Hangout Fest 2016: The Weeknd, Vince Staples, and Jason Isbell Shine After Hours-Long Weather Delay
Plus, we recount Gulf Shores performances from Florence + the Machine, Grimes, Courtney Barnett, and more
This past weekend, Hangout Fest returned to Gulf Shores, Alabama, for its seventh go-round, boasting an eclectic lineup and, thanks to its ocean-front location, some of the more unique features of any major music event. (Seriously, what other fest has a puppy kissing booth, fully functioning wedding chapel, and VIP hot tubs?)
The three-day extravaganza also came with its fair share of drama. Friday started off with a long rain delay that resulted in the rescheduling of every act, while Saturday’s lineup had to be retooled after headliner Calvin Harris was involved in a car crash, with Panic! at the Disco filling his spot. Those blips aside, it was a successful weekend, with (mostly) great weather and standout performances from the stars and up-and-coming early-day acts. Here are our recaps of each day.
Around 1:30 a.m. on Friday morning, thunder, lightning, and intense winds hit and didn’t let up until the afternoon, forcing the Hangout Music Fest to indefinitely delay the opening of the grounds. Hours passed with sporadic updates from both the organizers and the artists scheduled to play on the early side of the bill, many of them saying they weren’t sure if their sets would be canceled outright. Thousands of fans lined up at the gates or hunkered down at nearby restaurants, waiting to find out when they’d be let in and what would happen to the lineup.
After about an hour of radio silence, a little before 3 p.m., Hangout announced that the gates were open and that all the acts, even the ones who were set to perform before noon, were back on. The last set, the Weeknd’s, would end at midnight. Organizers deserve credit here — they could have easily just lopped off the early acts or given them shortened set times, but they made everything happen as close to the original plan as possible.
If anything, the delay and confusion made the performers look extra-happy to be there, with the earlier acts seeming surprised to even take the stage. Aussie newcomer and former D’Angelo tourmate Meg Mac, playing her first American festival, gleefully and bashfully thanked the audience, saying, “People showed up!” before slaying with her pop-soul tunes, sounding at times like Florence Welch, Adele, and Beyoncé, particularly on the Southern gothic “Grandma’s Hands.” Half of the onlookers at the Mermaid Stage — which is set in a courtyard next to the Hangout restaurant, the founders of the festival — seemed to know every word to “Roll Up Your Sleeves” and closer “Never Be.” Get to know her now; she won’t be an early-bill act for much longer.
Even more energetic were Nashville quartet Bully, led by frontwoman Alicia Bognanno. With her dirty blonde hair whipping around thanks to the Gulf winds blowing into the palm tree-lined shorefront BMI stage, they ripped through a taut set drawing mostly from their 2015 debut LP, Feels Like, getting fans — including 50-year-old dudes and teen girls — bouncing around with abandon, especially during “Trying” and “Milkman.” Bognanno, who quipped about needing a frozen margarita and not bringing her best stage banter in this “early evening, um, morning, afternooning” time, effortlessly alternated between soft, delicate vocals and throat-shredding howls, reminiscent of Distillers-era Brody Dalle. The foursome closed out with epic covers of Welsh hardcore trio Mclusky’s “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues” and “No New Wave No Fun,” which saw Bognanno jumping around the stage, more than earning whatever tequila cocktail she so desired.
Nearby, on the larger Surf Stage, Big Grams announced their intentions to bring the noise with a few DJ tunes blasted with rib-quaking bass. Big Boi and Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel, decked out in a shiny gold jacket with “Bowie” stitched onto the back, have a natural chemistry onstage, playfully dancing around and letting each other shine when it was their time on the mic. They ran through tracks off their self-titled debut, as well as Big Boi’s “Lines” and their special “treat” for fans of both acts: a mash-up of OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” and Phantogam’s “Mouthful of Diamonds” that was absolutely something to behold live. And with a nod to today’s smartphone-loving culture, they stuck around for some photo ops after finishing up with “Drum Machine,” making sure everyone left with a good digital keepsake.
After the sun set, Jason Isbell took the same stage. He repeatedly brought up his Alabama roots and how happy he was to be playing in front of a semi-hometown crowd, even offering directions on how to commute around the state. Among his many talents, Isbell’s greatest gift is imbuing beauty in songs about the downtrodden and forgotten. Most poignant, he talked about going on an all-night bender that culminated with him repeatedly shooting his gun off in his apartment. (“Nobody came to the door. That’s Alabama for you,” he quipped.)
The next morning, in a moment of clarity, he wrote “Cover Me Up” for his wife Amanda Shires, who sings back-up and plays the fiddle in his band, and is a talented solo artist herself. He said writing it for her terrified him because if the song sucked, she’d probably leave him. But she stuck around and helped him through his battle with the bottle, and now they have a baby, who was also attending Hangout. In particular, the lines “I sobered up / I swore off that stuff / Forever this time” drew loud cheers, as if the fans were saying, “We’re proud of you, Jason.”
The set had couples holding each other tight and some looking on the verge of tears before Isbell amped up the intensity with his Drive-By Truckers song “Never Gonna Change,” which featured wild dueling guitar solos. He closed out with a tribute to Merle Haggard, “the best country songwriter ever,” covering the late outlaw’s “Sing Me Back Home,” a fitting ending for the Alabama boy’s homecoming.
Back over at the Mermaid stage, fans packed the courtyard about an hour before Vince Staples’ set, an impressive draw given that Alabama Shakes were playing one of the main stages at the same time (Staples even said he’d be seeing them if he had the chance). Even without the aid of the giant video screens afforded to the headliners, the Long Beach rapper put on a visually arresting set, bounding all over the stage and getting the crowd jumping along with him.
At times, it was an odd juxtaposition — even after leading a chant of “F**k the police!” most of the crowd seemed to treat his songs “Street Punks,” “Dopeman,” “Surf,” “Norf Norf,” etc. as party jams rather than ruminations on the struggles of black Americans. It’s a testament to Staples as a performer and songwriter — he can deliver a message and simultaneously get people dancing like mad. If he saw any irony in making hundreds, if not thousands, of people put their hands up when he’s rapping about police brutality, he didn’t show it. If anything, Staples reveled in the response, even looking blown away by how big a following he has, woke or not (and to be fair, he did offer some levity, like a joking verse of Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen”). Like the protagonist of set closer “Blue Suede,” he used to dream about surviving. Now he’s thriving, and enjoying every second of it.
For Friday’s main event, the Weeknd took the Hangout Stage, defying the day’s delays with a tremendous set, kicking off with covers of Future’s “Low Life” and Travis Scott’s “Wonderful.” A few songs in, Abel Tesfaye revealed he was told the night before that he should pull out of the festival because of the weather. “Alabama, you know what I told them? F**k that!” he yelled, to a massive cheer.
He was loose and confident from the get-go, strutting around the stage with an infectious intensity. “Prisoner” and “Acquainted” led to some, er, romantic dancing in the crowd, and he owned another mini-set of covers: Drake’s “Crew Love,” Ty Dolla $ign’s “Or Nah,” Belly’s “Might Not” and “6 Inch,” his Lemonade collaboration with Beyoncé. With flames blasting out of cannons around the stage and fireworks shooting up over the beach, he closed out with “Earned It,” “Can’t Feel My Face” (“the biggest song in Alabama tonight!”) and “The Hills,” proving that, for someone who used to seem so shy and aloof, Tesfaye now deserves headliner status.
The news of Calvin Harris’ cancelation broke in the early afternoon, leading to a number of changes on the schedule. Portugal. The Man and Panic! had their Hangout Stage slots, set to begin in the mid-afternoon, moved back, with Australia’s the Griswolds getting bumped up from the tiny Mermaid stage.
But before that, Minneapolis singer and rapper Lizzo set the bar high at the Mermaid with her 2:30 p.m. slot. Backed by DJ/MC Sophia Eris and two incredible dancers, she instantly won over a crowd that admittedly had never seen her before (she polled the audience about that — 20 or so people clapped). She dropped a short Prince tribute in the middle of cuts from her first two albums, 2013’s Lizzobangers and last year’s Big GRRRL Small World, inciting the crowd, mainly the women, with her empowerment jams.
At one point, her dancers and some friends came out with gold-painted Super Soakers to douse the crowd, a helpful cool-off before the hard-hitting “Batches and Cookies.” She then dropped some big news — not only was her song “Good as Hell” featured in the latest Barbershop movie, but she’s inked a deal with Atlantic Records. Judging by the smiles on the faces of everyone in the crowd, and even the staffers who were dancing and taking pictures, a few hundred people left the Mermaid Stage ready to tell all their friends to check out Lizzo immediately.
The Hangout Stage-upgraded Griswolds were met by a massive crowd, and the sun and the sand made for a great setting for the Sydney-based quartet, who mainly stuck with cuts from their 2014 EP, Heart of a Lion. As a special treat, they also added in a cover of Van Halen’s “Jump” with members of Walk the Moon and Magic Man, surely impressing many onlookers who hadn’t planned on checking them out.
Portugal. The Man
The upbeat vibes continued into Portugal. The Man’s semi-oddball set. After having caught them a few years ago at SXSW, where they played blaring psych-rock jams through a haze of smoke at Stubb’s, it was a bit jarring to see them come onstage with a hype man, who pumped up the crowd throughout the set. Adding to the amusement was frontman John Baldwin Gourley’s outfit, which included a bucket hat, some kind of hood underneath it, and a windbreaker, all in 80-degree heat. They drew heavily from 2013’s Danger Mouse-produced Evil Friends, including the highlight “Holy Roller,” but also sprinkled in some new songs and snippets of Pink Floyd, Wu-Tang, and the Stones. Their closing medley of “Plastic Soldiers” and a drawn out cover of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” seemed to stretch for at least ten minutes as the sun went down.
At the smaller AXS TV stage, soul man Leon Bridges started the evening portion of Day Two with “Smooth Sailin’,” decked out in high-waisted, vintage dress pants and sunglasses — a style few can pull off these days. He treated the set almost like an autobiography, introducing “Brown Skin Girl” as a song about meeting his girlfriend, and “Lisa Sawyer” about how his parents met in New Orleans. He called “Coming Home,” his breakout hit, the “song that change my life in 2012,” and after blasting through “Pussy Footin'” and “Mississippi Kisses,” he finished with “River,” his ode to salvation that, like most of his material, draws comparisons to Sam Cooke. Bolstered by his excellent backing singers, the sparse gospel-like ode was a nice way to send the fans off back to the waterfront, even if they were going for Panic! at the Disco and not to find Jesus.
Panic! At the Disco
For their headlining set, Brendon Urie & Co. went through their entire discography, opening with the newer “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time” then going back to 2005 for “Time to Dance,” off of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. Urie shouted out Calvin Harris, calling him “the man.” Perhaps in honor of the DJ/producer’s predilection for covers (or maybe to just pad out the time now that they had an extra 15 minutes onstage), they added a few homages into their set. First up was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a feat to pull off in any setting, and later the one-two punch of Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” and AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” before ending with “Victorious” from their own LP, last year’s Death of a Bachelor. It might not have been the blowout party that Harris fans hoped for, but under the circumstances it seemed the thousands of onlookers had a blast nonetheless.
Run the Jewels
As is custom, Run the Jewels came onstage to Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” then kicked into their self-titled song. After “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” Killer Mike and El-P started what would become a running joke throughout the set — Mike was ecstatic to be home in the South with its real grits and SEC football, while El was unprepared for the sun and heat. (A tip for future Hangout Fest attendees: Don’t wear black jeans). Once they’d played a new song from the forthcoming RTJ3 — the rapid-fire lyrics included a lot of f**ks, but it was hard to discern much else form our vantage point — Mike and El took a minute to address the crowd, apologizing to anyone who wasn’t prepared to get crushed with the oncoming craziness that “Close Your Eyes (And Count to F**k)” would bring. (“If you have a colostomy bag, empty it now,” said El.)
At times, they got overtly political — a Trump presidency would at least provide them with a lot of new material, they acknowledged. Then, without telling anyone who to vote for, they said to “embrace the crazy” before leading a call-and-response version of “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” which Mike dedicated to Hillary and her likely opponent. The rest of the set, especially “Angel Duster,” got the early-afternoon crowd going even wilder.
Over at the Boom Boom Tent — one of a couple of enclosed stages at Hangout, mostly reserved for EDM DJs — Grimes delivered one of the weekend’s most energetic sets. Backed by a trio of dancers, one of whom helped out on vocals, Claire Boucher tore through her hour onstage. She had inflatable props tossed out into the crowd: cockroaches, a toilet bowl, and, later, eyeballs. She screamed through “Scream,” lamented that Janelle Monáe wasn’t there to join her for their “Venus Fly” collaboration, got tender with the classical “Ave Maria,” and ripped it up with “Oblivion” and “Kill V. Maim,” singing and dancing along with her back-ups and punching in all the different synth parts and drum hits. Given the blend of indie, pop, and EDM fans in the crowd, Hangout would’ve been well off giving Grimes a bigger stage.
The HAIM sisters hit the Alabama fest with their trademark ebullience, beginning with “If I Could Change Your Mind” and “Don’t Save Me,” before bassist Este took lead vocals on a cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U,” which she said she barely felt worthy of singing. They joked about being worried that Hangout’s Sunday crowd would be exhausted but could tell everyone was “ready to rage.”
They weren’t wrong — the final day’s sets were the most crowded and enthusiastic of the weekend. To rile up the fans even more, the sisters competed to see which section of the crowd would be the rowdiest, with Alana and Este cracking wise about which one of them could get married at Hangout’s wedding chapel. Including new songs “Give Me Just a Little of Your Love” and “Nothing’s Wrong,” they played “Running if You Call My Name” and “The Wire” before ending with “Falling” and a powerful drumming jam, each sibling getting her turn to pound the skins.
Outside of some members of the Wailers, Lenny Kravitz was possibly the oldest artist to play Hangout — but you wouldn’t know it given his energetic and smooth showmanship. He was psyched to be in Alabama — “This is the real South,” he said after spending a few days in Mobile, his first time visiting — and laid out the hits. “Where Are We Runnin’?” to start off, “American Woman” and “Dancin’ til Dawn” to follow. The set culminated with a 20-or-so minute jam on 1991’s “Always on the Run,” during which he graciously (and unnecessarily) thanked the audience for indulging him. If anyone left after that, they missed out on him blasting “Fly Away” and “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” with all the guitar heroics and stage-strutting you’d expect from ’90s-era Lenny without a spec of rust in sight.
Considering she performed on the season finale of Saturday Night Live the previous night, it’s impressive that Courtney Barnett and her band played the Gulf Shores just 14 hours later. Still, timing might not have worked in her favor — she was scheduled on the smaller AXS TV stage opposite Ellie Goulding on the much larger, beachfront Surf Stage. Maybe if her SNL debut had been a week earlier, she would have drawn more people. But no matter — the increasingly packed crowd was really there for her.
Through “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” and “Out of the Woodwork,” she put on some of the most raucously distorted guitar blow-ups of the weekend this side of Bully. “Depreston” captivated the in-the-know crowd, “Pedestrian at Best” perked up even the most casual of fans, and ultimately “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” left the crowd energized with a bit of festival irony: “I wanna go out but I wanna stay home.”
Florence + the Machine
While her band walked on amid a massive light show, Florence Welch opted to make her Hangout entrance through the photo pit, greeting all of the diehard fans who staked out front-row positions at the rail before belting out “What the Water Gave Me.” Following “Ship to Wreck,” she implored the crowd to pick someone — lovers, friends, complete strangers — and hoist them onto their shoulders for “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up).” Almost instantly, at least a couple hundred people were riding above the crowd, while Welch ran from the stage through the middle barricades to climb up on the sound booth, silhouetted in part by the full moon above the Gulf of Mexico.
Getting back to the stage and catching her breath, Welch asked the audience to be her “choir of angels” and carry the chorus of the next song, the hangover/spiritual lament “Shake It Out,” a singalong that served as probably the most transcendent moment of Hangout. And though it’s been a staple of her sets for years, performing her 2012 Calvin Harris collaboration “Sweet Nothing” was especially poignant given that he was supposed to be on that very stage 24 hours earlier.
After “You’ve Got the Love” and a rousing “Dog Days Are Over,” she put so much energy into “What Kind of Man” that she seemed exhausted, dropping down to her knees only to be revived à la James Brown (but without the help of cape-wielding bandmates). “Drumming Song” ended her set — and all of Hangout Fest 2016 — accompanied by a succession of giant firework blasts. An apt grace note to close out the weekend.