From Friday, May 14, through Sunday, May 16, Gulf Shores, Ala., will be transformed into a music lover’s paradise when The Hangout Beach, Music & Arts Festival hosts its inaugural weekend. Featuring a lineup that includes such big names as John Legend, Alison Krauss, Zac Brown, Ben Harper and Trey Anastasio, the festival also boasts a talented pool of artists from the Birmingham area, including Jon Black, Wild Sweet Orange, A.A. Bondy and Rollin’ In The Hay. The event will play out on four stages, including two on the beach. Attendance will be limited to 35,000 people per day.
In March, I sat down with the festival’s organizers–A.J. Niland, of Mobile’s HUKA Entertainment; Shaul Zislin, owner of The Hangout, the legendary drive-in and entertainment venue on Beach Blvd. in Gulf Shores; and Workplay’s Todd Coder–to learn how the Hangout Festival got started. To get an update on the planning for the festival and to gain insight from some participating artists, I recently spoke with Coder, Black and Wild Sweet Orange frontman Preston Lovinggood.
According to Coder, a lot has happened since March, especially in terms of festival logistics. “We now have a shuttle service set up,” he says. “Part of Highway 59 and East Beach Boulevard will be closed off by the city, and the surrounding roads will be closed as well. Everybody will funnel around that area to get to their condos or to get to one of our parking locations, which will be shuttle pickups. We’ll have 12 to 15 different pickup locations that’ll be released shortly on the website. We will also be picking up at condo developments along the Gulf Coast.”
Coder also discussed the issue of traffic. “That’s been the one main concern a lot of people have had,” he says. “There will be traffic, but the area is set up for this kind of thing because the coast is used to having well-attended events from spring break to the Fourth of July. On top of everything else, there is plenty of lodging still available so that shouldn’t be a hang-up for anybody. It should be very user-friendly.”
The lineup of well-known artists at The Hangout Festival is sufficiently attractive that even some of the other performers sound like giddy fans. “I’ll be there all weekend,” Black says. “As a music fan, I can’t wait to see The Whigs and Alison Krauss. That’s the great thing about festivals. People can discover me, and I can discover artists, and there’s a chance to network with people. It’s truly a cool experience to be an artist on my level and playing at something this big.”
“It’s kind of an Alabama thing, and then there are so many ridiculously awesome bands playing,” Lovinggood says. “All of these artists are legit people that are respected. There don’t seem to be any artists that ever sold out to any extent. I think it’ll be a really fun thing for people. Southern people love music and we deserve a festival that’s close to us.”
With tickets being purchased from far-flung locales, including California and Canada, Coder is pleased that local artists will gain increased national exposure at this event. In addition, he is eager to introduce the area to first-time Gulf Coast visitors. “Creating a Birmingham component and bringing a handful of acts from Birmingham validates what we have going on here,” Coder says. “Birmingham has been one of our most supportive markets, and it’s our biggest feeder market. People from Birmingham are used to going to the beach, so I think that helps us. There’s really not a market that we’re not pulling from at this point. Our main goal is to bring people to the Gulf Coast of Alabama and see the beauty of the beaches that people may not know even exists.”
Black’s appearance at the festival comes at an exciting time in his career. The singer/songwriter that landed in Birmingham by way of Atlanta and Charleston, So. Car., is embarking on a unique project for distributing his music. “Over the next year, I’m going to release four or five EPs,” he says. “The first one hit on April 27 and it’s available on my website [www.whoisjonblack.com], Amazon and iTunes. With the Internet today, we have a really interesting opportunity to create an experience and a journey. Instead of saying, ‘Here’s an album, let me tour it,’ I decided to make a continuous stream of content for a year, and by the time I release the next EP, this EP will be free. Two of the EPs will be Jon Black EPs, and two of them will be Jon Black & The Winter Hearts, which is a little more noisy and a little more rock. I wanted to build momentum and use the Internet to my advantage to get people my music. Hopefully, people will love it and become supporters. I think it will be a fun experience for people, and it’s been great for me as an artist and a writer. I can’t wait to see what I’m like when it’s over. I hope to be a better writer and more proficient in the studio.”
Wild Sweet Orange’s participation also comes at an interesting time in the band’s existence, but for different reasons. Currently, guitarist/vocalist Lovinggood and drummer Chip Kilpatrick are rebuilding the band that once appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman following the departure of three members.
“We started playing almost six years ago and we built it up and got signed,” Lovinggood says. “We toured for almost three years, and then it all kind of fell apart last year. We had five members, and three of those members left. We’re in this transitional phase, which can be difficult. As an artist, it’s all about creating something to say. They say you have your whole life to write your first album and then a couple of months to write your second album, but I don’t want to write a crappy album. We’re trying to be patient and wait until the inspiration comes. The musicians that will be playing with us at the Hangout Fest are Les Nuby, Kate Taylor and Taylor Hollingsworth.”
Former Verbena frontman A.A. Bondy has appeared at high-profile festivals, including Bonnaroo and the Sasquatch Music Festival. His second solo album, When The Devil’s Loose, was released in 2009. Rollin’ In The Hay will bring its self-described “renegade bluegrass” to the festival. Consisting of veteran musicians Barry Waldrep, Rick Carter and Stan Foster, the band is no stranger to playing on the Gulf Coast and regularly packs the house at the famed Flora-Bama Lounge.
As Coder reflects on the festival’s formation, he is both amazed and pleased by the cooperation of the host community and the speed with which the event came together. “Gulf Shores has welcomed us with open arms,” he says. “It’s been amazing how they’ve gotten behind it and have truly been a partner in what we’re doing from top to bottom. A festival like this generally takes a year to plan, and the official word of this festival didn’t get out until the middle of January and our first artist announcement was on February 5. Word travels fast now, and the Internet definitely helps us spread information about the event. It’s enabled us do it the appropriate way for a first-year festival.”
The festival’s lineup is diverse, and Coder is proud of the artists and multiple genres that will be represented on the event’s four stages over a three-day period. “When programming a festival like this, you can’t please everyone,” he says. “But there’s a fine line between pleasing everyone and having something for everyone. Having something for everyone at this festival sounds like a cliché, but I truly feel that’s what the end product is. Three of the headliners–Zac Brown, John Legend and Trey Anastasio–have very diverse fan bases, but then you have Alison Krauss, The Black Crowes and Jerry Jeff Walker.
Despite the Hangout Festival’s diversity, there is perhaps an indefinable common thread running through the roster of artists. “Our main concept was to get top-quality entertainers,” Coder says. “It’s really a festival for people that love music and want to do something different. It’s a festival for the music connoisseur.
For more information about The Hangout Festival, visit www.hangoutmusicfest.com. To learn about The Hangout, visit www.thehangoutal.com
Brent Thompson writes about popular music for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.