After last year assembling the platonic ideal of an outdoor festival in only their second go ’round – dropping a knockout lineup and perfectly sized crowd onto one of the best conceivable settings for a live music event – The Hangout Music Festival returns to the beautiful beaches of Gulf Shores this weekend. The third edition offers another eclectic mix of arena-ready headliners, regional favorites and the ubiquitous electronic dance music purveyors, this time spread out over an expanded footprint that puts the fairgrounds on both sides of main drag Beach Blvd.
Organizers have also dispensed with a schedule of official after-shows in favor of a kick-off party on Thursday. Almost eight hours of music on each of two stages turns the Festival into a four-day affair for those arriving early and adds standouts like Big Gigantic (winners of this year’s Buku Music and Art Project), Boombox, and our own Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and The Revivalists to the weekend’s bill. A comfortably spaced schedule and limited number of stages almost eliminates anxiety-inducing mortal conflicts, but we’ve still put together a short list of acts that come highly recommended.
5/18: Alabama Shakes – Chevrolet Stage, 2:15PM
Rarely does New Orleans (or anywhere in the Gulf South, for that matter) get included on the early-buzz circuit that sweeps the “The Next Big Thing” to sold-out showcases in the Brooklyns, Austins, Los Angeleses, and Londons of the world. While the deft promoters and talent buyers in our city have a knack for catching bands before they blow up as well as bringing a continuously impressive string of de rigeour national acts to town, The Alabama Shakes‘ January visit to One Eyed Jacks hot on the heels of their successful CMJ run and subsequent signing to ATO and Rough Trade felt like an extra special treat – the timing of which was likely equal parts savvy booking and just plain dumb luck.
Playing an early show to a crowd as large as any we’ve ever seen packed into the French Quarter’s premiere rock club, the Alabama Shakes torched the stage with the raw fury of a band about as wide-eyed and excitable as the diverse audience assembled to get a sneak peek at the much-talked about southern roots rockers. Lead singer Brittany Howard and bassist Zac Cockrell went well beyond validating the Shakes’ status as band of the moment with a performance that overflowed with virtuosity and charm, and it’s exciting to think what they may pull off on their home turf with a few months of high pressure gigs under their belts.
5/19: Dr. Dog – “Letting Go” Stage, 4:15PM
If you’re the type who perpetually thinks about music in terms of “the zeitgeist”, then unfortunately there’s a good chance that you’ve either never closely listened to Dr. Dog or simply disregarded them. Nevertheless, this Philadelphia group’s charm has always been their ability to craft songs as attentive to pop accessibility as they are to creative high-mindedness. While not the cataclysmic, industry-changing creations that get routinely credited to the Animal Collectives and Arcade Fires and White Stripeses of the world, the music waxed by Dr. Dog – songs that end up being traded, e-mailed, linked and placed on countless playlists and mixes – is more akin to a catalog of indie rock radio hits, sans the radio or any real criterion point for what constitutes a “hit”.
But then again, I doubt Dr. Dog have ever given much thought to their place in such a zeitgeist, and in that capacity these guys probably aren’t making music for us wannabe patricianists. À la The Band circa Cahoots, existing both within and decidedly outside of the artiste-driven national musical climate surrounding them, Dr. Dog rides a whimsical creative model for the type of band whose true colors one can really only experience in a stage setting with a revelrous atmosphere capable of matching their unique penchant for the free energy of unpretentious rock and roll. Unsurprisingly, the Gulf Coast has often been, aside from the Philly area itself, a perfect entry point for Dr. Dog’s unfettered live mix of pop, psychedelia and multi-instrumental virtuosity, and the opportunity to see them on the Hangout Fest pedestal on late Saturday afternoon should not be missed.
5/20: Mavis Staples – Chevrolet Stage, 1:45PM
The most emotionally charged moment of this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival came at the very start of what was supposed to be the first of two scheduled appearances by soul and R&B legend Mavis Staples. She kicked off her Friday afternoon set in the Gospel tent with a rousing rendition of The Band’s “The Weight”, evoking her standout performance in the seminal concert flick The Last Waltz. At the song’s conclusion, Staples raised her arms to the sky and repeatedly shouted “Levon Helm!” as the standing-room only crowd rose to their feet and cheered wildly in a celebratory eulogy that lasted a full three minutes. It was just weeks since the venerable drummer and vocalist, with whom Staples was slated to share the stage the very next day, had passed away; and of all the Jazz Fest tributes Helm inspired, her’s was the most moving and impassioned.
Along with the rest of her wide ranging set, that moment demonstrated the enduring power of Mavis Staples’ voice as well as her effortlessly wonderful sensibilities, both musical and otherwise. After over 45 years at the front of the one of the most influential spirituality-based groups of all time in The Staples Singers and after appearing on the recorded work of everyone from Bob Dylan to Los Lobos, Mavis is once again in the midst of yet another creative renaissance after winning her first Grammy for last year’s Jeff Tweedy-produced Americana album You Are Not Alone. Plus, with Wilco in town for a their own Friday slot at Hangout, the potential for a surprise cameo (in one way or another) is at an all time high.