GULF SHORES, Alabama — Not long after the Dave Matthews Band had finished their cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" on Sunday night, and only minutes after the final flare of fireworks had faded out over the Gulf of Mexico, the crew who held the Hangout Festival together for three long days was already in the process of tearing the whole thing down.
Fences were disassembled and carted off by forklift, massive stage-spanning banners were folded by weary stagehands, and crews of volunteers walked arm-in-arm along the stretch of white-sand beach picking up empties and stray cigarette butts. Such is the task of closing up shop at a fest unlike any other, one held on the shore of the Gulf, amid dunes and boardwalks: The goal is making it look like nothing happened here at all.
But ask any of the 35,000 who descended on Gulf Shores for their thoughts on the weekend, and you quickly learn something very big happened here indeed. In its third year, the Hangout pulled together a lineup of top-tier talent — not just headliners like DMB, Jack White and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but jam heavies like the String Cheese Incident, electro titans Skrillex and Kaskade, simmering hip-hop acts like Mac Miller and Yelawollf, legends like Randy Newman and Mavis Staples, and curio cases like Big Freedia, too — put on a massive party in a picture-perfect setting, and established itself as a genuine destination in the Southeast's burgeoning music-festival scene. If anything, the past three days served as its coronation ... welcome to the big leagues.
So, of course, the Dave Matthews Band were the perfect act to bring the 2012 Hangout to a close. After all, they are about as close as you can get to Southern royalty, and from the minute the gates opened on Sunday, it was clear that they were the band most folks plunked down their hard-earned cash to see (rough estimate of DMB shirts on the shore Sunday: 26,000). And as a bonus, they've just returned to the road after a two-year hiatus ... which meant that Sunday was an even bigger deal. And DMB didn't disappoint — even if they did take the stage 20 minutes late — delivering the goods with a two-and-a-half-hour set that delved deep into their back catalog, featured plenty of lengthy, eye-opening jams and reminded folks that this is clearly still a band to reckon with.
Their set was heavy on live faves (opener "Big Eyed Fish," "Don't Drink the Water," "Jimi Thing," "Two Step"), a pair of Matthews' solo tracks and even a song off their upcoming Steve Lilywhite-produced album, called Mercy, which was a genuine highlight. The band's lithe improvisational skills were on display too, as drummer Carter Beauford was given plenty of time to shine, and bassist Stefan Lessard soloed gloriously in the encore. And Matthews was his usual ebullient, wine-soaked self, telling the crowd, "I don't know if you changed your hair, or changed your fragrance, but I noticed walking around here, you are so good looking," before starting the Big Whiskey standout "Seven."
Of course, the DMB weren't the only attraction on Sunday, as 30 minutes before their set, the masses flocked to the opposite end of the beach to catch the Flaming Lips doing their version of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which, given that the album itself is only 43 minutes long, actually took place at the end of an abbreviated Lips' set and kicked off while the sun was still very much hanging over the beach (note to organizers: it's usually best to schedule a Dark Side tribute at night).
Still, as they are wont to do, the Lips gave it their absolute all, turning in a (not always note-perfect) re-creation of the classic album, but one that still shined, thanks to the band's readily apparent love for the source material, and their scruffy determination. Frontman Wayne Coyne bounded across the stage, surfed into the audience in his omnipresent plastic bubble and pushed his voice to the brink. The band welcomed the usual assortment of oddballs onstage (a catfish mascot, an alien, a whole lotta girls in Sailor Moon finery), and aided by backing band Phantogram, they imbued Dark Side's heady expanses with rubbery instrumentals and general weirdness.
"Time" was a psych-tinged, stony romp, the Lips' Swedish-imported songstress put her own spin on the soaring wails of "The Great Gig in the Sky," and "Us and Them" got a jolt from an electro-boogying instrumental in the middle. And before starting "Money," Coyne told the audience (a probably apocryphal) story about Dave Matthews giving him $10,000 in cash backstage, which was inserted into balloons and sent towards the crowd. The resulting scene, in which concertgoers fanatically grabbed at the balloons while Coyne bleated lines like "Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today" was a rather brilliant bit of social commentary, to say the very least.
And how often does something like that happen at a music fest? Tellingly, that seemed to be the ongoing refrain of Hangout 2012 (that or "Would you like some free beer?"), which, thanks to one weekend filled with wondrous musical moments, both straightforward and odd, and an unbeatable locale, appears well on its way to becoming a fest to reckon with in the years to come. Of course, by the time you read this, it'll almost be like it never happened at all.