Hangout Fest 2013: Beauty, Music, and The Beach

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The Hangout Fest in Gulf Shores, Alabama has officially existed for four years, but most folks you talk to only count the last three (which have all sold out). For such a relatively young festival it has quickly shown up on everyone’s radar. One reason is the incredible acts they are able to attract (Jack White, Stevie Wonder, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Wilco, Kings of Leon, etc.) Another is the setting — literally on the beach! One of my best concert memories will be taking in Wilco last year from the open air press area as the sun set and watching spot lit palm trees emerge as a beautiful natural backdrop. What more could you want? A beautiful setting, nice folks, incredible music and an extremely well-run festival? Yup that’ll do it for me. Even with 50,000+ in attendance it is efficiently run, crowd flow is well thought out and it somehow remains remarkably clean —  it never seems to feel too crowded or crazy.

Sponsorship is an important part of any festival and many of the usual/expected suspects were there — SPIN, Slacker Radio, Red Bull, Relix, etc. But some of the big guns came out for Hangout Fest. Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, Budweiser, MTV, Absolut and even The Air Force were but a few of the big-dollar sponsorships that should be a signal to the festival goer that this is a festival to watch. “Bigger and better” is inevitable, but Hangout has such an ease about it and very little overflow of great acts that one has to hope organizers keep it in check and keep it from becoming the clusterfuck that so many good festivals turn into over time.

I overheard a sign (or sound) of our times as I was waiting for one act to kick-off… “Was she lip syncing?” … “Yeah, I think so” was the  “no big deal” conversation. Even post-Milli Vanilli and other debacles, it was still a huge deal to music fans to think that an artist who was putting on a live show was pretending to sing or play and yes that is what it is…pretending! You can justify it all you want with “can’t do the choreography and sing at the same time” or “just no way to make it sound right live” all you want, but it’s a sad state of affairs when we have to spend much of the time watching an act and trying to decide if they are playing and singing live…put that in your playback fader and get thee to the nearest Stevie Wonder or Marc Broussard show.

Hangout Fest is not the L.A. hipster gathering of Coachella, the crazy, dusty, drug-filled, hippie happening of Bonnaroo, nor is it the urban nuttiness of Lollapalooza. It is rivaled in scenic beauty only by Sasquatch in Washington State. Hangout Fest allows you to feel that you are on a beach vacation and there just happens to be some amazing music taking place. It wouldn’t surprise me if Hangout Fest stands pat with it’s number of stages (five) and continues to keep itself manageable and not grow too much — this is the way these music lovers seem to like it.

Pool View- HangoutFest 2013The Austin City Limits Festival has always been well done, but Hangout has figured out how to get people in and out in a way that is not such a pain in the ass (which has always been my complaint about ACL.) A well-planned shuttle system runs up and down the beach roads taking fans from their hotel right to the festival entrance.

But enough about logistics…let’s get to the music.

If I were to put the reviews of the Stevie Wonder and Bassnectar shows in this piece you might keep scrolling and say “damn how long is this thing gonna be?” So, look for separate features on these acts but suffice it to say that both absolutely blew me away and will end up on my top 25 Concerts of All Time list…(look for that feature sometime soon as well).

Kings of Leon always put on a good show and last night’s anchor act in no way disappointed. But everyone was abuzz yesterday — even a bit confused as to KOL’s appearance about as the brothers Followill have been in a bit of a feud by all accounts and are not supporting a new album. But to look at the stage one would not have any clue there was or is trouble in the King’s land. Their brand of southern influenced, slightly “jammy” alt rock is as good as ever and we can only hope the massive crowd that gathered at the big stage to hear Caleb and company play, will show the band that demand for their music is as strong as ever. Rumors abound about new music and let’s hope KOL bestow a new album on us sometime in the near future.

I have always been suspect of a white boy rap act (I just can’t shake the atrocity that was Vanilla Ice) even though Macklemore- Hangout 2013 Eminem is the preeminent (and my favorite) artist in hip-hop. Over the last year Macklemore and Ryan Lewis has flamed like a pile of dry leaves (with a napalm bomb underneath) and again that makes me suspect. The jury has truly been out on them but yesterday’s show opened my eyes to the fact that we may have this act (love ’em or hate ’em) for some time to come. You know an act is hot not only by their fans bursting the capacity of the stage but at the press in the photo pit. I think I was knocked around more fighting other photographers for a good angle than I was in the Flogging Molly mosh pit at last year’s Hangout Fest. Popularity certainly does not equal good but I began to see the appeal during yesterday’s set. Their debut album, The Heist, debuted at #2 on the Billboard album charts, the single “Thrift Shop” went 4x platinum and to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and their 70-city tour managed to sell out completely. The cool thing is that all of this was managed without major record label support. The good news is that that there is some there there and music fans love it. A tight set with a retina searing audio visual show makes this an act to contend with. We will see what happens with a 2nd effort. My prediction? The novelty will not wear off and Macklemore will continue to grow their already rabid fan base.

The Shins- Hangout 2013Whether you say The Shins these days are not The Shins we fell in love with but rather The James Mercer Project is up to you. But how many “bands” today are a one-man act and assume a moniker. In Coming To America, Aresenio Hall asserted in the barbershop scene, “His momma call him Clay…I’m gonna call him Clay.” The record says “The Shins”…I call ’em The Shins. There is good reason their 2012 album Port of Morrow was a fan and critic’s choice (We named Port of Morrow #20 on our Best Albums of 2012 list)– the music and performances are simply terrific and all of that greatness shows up in their live act. The strength of the tunes and the vocals of James Mercer are the thing. These are hard songs to sing and Mercer makes it sound so fluid and easy live–just like the record. During the set I sent a “simple” tweet…”@TheShins…that is all!” Even though I have said more here, it could all boil down to that sentiment.

Ryan Bingham- Hangout 2013A Grammy Award and The Americana Music Association’s award for Artist of the Year makes sense as you see the grizzled appearance of Ryan Bingham and the whiskey soaked, nicotine stained voice all goes with his territory but I am not sure you would immediately know that Bingham is also an Oscar and Golden Globe winner. All of this for his work with T-Bone Burnett, which produced the single “The Weary Kind” from the movie soundtrack of Crazy Heart. His set yesterday was a take no prisoners affair with Bingham’s brand of oh-so-rocking alt country and rock. Even with all the accolades, artists like this tend to stay on the radar of the music insiders, but this roadhouse-like, get up and boogie, butt-rockin’ sure struck a (1, 4 and 5) chord with quite a sizable crowd. With four albums under his belt one can only bet that Bingham now has the stuff to continue on in slow burn fashion and soon become a treasured artist who, with infectious music and heart-felt lyrics, finds a prominent place in the consciousness of the music loving public.

I grow weary of some bands being classified as “too pop,” “not REAL music,” “unintelligent”  or “not good” simply because it contains more major chords than minor or because they garner a large audience quickly. These things alone do not render a band “bad.” Sometimes an act just strikes a literal chord with the masses and their success is explosive. Such is the case of Imagine Dragons. Whether it is to your taste or not is just that—your taste. But I assert that this music is earnest, heartfelt and in my estimation good.  This is fare for fans of fun., Awolnation, One Republic and Passion Pit, all bands I really like and acts that have had the aforementioned criticism leveled at them. Imagine Dragons’ live show starts with the energy many bands reserve for an hour into their show. Many tunes find all the members banging on a drum of some sort and while that is no new trick, it gives drive and primal passion to what this band is bringing. My advice? Check these guys out and if you don’t dig it…fine…just TRY not to call it bad.

Porter RobinsonAs with many other festivals, Hangout Fest devotes a stage (The Boom Boom Tent) to mostly EDM fare but it is rare (in other festivals) to find the bulk of the artists presented to be those either on the top of the art form or getting there very quickly. Porter Robinson is of the latter but expect him to rise to the level of the greats quickly. (Steve Aoki and Afrojack also found their place in The Boom Boom Tent this year and last year saw Skrillex). Robinson became a “buzz act” at 19 but this wunderkind is definitely in the ranks of the big boys. Combining elements of house, techno and bass and drum with elements of new wave, rock and funk, Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood is a slamming, jamming musical affair. The bass grooves move along deftly and can be punctuated by beautifully precise, 32nd note rhythms. While the complex grooves never stops you from moving, these jams can be a challenge (in a fun way) to feel exactly where the pulse is–it’s part of the allure for me. Expect even bigger things to come from a young guy quickly making his mark in the crazy world of EDM.

Bloc Party is, on first listen, a nice dose of good-old-fashioned-across-the-pond-alt rock. But as this set went on they revealed themselves to be the most diverse act I heard at this on any festival in some time. There are flashes of atmospheric psychedelia and pepperings of punk along with sounds of Clash-style reggae. The more you listen the more you begin to identify …there’s a bit of The Police, then some U2, a smattering of Hendrix and yes even a Pantera style hard rock groove — yeah, all of that is in there. One might think that with all of these disparate elements, their sound might never gel as a whole but does it ever and it feels so organic. Their album Four caught a bit of fire towards the end of 2012 and managed to sneak on many “Best Of” Lists even with its late arrival. Their set showed off some tunes which lead one to believe a new album may be on the way. Don’t be surprised to see a new record get more juice and find it’s place among the best of the coming year.

Not that a band from any country is bound to any particular look but The Sheepdogs are not necessarily what comes to mind when I think of a band from Canada– they look as if they were birthed somewhere near the FloriBama line and jumped in an old RV to make this gig. Just looking at them, one might think that the boys from Duck Dynasty had formed a band complete with folded American flag bandannas. Listening to them is like taking a trip back to 70s era southern and blues rock. The twin lead guitars (a la Dickie Betts and Duane Allman) and “jammy” grooves punctuated by some nice Hammond B3 organ sounds channel Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers in their prime but there is a certain amount of Cream-era Clapton in there as well. This is the band that won Rolling Stone’s “Choose The Cover Competition” and in doing so found themselves fulfilling Dr. Hooks’s desire and as the only unsigned act to do so, appeared on the iconic music mag’s cover. But this is no Canadian power trio, folk, cheesy pop or introspective angry chic-rock act. These guys kick ass and take a whole shit-ton of names. The only thing puzzling about The Sheepdogs is the fact that they are not more popular…someday soon…hopefully.

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Clem emerged from the underbelly of NashVegas where he began his love of ALL things musical. College found him in the commercial music program at the University of Miami where he actually learned what the hell he was doing. New York was next and whether he “made it there” is still up for debate. From playing in the honky-tonks of Nashville and the dance clubs of Miami to Broadway and theatrical stages around the country, to Carnegie Hall (while practicing one day somebody told him how to get there) and the recording studios of New York and L.A., Clem’s variety of musical experience has transcended the boundaries of genre. He owns a production company, lectures on music in colleges across the country and is on the visiting faculty of Elon Univ. He has a port-o-johns named after him at Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza.