Hangout Festival: Beach Blanket Bingo or Sand Dune Shenanigans?
As you may recall, the March 1 edition of this column featured photojournalist Jill Kettles. Well, Ms. Kettles makes an encore appearance today, in both words and photos in her coverage of Alabama’s Hangout Festival. Here, then, is her impressionistic, near-stream-of-consciousness thoughts about that festival:
Gulf Shores, Alabama, home of the infamous Hangout Festival and … something else – I just can’t think of what. My brain is still smoldering from the heat, the sand, and Lenny Kravitz.
The Hangout Festival was started in 2010 by the owners of the restaurant of the same name, which sits at the intersection of East Beach Boulevard and Highway 59. With its glowing sign that features a hand making the surfer’s “hang ten” sign, the restaurant served as a compass for where you want to go all weekend. I felt like a fish at times, walking about, most of the time against the flow. Yeah, I am the black fish of the family.
The Hangout Festival organizers run this event like the Super Bowl. They have apps, maps, golf carts, and walkie-talkies. They had medical tents like M*A*S*H. They had cell phone-charging stations, lockers, and clean port-a-potties. (I know, right?)
The food and vendor tents were well-organized, with all kinds of souvenirs ranging from T-shirts to jewelry to a pooch-kissing tent. They had a Ferris wheel and a kids’ hangout, complete with s’mores and tee-pees.
In the media and VIP area, we had wi-fi, cabanas, and free water. That gave me a sigh of relief.
At one of the stages on Thursday’s kick-off, I met a photographer from the local TV station named Jack, who became my guide for the weekend. He told me that every year something happens – a surprise or a mishap that goes from bad to good – you know the old “everyone pull together” type of thing that has the certain effect of making everything fun again. This year there were two such events: a 12-hour monsoon that held off Friday’s start for about three hours and DJ Calvin Harris (aka Taylor Swift’s boyfriend), who got into a horrible car accident in Los Angeles and was too injured to perform Saturday night.
A mixture of music was scheduled – rap, hip-hop, rock, country, pop, soul, R&B – all geared to please everyone. I was there to get the “No Depression” acts. I told folks that ND is the Rolling Stone of Americana music. And it is.
So I had a list. I always have a list. I have lists for lists. I am a list-maker. I have a list right now, and it’s got numbers all over it of photos I want to use for this.
I took 1,725 photos. It’s not my record, but it’s close.
If you are ever in a photo pit, you have about 5-6 feet between the stage and the crowd. Sometimes there’s two of us and other times there’s 40, depending on the show. You are led in 5-10 minutes before the set and then, after three songs, you are led out. You can stay and hang out, and “sneak” a shot from the crowd, but that’s it.
At the bigger stages, I wished I was about a foot taller, because I could’ve gotten some even better photos. There’s this metal barrier that runs the length of the stage, with small steps to either sit or stand on. I’d do both: sitting to get ready and standing up to see how many folks were in the crowd.
It’s amazing sometimes how music affects us all. Some knew all the words and had been following the artist’s career from day one, and some just found out about them in the previous hour.
Friday night’s headliners were Jason Isbell and Alabama Shakes, with the Revivalists in between. The two natives drew massive crowds.
Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard was on fire. She came out like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Aretha Franklin – confident and with a slice of head-on passion. She knows who she is, and the rest of the band lets her be.
Isbell and his band, with his wife, Amanda Shires, were solid. I’ve seen him in a smaller club and he treats all his crowds the same: like family. His songs carry him, not his dancing shoes.
During Saturday’s heat wave, I took some photos at the other stages, of the Whigs (from Athens, Georgia), Raury (Atlanta), Brett Dennen, Powers, Daya (the new young teen sensation), Courtney Barnett, and others.
Saturday night after dinner the crowd was divided – mellow out with Leon Bridges or be amped up with Cage the Elephant. I went to see Bridges. He was smooth, he was suave, he was classic. I could change out the color photos for black and white, and you’d think it was 1964.
Then PANIC! At The Disco was the headliner, now that Calvin Harris wasn’t there, and they were quite entertaining. The face of the lead singer was so animated, some of the shots were so different with the lights that I wound up with a hot pink one.
Sunday, well … my brain was fried. I couldn’t even say my own name. I hit the beach for some personal downtime. The tide was gentle, the sun was warm, and it was fun to imagine what little creatures lived inside the shells. I don’t think I could live at the beach, but it sure is a special place when I visit.
My calves were getting in great shape as I walked barefoot all over the place – a lot easier than in shoes. I met with many other photographers, and there was a small gaggle of us girls. We helped each other out with views of the stage. You know, girl power. Until Lenny Kravitz showed up.
Suddenly, we turned into mean girls after the first strike of the guitar riff with his cover of the Guess Who’s classic “American Woman.” Kravitz strutted around like a proud peacock. He knew when to smile, when to look at his long-time guitar player, Craig Ross, and when to hit the beat with the drummer. He’s not like Mick Jagger or Steven Tyler, he’s more like Robert Plant. He bites his lip. You couldn’t take a bad picture of him.
Us girls left the pictorial orgasm in the pit. We are pros, of course.
After his set, I headead back across the beach to get pop star Ellie Goulding. Then I was back in the media tent to sit and veg out before the last act, Florence + The Machine. That photo opp almost didn’t happen. We were told that it was going to be a two-song limit, not three, and we might have to stand by the soundman. Can you imagine that scene? Fifty of us crowding the soundman?
I had bought a new 500 mm lens, which I could attach with a 2x converter, to make it go to 1000 mm. I hadn’t used it, and I wasn’t sure of it. A few of us got in the pit area early trying to figure out the game plan.
It turned out to be all-good. Florence flittered about in a blue dress with her red hair blowing the wind. I usually just wait and then shoot but with Florence, who looked liked Tinkerbell, I shot away. No time to think about it. She looked like water, like a mermaid and a fairy.
In the media tent area, we all exchanged our business cards, showed each other our fave photos of the moment and told our photo shoot stories like an army in the barracks sharpening knives. We’d fought a battle against the sun, the surf, the crowds, and the F-stops on our cameras. Some were off to Bonnaroo, some had sporting events to shoot. Me, I headed back to the publicity world and Atlanta’s famed traffic.