The “bad element” that Hangout Fest attracts is way overstated, but it may be time to move on from event that has been so divisive

The “bad element” that Hangout Fest attracts is way overstated, but it may be time to move on from event that has been so divisive
By Fran Thompson
I love the Hangout Fest. And since the Mullet Wrapper office is located directly across the street from the west parking lot at Gulf Place, I get to sit on my porch and soak in the festive atmosphere, watch the shuttle buses unload happy millennials and sort of hear the bands playing on the main stage.
I’m also a huge music fan. I’ve attended every day of the fest since The North Mississippi All-Stars kicked it off in 2010 with a late afternoon table setter about where the Hangout Restaurant food truck is now. I rode my bicycle down and GSPD officers were there addressing noise complaints when I arrived. They had a point. I could hear the Dickerson boys jamming when I climbed on my bike at my home on East 24th Ave.
Oil had been flowing from the Deepwater Horizon site for more than three weeks at that point. We knew the slicks were heading our way. But we didn’t know when they would arrive.
About 16,000 people bought tickets to that first fest. Organizers declared it a free event after the gates opened back up following a Sunday thunder storm.
A great local band of GSHS classmates, Catawampus, was even invited to play. Our neighbor’s kid (Harrison Butler) played bass in the band, and the fest comped his parents tickets. The fest already had a plan to spoil the talent it booked. And it worked. Top acts from around the world now want to play here.
I was among those booing Carolyn Kennedy when she spoke before the Zack Brown concert. I was living the BP oil spill. I did not want to listen to a visiting Kennedy remind me how bad it might get.
There is a direct correlation between the fest and the free (if you rented a condo) BP sponsored beach concerts featuring Jimmy Buffett and Brad Paisley later that summer. The festival was proof that it could be done and done well.
I wrote a story following the fest thanking Michael Franti for using his on stage pulpit to ask people to support hurting local businesses instead of leading anti-BP chants, as was the case with Ben Harper. Gulf Shores officials ended up presenting Franti with a key to the city when he returned the following year.
Jerry Jeff Walker, one of my musical heros, had to cancel, and we joked that he was unable to get off of that L.A. Freeway.
Phish is not for me. But I loved Trey Anastasio’s closing set, as there was barely a noodle to be heard from the stage. The first Hangout fireworks followed and it was a surprise to everyone. The fest later added fireworks at the conclusion of each day’s music.
There is no doubt that concert experiences in the following years seeing superstars like Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Tom Petty on my hometown beach has added to significantly to my quality of life.
I saw the Revivalists play Hangout in front of around 20,000 people. Two years before that, Henry Bateman was booking them to play at The Happy Harbor on Marina Rd. in front of a full house of about 100 fans. They killed it at the fest just like they killed it every time Henry booked them to play in Orange Beach.
I saw Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett sets with maybe 200 other fans. I also thought the Boom Boom Tent would overflow with fans for St. Vincent. I was not right about St.Vincent’s mass appeal either.
It’s been a couple years since I’ve seen transformative sets at the fest (Weezer & Phoenix back to back in 2017). But I still go over during the day to look for bands that actually play musical instruments and listen to the reggae bands that rotate in the green space smack in the middle of the fest. People watching is always fun. And I like being the oldest guy (I’m 65) there.
I’ve met so many truly great kids just standing in line for beer or because I am wearing a Philadelphia Eagles hat or an In Mullet We Trust t-shirt. I’ve enjoyed a hundred conversations with interesting, accomplished kids. Their positive energy is contagious.
I understand that there is a “bad element’’ that attends Hangout. There are also bad elements living in my Meyer Park neighborhood. There was a recent bust of drug dealers on East 22nd Ave. directly next door to where my good friend John’s kid lives with his family. Thank you GSPD.
A certain percentage of bad elements will always be included when 40,000 out-of towners cross the Holmes Bridge. That percentage does increase during the Hangout Fest. They are here mostly to prey upon the good elements attending the fest.
From what I saw, bad behavior and blatant drug use seemed to be at its worst when The Black Keys and Widespread Panic were booked. It may be the bands or it may be that crystal meth was a popular choice for druggies then. (My favorite joke: What did the Widespread Panic fan say when he ran out of drugs? “Man, this band sucks.”)
Nobody, especially Hangout founder Shaul Zislin, wants to see the fest associated with bad behavior.
“We have never asked them to turn a blind eye to misbehaving people. We hate misbehaving people. It makes my job harder,’’ he said.
I am certain that the 2019 crowd was the youngest and best behaved in the fest’s 10 years history. At least two of my neighbors agree with me.
That does not mean that all of the facework posts and calls to City Council about illegal and lewd behavior, vandalism and drug use in my neighborhood following the 2019 fest were not valid. Not at all. It’s no excuse, but it used to be worse.
Local residents absolutely have the right to expect decency and basic manners from our tourists whether those tourists are here to make memories with their family of five at one of the Phoenix condos or to overdrink and dance with 10 of their fraternity brothers at the Hangout Fest.
Zislin is correct when he told City Council that people tell untruths about the fest. But he is also guilty of not letting the truth get in the way of a good Hangout story.
A resident told City Council that music from the fest kept her awake all night. She is not a liar. I’m sure loud music did keep her awake all night. And may have been from a post Hangout party. But it did not emanate from inside the fest if it was after 11 p.m.
A couple of years back, someone told me that a man was busted for selling drugs in front of Papa Rocco’s. I happened to be at Papa’s when the man was arrested. It was for scalping tickets. I believe he had been warned not to do it the day before.
“There is not anybody in my neighborhood or up and down First Avenue east and west that does not have a public urination or defecation story to tell,” Pam Williams told City Council. “That’s out of control.”
Yes there is Pam. Me. It sickens me that you have a defecation story. That should be a felony.
I have had an old bike stolen from a car in y driveway. And I lost a nice bike because I was stupid enough to leave it unlocked outside Desoto’s while I went in to sip a beer with friends who work there. The restaurant was always empty and offered cool respite before Chris and Rosemary Steele decided to just close for the weekend.
I saw a girl passed out in one of the portolets at the west entrance being treated by EMCs. Her head was on the floor when I walked by. It was before noon. I hope her parents never found out.
I saw a guy pee on a fence right out in the open near the east bar in the Hangout courtyard during one of the early fests. The menacing looking fellow who I think is the head of Hangout security saw it too. In a matter of seconds he had dragged the drunk out of there while we cheered.
One year, a teenager ahead of me was stuck at the entry kiosk because his wrist band was not pinging when he scanned it. A cop assisting him noticed alcohol on his breath. He asked for ID. The kid gave him a fake ID. I don’t think his wrist band ever pinged. But the cop confiscated the fake ID and let him go in and meet his waiting friends. I hope the kid appreciated that officer giving him a pass.
My favorite story is more recent. A neighbor’s grandson was hosting a party for mostly Fairhope kids in 2018. I don’t think any of them even went inside the fest. They were partying hard and having fun all day. In response to a kid yelling something out the window of a car heading west on First Ave., one of the kids next door ran over to my driveway to yell back at the kids in the car to come back and get what they deserved.
He was standing directly below me when I told him to get off of my property. He looked up at me with drunken eyes and asked, “Dude, what is your problem?’’
Sometimes you just have to laugh and remember that we were all once young and guileless.
In order to address concerns this year, the Hangout Fest was planning to start an ambassador program by soliciting volunteers to patrol the streets outside of the fest. Local residents who see bad behavior can look for an ambassador, who will then tell the official Hangout liaison, who will then call police, if necessary. It sounds crazy, but I did not just make that up.
The fest generates significant income for my city. But is it really in our best interest to indefinitely rent our public beach to a business group that already owns the majority of the property around that beach?
Where will this lead us? We’ve all seen how the fest has changed in 10 years. What can we expect it to look like in 2030?
With help from the CVB, we’ve already branded ourselves as a family vacation destination. Is it not OK to not want the fest here just because it’s not a good fit or because we don’t want to see our public beach rented out to any business for two full weeks?
I don’t know if elected officials besides Steve Jones are in favor of extending the contract at least through 2026 to make up for the 2020 cancellation.
But I very much doubt that a majority of residents want to take Zislin up on his offer to become “forever friends.’’
I didn’t tell her she was on record. So, I won’t use her name, but I asked a respected local who I worked with during this year’s Ballyhoo Fest her opinion. She said she had never been to the fest, but it had definitely divided our city in unhealthy ways.
“Besides,’’ she said. “People can hear all the good music they want to at the Flora-Bama.’’