For all of its shortcomings and for all of its failures at the end, the easy thing to do is to poke fun at Birmingham’s City Stages. It wasn’t a pretty ending.
But jumping to that reaction fails to recall its brightest days. In 2002, fresh from the release of the record that propelled the Atlanta duo to international stardom, Stankonia, Outkast headlined the festival. And in 2005, fresh from the release of its biggest and most universally accepted record, Hot Fuss, the Killers headlined, too. On May 16-18, the two acts served as two of the three headliners at one of the South’s largest festivals and one of the genuinely unique festivals in America: Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The festival’s third headliner? The Black Keys, who snuck into Rogue Tavern for an intimate secret show in April of 2010.
While Birmingham’s music scene is thriving and complaints about its relevance have grown quieter, it shouldn’t be forgotten that there were some pretty cool things happening in the Magic City even when you pretended otherwise.
Thousands trekked to the Emerald Coast for the star-studded lineup from Birmingham to Ottawa. As I spoke to other festival-goers on an elevator, the aforementioned Canadians and another couple from Pittsburgh, I nearly felt like a bonafide townie. One of a kind, Hangout Music Festival has carved its niche in a crowded market as a beach vacation that happens to be surrounded by amazing music. That is, for fans, the pace isn’t as grueling as Manchester, Tennessee’s Bonnaroo. There’s time to soak up the sun, have a beer and try some of the local eats.
In 2014, Hangout continued living up to lofty expectations that it has created for itself. Here were the top five things that I saw:
1. The Killers [Saturday, 9 p.m., Hangout Stage] — The Killers have a unique position in music. I can’t tell if they are universally loved or if people think the Las Vegas band went the way of, say, Third Eye Blind. Most people can agree that Hot Fuss was great, but critics begin panning their catalog at Sam’s Town, which I still hold as one of my favorite works of the last 20 years. Day & Age wasn’t great, but the band’s other three studio works, including 2012’s Battle Born, are. The band didn’t stop making great music, you just stopped listening.
And you shouldn’t have. Because along with making great records, the band sounds flawless live. I’ve maintained since that 2005 City Stages show that I have never heard an outdoor performance reach studio clarity the same way. And nine years later, my memory had not failed me. Brandon Flowers didn’t spend a lot of time talking during the 90-minute set, but he did allow his drummer and guitarist time to riff, and he did throw in two unexpected covers: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” and Alphaville’s “Forever Young.” When he announced that he would perform the former, I had no idea that his voice would match the tone of John Fogerty’s so closely. It was atop a large stack of incredible cover versions that bands offered over three days, like Amos Lee’s “Fat Bottomed Girls (Queen)” and “Single Ladies (Beyonce).”
The Killers are probably one great album away from reaching more universal acceptance, but since the release of Sam’s Town I have urged not to wait. To celebrate this as one of the most fantastic sounding live bands that is actively recording music is not hyperbole.
SETLIST: Spaceman – Somebody Told Me – The Way It Was – Smile Like You Mean It – Bling (Confessions of a King) – Human – Bad Moon Rising (Creedence Clearwater Revival cover) – For Reasons Unknown – From Here on Out – A Dustland Fairytale – Forever Young (Alphaville cover) – Read My Mind – Runaways – All These Things That I’ve Done – ENCORE – Shot at the Night – Jenny Was a Friend of Mine – When We Were Young – Mr. Brightside
2. Outkast [Sunday, 9 p.m., Hangout Stage] – It’s a cash grab tour. There was a promise of new music coming from this reunion 10 years in the making, but there’s been no indication that it would happen since.
And that’s just fine. The Replacements are doing it, too. So is Neutral Milk Hotel.
Outkast was panned at Coachella, and a lot of critics held the crowd accountable. Outkast’s Hangout crowd was not going to be regarded the same. While it was light just 10 minutes before Andre 3000 and Big Boi were scheduled to take the stage at 9 p.m., oceans of inebriated and energetic people began pouring into the areas close to the stage before the duo dropped “B.O.B” at 9:20. And while they seemed to burn through a lot of their biggest hits in the first half of the 100-minute set, the crowd was out of control. It was a beach party for the ages and an incredible end to the weekend.
“Y’all don’t wanna hear me, you just wanna dance,” always seemed the most poignant line Andre ever penned. It indicated a little of his own hidden apathy in the middle of one of the biggest dance tracks written this century. And as he recited it at Hangout, it held true, as the crowd continued their own celebrations, seemingly unaware a group was even on stage.
SETLIST: B.o.B. – Gasoline Dreams – ATLiens – Skew it on the Bar-B – Rosa Parks – De Art of Storytellin,’ Part 1 – Aquemini – Spottieottiedopaliscious – Ms. Jackson – [Big Boi set] – Kryptonite (I’m On It) – GhettoMusick – The Way You Move (w/ Sleepy Brown) – [Andre 3000 set] – She Lives in My Lap – Prototype – Hey Ya! – [duo, “Old School” set] – Hootie Hoo – Crumblin’ Herb – Player’s Ball – Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik – Elevators (Me & You) – [conclusion] – Roses – So Fresh, So Clean – International Player’s Anthem (I Choose You) – The Whole World
3. Bastille [Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Chevrolet Stage] — Hangout has done a remarkable job of finding something perfect for the early slots on Sunday, and this year was no exception, with one act I expected to deliver (this one) and one act that completely surprised me (number four). I had yet to see the Chevrolet Stage as crowded throughout the weekend, nearly recalling the infamous Alabama Shakes set that opened the 2012 festival. People packed into the second largest stage on the beach for the band’s set — a band who have already played Saturday Night Live, certainly, but have still just achieved one massive hit, “Pompeii.”
When Dan Smith went into the crowd for “Daniel in the Den,” the third song from the set’s conclusion, it was cemented. I’m not sure anyone on the weekend bill with as much stature, short of Wayne Coyne, would have made a similar move. He returned for the band’s second cover, a version they recorded recently of Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night.” The band concluded with “Pompeii.”
Their first cover? City High’s “What Would You Do?”, achieving a new level of surprise from me in what a band is capable of pulling out from its sleeve. It was all perfect.
4. Capital Cities [Sunday, 3:45 p.m., Hangout Stage] — Maybe I was expecting Capital Cities to be much more of a pop act. And they are, but they’re a pop act that is making the same music as Passion Pit, but with a trumpet.
I’m late to this party. I never liked the band’s name. I simply undersold them.
The band brought covers from a reggae-infused version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” to a slowed-down, haunting “Undone (The Sweater Song).” Its pinnacle was the arrival of no fewer than 50 large beach balls and two giant, over-sized beach balls being dumped on the crowd as they began their hit “Safe and Sound” and took it into a cover of Madonna’s “Holiday.” It was approaching 5 p.m., the air was cooling and it was extremely reminiscent of Passion Pit’s performance of “Take a Walk” on the same stage just one year ago.
5. Moon Taxi (as People of the Sun) [Saturday, 4:45 p.m., Red Bull Sound Select Stage] — If you’ve not been to the festival in a while, this is the stage that began as the “Children’s” Stage, inside the gates of the Hangout bar. When Moon Taxi, a band with deep roots in Birmingham, announced that they would perform an entire set of Rage Against the Machine covers, I was in.
The area reached a capacity that forced the bar to shut its gates. Opening with “Sleep Now in the Fire” and blazing through versions of “Bulls on Parade,” “Down Rodeo,” “Bombtrack” and every other track that soundtracked late ’90s aggression, they pulled it off. No one is confusing these guys for Zack de la Rocha or Tom Morello, but as far as tribute efforts go, this was superior. The band got a lot of attention on Saturday around the festival, as they played their own music after their tribute set, filling a vacancy opened by Chance the Rapper’s last-minute cancellation.