When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, an avalanche of bad shit fell onto the shoulders of Gulf Coast residents, businesses, and anyone who feels queasy when you hear the words “eyeless” and “shrimp” used in the same sentence. While this bad shit fell on a lot of people, it really shat on Gulf Shores. The town was preparing for its first-ever music festival when the spill began. Saul Zislin, the owner of Gulf Shores’ souvenir stores, sank a small fortune into bringing the festival to life. People had doubts he could pull it off even before the gulf began burping tar balls. Now it seemed impossible.
Yet the 2010 festival sold out. In 2011, the festival tripled its ticket sales, sold out again, and won Pollstar’s vote for Best Music Festival of the Year. This year, 2012, Hangout Fest ironed out most of the kinks from the previous year (35,000 people, four stages, one intersection of beach), resulting in the best overall festival experience of the three years.
I’ve covered the past two Hangout Festivals. I haven’t seen a single tarball. I set off for the festival with my photographer Annie Pennell, a California native who didn’t believe the festival was actually on the beach until she had a stage in front of her face and the sand under her bare feet. Interspersed throughout the article are a few of my firsthand accounts of the festival.
– Jeff Tweedy mumbles into the mike. I’m holding the rail. I’m a Wilco fan, which led me to wrangle this spot in the front of the crowd. I’m less than fifty feet from Tweedy, who switches guitars every song. “No, no, I’m sick of this, I’ve been playing this guitar for a whole song, I’d like the other four-thousand dollar guitar, lease.” Yeah, I know it’s really about tuning or whatnot, but I prefer to imagine that once you’re as big as Wilco or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, you get a fresh guitar every song. Just because you want it. If you like, we can string it with unicorn hairs.
– Tweedy promises the crowd to sing Wilco’s one and only beach-friendly song. Yes! The sweet, nostalgic strumming of “Heavy Metal Drummer” fills the May air. The breeze smells like weed and sea salt.
– Then something strange happens.
– Underneath the stage is a blackout curtain, about ten feet in front of the rail I’m leaning on. My plus one elbows me and points to the blackout curtain. There’s a stock-ticker device of some sort, one with those scrolling letters that announce things like the Dow falling again or lotto ticket numbers at gas stations. The words scroll across the undefined sign, beaming white underneath Wilco’s stage.
– “You…yeah you…” The signs says. The people around me look at each other. We’re confused.
“You with the bangs.”
– Now they’re looking at me, the only person with bangs.
– There’s a pause while an invisible person who dwells underneath Wilco’s stage updates the sign.
– The glowing letters return, slowly, slowly scrolling…
– “Do you have a boyfriend?”
– And that’s how the Wilco show got weird.
The first day of Hangout 2010 was almost a month after the Deepwater Horizon exploded. The uncapped wellhead still spewed an estimated 62,000 barrels of oil a day but at least you couldn’t smell the oil in the air. Local response teams and BP crews cleaned the beach, leaving the sand untainted by the eve of the first Hangout Fest.
“It was a lot of tarballs washing up off the beach,” says Vitor Seiber, a local lifeguard. “BP workers driving up and down the road all day. They still do it today, just to check if any tarballs are out there. There really wasn’t any sheen that washed up on the beach itself, but there was a lot of tarballs. But it was cleaned up so well that I have yet to see one since.”
Today, Seiber guards the V.I.P. pool by Hangout’s main stage. He wears only red boardshorts and black sunglasses. As head lifeguard, Seiber’s main job today is making sure none of the half-naked, splashing festgoers in the V.I.P. pool drown — although dying in a pool shouting distance from Jack White, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Dave Matthews Band playing live wouldn’t be the worst way to go.
“I think there were some people worried about it, but everything was cleared, everything was fine,” says Big Gigantic saxophonist Dominic Lalli. Lalli and Jeremy Salken, the other half of Big Gigantic, have graced Hangout’s lineup every year and they plan on keeping it that way.
While the beach appeared physically fine for Hangout 2010, local musician Gregg Fells recounts the conflicted, worried mood in the air.
“People were torn apart,” says Gregg Fells, who has played Hangout every year. The Mobile native opened the fest in 2011. This year, he serenades unsuspecting people on Hangout-bound shuttle buses with his guitar. “People were torn in the middle. On the one hand, it was a freak accident and thank God that everybody contained it so it didn’t destroy as much as it could have. On the other hand, people say, how could people be this grossly negligent? How dare they?”
Hangout proved to be a big draw to Gulf Shores at a time when swimming in the Gulf was about as attractive as going for a dip with Jaws. Local health officials warned against swimming in the Gulf if there was visible oil or tar balls, and while Seiber vouches that there were no tar balls in Gulf Shores by the first Hangout, ABCNews reported that tar balls, oil sheen and oil mousse continued to wash up on Alabama’s beaches into June. However, the advisory against swimming in the water didn’t affect Hangout’s fest-goers. Swimming isn’t an option for most attendees, considering the crowd size and amount of drugs present at music festivals.
After the 2010 festival, musicians like Michael Franti gave Hangout Fest and Gulf Shores positive press during a time when most media coverage featured pelicans soaked in crude oil and increasingly ridiculous failures to plug the well, For instance, Franti encouraged people to tell their friends about Hangout and to come to Gulf Shores in an effort to help local merchants. This year, Gulf Shores recognized him as a major help to the city through his involvement with Hangout Fest and the mayor awarded him the key to the city. After accepting the key, Franti plugged his recently published children’s book about recycling. Somewhat ironically, the ceremony was conducted on the BP Kids’ Stage.
Artists love playing the festival as much as people love going to it. Payam Doostzadeh, bass guitarist of the young band Young the Giant, gives me a first-time Hangout musician’s perspective. Immediately after shaking my hand, Doostzadeh apologizes for his bandmates — he and his manager had been unable to convince them to leave the pool for our interview.
“Coming here, jumping straight into the water, can’t beat that,” says Doostzadeh. “When we got booked for this gig, our agent was telling us how it’s pretty much on the beach, it’s all sand and everything so we all got really excited and I checked out pictures from last year.”
Hangout’s crowds also gave Gulf Shores and its local economy a much-needed boost during a disastrously slow tourist season.
“It was a real slow year for a lot of the companies around here. Some companies were fine, but overall, people were scared to come down to the water,” says Seiber. “As soon as the festival came up, it started to put a lot of names out. The people, hearing that, came here and looked past the media — what they were saying about how bad the beaches were — and could see that everything was really clean.”
When the spill hit the Gulf Coast, it affected more people than just the fishermen (who, by the way, are still reeling from the effects of the disaster). When the oil and dispersants contaminated the seafood, the negative impact spread like cancer throughout every facet of the economy. Local fisherman were out of jobs. People were afraid to eat seafood or go near the water, resulting in less customers for restaurants. Hotel and condo occupancy rates dropped over 10% from the previous summer’s. The local music scene turned viciously cutthroat as a large pool of musicians had to compete for an ever-decreasing amount of spots.
“All the singer-songwriters who play around here were instantly and dramatically affected by it,” says Fells. The spill forced Fells to drive to far-away cities like Atlanta, Nashville and New Orleans for shows. “It was very upsetting for people who do this for a living.”
– It’s 6pm in the V.I.P. area, which borders the Hangout Main Stage. Bikini-clad women frolic in the pool, throwing beach balls and a blow-up shark into the air. People flock to the tiki-bar, guzzling “free” drinks and snapping up merchandise from a Red Diamond table. I don’t know what Red Diamond is, but I like free stuff and trucker hats, so I’ve got my free Red Diamond trucker hat on. I watch the splashing enviously but will not move from my spot in the sand. I’m by the rail. A haggard-looking woman camps nearby, saving a spot for eight other people. Personally, I think that’s cheating. She’s something of a hyena. I placed a (very small) pinky toe on the edge of her beach towel, and instantly a fully locked front arm plowed into me like sledgehammer. “Saved!” she snaps.
– The Red Hot Chili Peppers are coming. I remember when Californication came out. It was the first CD I listened to obsessively. I’m sorry if that last sentence made you feel old. I’d take my Walkman in the car with me while my mother drove me to school, the headphones clamped over my ears, and immerse myself into a world of nostalgic road trips when I couldn’t drive, fucking in bathrooms with a pushup bra before my first kiss, and shooting up under a bridge to feed my lonely heroin addiction before I ever saw a real live joint. I wanted to be tragically cool enough to do all of those things.
– Now here I am, trucker hat clamped over my bangs, waiting for the show. I am friends with everyone around me. There’s an engineer who builds internet sites for fun and his friend who does audio for AL.com. Three tall men in front of me invite me to stand in front of them. They’ve driven here from Syracuse, New York. I’m surprised they know that there’s a beach in Alabama. We become a tribe, sending gatherers for food and drink runs, amicably making adjustments to seating positions so that even the shortest (me) can see. We invite another into our midst, a red-headed rising sophomore from the University of Alabama. He has a guest pass on his wrist and carries a mounted picture of his face. His name is Jack Blankenship and he’s a viral sensation, though he doesn’t tell us this. One of the Syracuse guys recognizes him from ESPN. Blankenship is actually very shy, despite having enough nerve to carry a massively blown-up image of his own face around.
– How are the RHCP, you ask? There is a point where they leave the stage, which seems to be due to a sound issue. Anthony Kiedis messes with his ear mic right before they leave the stage. They return to the stage but stop the show early.
– I don’t care. I’m so close I can see the individual droplets of spit flying out of Flea’s frothing mouth. His blue buzz-cut glows underneath the stage lights. Kiedis is larger than I expected. He often turns his broad, tattooed back to my side of the stage while he engages with the drummer, Flea, and occasionally their new guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer.
– I knew every word to every song.
BP is a sponsor of Hangout Fest. There. I said it. One local, who requested to remain anonymous, is horrified by the idea. He hadn’t noticed the BP Kids’ Stage. After literally putting his head in his hands, he says, “They took a giant dump in our backyard. A really big one.”
His more pragmatic friend shrugs. “Money is money,” he says. Furthermore, it seems that the money has helped. BP pumped millions of dollars into the Gulf Coast recovery (not necessarily willingly) and there are still cases in court that may result in more settlements. Some of that money went to promoting local tourism to draw people to Gulf Shores. Much of it was awarded to locals who
filed claims for loss of revenue. Another fund went into researching the oil spill: “In case you’re wondering about impartiality, the lab’s executive director, Dr. George Crozier has this to say: ‘Nothing would make me happier than to screw them [BP] with their own money,’” reports Lisa Singh at Where2NowMag.com.
On a less distasteful note, Hangout Fest exposed a larger nationwide audience to Gulf Shores in the wake of the disaster. At a time when Gulf Shores suffered the most, word of an incredible music festival on the beach spread to every corner of the United States.
In 2011, 35,000 people packed Hangout’s square of beach. This is not a large area. Hangout was crammed between East Beach Boulevard and the water. Apparently, attendees from the previous year had decided to come back and bring their friends, leading into the most crowded space I have ever been in — and I’m from New Orleans, home of Mardi Gras parades and its own packed Jazz Fest. It was so full of people that we could each barely breathe, let alone smell the sea air. The Flaming Lips, Widespread Panic and Paul Simon headlined. Pretty Lights and the Black Keys also had slots. The amazing lineup, as well as word that it was safe to go to the beach, resulted in the most
crowded stretch of sand that the world has probably ever seen. A better name for the festival in 2011 would have been Clusterfuck-by-the-Sea.
Tourism rates at Gulf Shores recovered during that summer. According to the local CVB, hotel and condo occupancy rates exceeded 2009’s rates, suggesting that the economy didn’t just rebound — it grew.However, tourism grew nationally in 2011 so no one can say for sure if the tourism rate would have been higher if the spill had not happened.
In 2012, Hangout improved from the previous year: it stretched its borders to include the other side of the road but still capped the tickets at 35,000 per day, so the crowds were more loosely packed. None of the tan, half-naked fest-goers seem to be worried about the left-over dangers from the spill. The winning combination of music greats, seen on stages that are literally on the sand, blows away all memories of oil-soaked pelicans and oil mats that still float in the Gulf of Mexico. When you’re watching Jack White’s killer performance from a stageside pool, the last thing you’re going to think about is tarballs. A far more pressing concern is who to see on the next days — Gogol Bordello or Dr. Dog? Steve Winwood or Cage the Elephant? The Flaming Lips or G. Love & Special Sauce? Decisions, decisions.
It’s Monday. Hangout is over. I’m at a desk. The computer purrs. It won’t load the page I want it to. I fantasize about fishing my keys out of my purse, walking out of the office, climbing into the car, turning it on, and not stopping the car until I reach Gulf Shores.
364 days until Hangout 2013.
View additional high-res images from the multiple bands who played Hangout over at PopMatters’ Facebook page!
Cage the Elephant
Dozing in the Sand
The Flaming Lips
Young the Giant