a horseracing track, so it’s typically hotter than a horse’s hiney after one of those races. I’ve spent some of the best days of my life at JazzFest, especially in the early ‘90s when hosting 30,000 people was a big day. I once watched B.B. King play in front of about 200 people. Now they routinely jam 100K people in there a day.
JazzFest had a cool live-and-let-live attitude. Put your blanket down and you could wander for hours and your spot in front of the Ray-Ban Stage would still be saved when the Allman Brothers took the stage later in the day. The food was great and easy to get. Plenty of Port-O-Lets (Dear Johns, or Johnny-on-the-Spots, take your pick).
By the last time I went, though, it was so crowded blanket sanctity was gone and a visit to the Port-O-Let was an hour-long trip to a very, very unpleasant place.
I’ve been watching Hangout grow as well. That first year was like some kind of dream. There weren’t very many people, the weather was incredible, the VIP section had tuna steaks, cow steaks and fancy beer. We even saw actor Tim Robbins hanging around looking like Andy Dufresne after a few years on the run in Mexico. It was like a personal music festival.
Word got around, though, and it started to get more crowded. After all, who wouldn’t want to go to a music festival on the beach? I’m sure most of the folks who spend their lives and their parents’ money bouncing from festival to festival enjoyed a break from rolling in the mud or breathing dust, depending upon the local rainfall. Sure, hippies might get some sand in their grilled cheese sandwiches, but overall the beach is a pretty awesome atmosphere.
And although things aren’t nearly as fancy in VIP as they once were, and there are lots more people, Hangout has remained a very cool music festival to attend. I’m sure some will argue about this lineup or that, but it’s still a beach festival with some of the best musical acts around, so it’s hard not to have a great time. It seems like just about every performer expresses amazement Alabama has such beautiful beaches and that they’re getting paid to jam out on the sugary sand.
And over Hangout’s relatively short life, those beaches have definitely helped shape the festival’s culture. For instance, most people simply wear bathing suits to the show. That can be a good thing or a not-so-good thing depending upon your point of view. Modern fashion often dictates that we let it all hang out, no matter how much of “it” there is and how far out it hangs. So you “get” to see that, yes indeed, they do actually make bikinis large enough to fit around your car, or the kind of artistic canvas a truly massive beer belly can provide a tattoo artist. There has also been some pretty creative “manscaping” for the shows as well.
On the flipside though, there are a lot of young ladies in bikinis hula-hooping, which for the more perverted older men might provide entertainment or cause heart issues. Hula-hoops are now one of Hangout’s big things. When you’re walking around you don’t necessarily see people carrying them, but all of the sudden when a band starts the hula-hoops appear out of nowhere. Judging by their skills, some festival goers must spend about 85 percent of their waking hours practicing. I watched a woman last year hula-hoop with her shoulder. Impressive.
The thing I look most forward to each year is what will happen once the sun goes down and the first show starts. There are lots of professional festival goers, and they come prepared.
First the lighted hula-hoops come out. Then all sorts of other glow sticks, glow-in-the-dark hacky sacks and other groovy things show up. My favorite was a couple of years ago when some guy had all these paper Chinese lanterns. He set one after another after another on fire and they rose up in to the night sky. Sure, several people were almost burned, but it was pretty cool.
I’m still amazed no one stopped a guy from setting large paper balloons on fire in the middle of a crowd, but it’s pretty mellow there and I suppose it was only a short run to the Gulf if someone did catch on fire. Although I did notice Chinese lanterns are now on the festival’s list of no-nos. Thanks for ruining it for everyone pal.
Having a nationally known music festival so close to us is a treat — and a responsibility. The Hangout has already done much to change Gulf Shores’ sleepy-little-beach-town feeling, and that hasn’t always been warmly embraced by locals. Just look down the road to Orange Beach and its war with Widespread Panic fans and you can see how bad it can get.
Hopefully Hangout attendees can abstain from urinating in doorways, defecating on sidewalks and fornicating all over the beaches, since that kind of thing seems to have rubbed the Orange Beach folks the wrong way. Not to mention all of that can be done in the Gulf without anyone getting too terribly upset.