Hangout Festival 2015: Rocking Gulf Coast Recovery

The World’s Greatest Music Festival, According to Dave Grohl

Kim Jones vividly remembers the tar balls washing up on her family’s property back in 2010. Kim’s family is from Orange Beach, Alabama, where her father works in water restoration. And 2010 was the year, of course, that British Petroleum dumped 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

“That year was grim,” Kim tells me, as a road crew tunes guitars in the distance. “Everybody I knew was devastated.” Five years later, the spill’s massive environmental toll is still being quantified.

The economic fallout was more immediate. Many communities along the Gulf Coast live and die by summer tourism. 2010 saw an instantaneous nosedive in tourism that financially crippled hundreds – if not thousands – of coastal businesses.

2010 also happened to be the first year of the Hangout Music Festival, three days of live music on the beach of Gulf Shores, Alabama. Hangout began as the brainchild of local entrepreneurs Shaul and Lily Zislin. And if you know anything about the burgeoning world of large-scale music festivals, you know that it’s hard enough to stage a successful event without a corporate behemoth taking a big oily dump in your backyard only days before the show.

That first year- staged a mere three weeks into the BP fiasco- featured acts like Trey Anastasio, the Black Crowes, and the Zac Brown Band, and drew a crowd of roughly 13,000 people. To put that into perspective, Coachella draws upwards of 85,000 people per day. Festival reps declined to discuss financial specifics, but it’s widely assumed that the first year of Hangout lost a lot of money. And for a minute there, it seemed like the young festival – along with the entire Gulf Coast – was on life support.

But over the past five years, an unlikely rebound has taken place. Hangout has steadily grown its brand with each year, attracting bigger and bigger names to a venue that’s both remarkably beautiful and surprisingly easy to navigate. Two main stages, bookended by palm trees, offer fantastic acoustics across the rolling white sand. The smaller stages feel like cozy little backyard parties, popping up in between the bars, boardwalk, and a ferris wheel. Spring for the VIP package and you can watch the headliners from one of the pools. This is a festival where all of the bare feet and flower crowns actually seem sincere, rather than just long-weekend fashion statements.

Hangout Festival 2

This 2015 lineup included Foo Fighters, My Morning Jacket, Skrillex and Beck, all of who played with A-game abandon. And with three-day wristbands starting at $249, Hangout is now a serious contender for the best music festival in America. Your move, Bonnaroo. Ha, maybe 20 years ago, Lollapalooza.

The Hangout crowd is generally young, with a healthy percentage of families in the mix, but the vibe is markedly different than other major festivals. The attitude is resoundingly – almost miraculously – positive, with less of the aggression, confusion, and dehydrated drama that you come to expect from a party this size.

And maybe that’s because this party has, dare I say, a purpose. Roughly eighty percent of the Hangout crowd comes from states outside of Alabama. That crowd is not only helping to revitalize the local economy, they’re jump-starting it one week prior to Memorial Day Weekend – traditionally the start of the ever-critical tourism season for towns like Gulf Shores. The Gulf’s environmental recovery has only just begun, but the economic recovery is well underway – and for some of those little businesses that were on the bubble back in 2010, rock and roll is once again doing its part to save the world.

Attendance has tripled since that rocky first year. All the while, Hangout remains committed to its own sustainability. The pristine white sand beach isn’t just a selling point, it’s practically the unspoken mission of the festival organizers. Beginning at 11PM, around the time the headliners are playing their encore, clean-up crews snap into action, first hand-picking trash from the sand, and then mechanically sifting smaller debris, sometimes until 7AM the next morning. By the time the first act takes the stage on the following day, the beach is meticulously restored.

“Everything we collect from the beach is recycled,” says Grant Brown, director of recreation and cultural affairs for the City of Gulf Shores. “The things people leave behind are almost all clean materials that are made to be recycled – bottles and cans and rubber flip-flops.”

Noel Hand, the assistant director of Public Works for Gulf Shores estimates that their department recycled 10 tons of trash over the Hangout weekend this year, versus “very little” that’s hauled away in dumpsters.

Brown says that there is also a concerted effort not to grow the festival any bigger than it already is. Ticket sales are currently capped at 40,000. According to Brown, those figures could fluctuate slightly in the future, but will never see a dramatic increase, even as the festival’s profile continues to grow.

Hangout Music Festival Conscious Connection

And what that means for the music fan is shorter lines, surprisingly light traffic, and a great view of the stage. Last year, for example, Hangout offered many of the same acts as Coachella- Bastille, Queens of the Stone Age, and Outkast, among others- to a crowd less than half the size. No need to belabor the old point that most of the Coachella crowd are insufferable Los Angeles scenesters watching the show through their iPhones. Let’s simply conclude that Hangout is the only place to see these bands from a hammock or a lifeguard chair.

Here on May 14, 2015, the opening night of Hangout’s sixth year is underway. Kim Jones and her husband Lance have attended every year since the inception. And even though Kim is now eight months pregnant, she has a kick ass spot in the sand, with a lounge chair not far from stage right and a tank top that says Future Foo Fan over her great big baby bump.

At 9PM, the Foo Fighters open their set with a searing cover of the Faces’ Stay With Me, and then go about their business of blowing minds and melting faces for over two hours. At one point, Dave Grohl tells the roaring crowd, “This is the greatest fucking festival in the world.” As usual, nobody dares to argue with Dave Grohl.

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