Hangout Music Festival: A Summer Soundtrack

Jason Isbell, Shovels & Rope Take the Stage in Gulf Shores, Ala.

GULF SHORES, Ala.. — When the bookers for the Hangout Music Festival were securing talent for this year’s lineup, they must’ve been asking, “How would this sound at the beach?”

From iconic artists like Tom Petty to rising bands like the Mowgli’s, many of the artists fit perfectly with the sunny vibes in this Southeastern vacation spot over the four-day festival, which concluded Sunday (May 19).

If you’re into urban music, there was plenty of that. (Kendrick Lamar enjoyed some of the biggest buzz of the long weekend.) Throbbing dance music was nearly inescapable. If you prefer rock, that was easy to find, from Kings of Leon to the Black Crowes to Imagine Dragons. For that loosened-up festival vibe, fans could check out Trey Anastasio Band, Galactic and … well, just about any band would do the trick.

The four-day festival is on a long stretch of white sand, so there was plenty of space for taking it easy during the day. One tent offered rum drinks and hammocks. The VIP area had a swimming pool. One of the top attractions was a gigantic water slide for adults. In fact, the whole thing was pretty much for adults. I didn’t see many children around at all. Bronzed college kids were definitely in abundance, though.

On Saturday, I started the day with Delta Rae, a band with so many musical influences (and lead singers), there’s something for everyone. After that, I walked back across the beach to hear Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers, a San Francisco-based ensemble that keeps it low-key. If you go to the beach to mellow out, this easygoing group should be part of your soundtrack.

Then I shuffled back to see Shovels & Rope, a husband-and-wife team who commanded the big stage without a backing band. They looked like they were having a blast on the drums — and the crowd seemed like a mix of fans who already knew the music and others who were thrilled to discover it. Their dynamic performances are just loose enough that you might think, “Hey, cool party band.”

Then I drifted over to the BMI stage, pulled in by the upbeat, fun-loving music of the Mowgli’s. I had never heard of this San Francisco-based band, but their cheerful stage presence and bright melodies made me want to grab a drink and linger for a few tunes.

On Sunday, Alabama native Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit put some grit into the festival with smart songs about heavy topics, like on “Outfit,” yet the crowd was fully engaged. Although most of the music at Hangout was lighthearted, it’s heartening to see a crowd tune in when they needed to. And there’s no denying he can write a memorable melody, especially on “Alabama Pines.” With a solid band behind him, including new wife Amanda Shires on harmony vocals and fiddle, Isbell also introduced a couple of new songs from an album arriving June 11.

Isbell now lives in Nashville, a city that was well-represented in its musical diversity. For example, the band Space Capone played the set just before Isbell — and cranked up the funky party music, horns and all. Three outdoor bars and a foam machine certainly didn’t hurt the vibe.

Living in Nashville, there are plenty of pop bands I’ve heard about, but for some reason or another, I haven’t been out to see them. Fortunately for me, they were booked for Hangout, so I was finally able to catch Luella & the Sun (wonderfully weird), Wild Cub (enjoyable dance-pop, at least from what I heard at the soundcheck) and the Wild Feathers (classic rock with a Southern spin.)

This part of the world, known around the region as the Redneck Riviera, gets ridiculously busy after Memorial Day. But why wait? For music fans with eclectic tastes, the Hangout Music Festival was a fantastic reason to start the summer season early.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.