Two weeks ago, the 2015 Hangout music festival officially began on the beach along the Alabama Gulf Coast, a setting that artists and fans alike agree is one of the most beautiful for an event of this magnitude.
With more than 70 acts, six stages and all sorts of fun in the sun, Hangout set a high standard that will be difficult for others to match during this outdoor concert season. The three-day event (May 15-17) in the Deep South is no longer a deep secret, with Entertainment Weekly ranking it among the 15 best summer festivals in its May 22 issue.
And that's even despite some major headlining disappointments, with Sam Smith bowing out before the start because of a vocal cord injury that required surgery, further weakening a list of headlining acts on the main stages that included the predictable Zac Brown Band and an uninspired Beck set that was in dire need of Jeff Beck to light a fire under the festival's closing performer. (See the random "fan" at left expressing his viewpoint hours before the show that night.)
Yet it's the Hangout heroes on some of the smaller stages that I'll remember the most after witnessing 20 acts, beginning with the North Mississippi Allstars/Robert Randolph collaboration known as the Word at the May 14 kickoff party, snapping more than a thousand photos, writing 10 articles, conducting nine interviews in advance and during the festival and asking five artists to take selfies during their stay. (Vote for your favorite in the slideshow.)
The biggest (and most unlikely) hero of them all was Ellis Ludwig-Leone. Many of you undoubtedly have never heard of him or seen his Brooklyn-based eight-piece band called San Fermin. And the wildly creative group attracted probably no more than 100 informed folks to the smallest of the festival's six main venues, the Salt Life stage, on a Saturday night before Zac Brown and Major Lazer went head-to-head on opposite ends of the site.
To the uninitiated, you missed the most inventive, intellectual, divergent display of indie pop-rock theatricality to hit Gulf Shores, Alabama, this year. And Ludwig-Leone, a 25-year-old, Rhode Island-born son of painters/professors who who grew up in Massachusetts playing classical piano before studying music composition and becoming a Yale graduate, is the mad scientist who created San Fermin.
Quiet and unpretentious, Ludwig-Leone (right) walked to the media tent between the Ferris wheel and huge Hangout stage by himself promptly at 8:30 on a Saturday night for our interview, 15 minutes after his band concluded an explosive set.
San Fermin's whirlwind visit to the Hangout meant getting there just in time for soundcheck, then driving to New Orleans that same night to catch a plane to San Diego to start a series of West Coast gigs. He even missed the graduation of his sister (an art major also from Yale) to make this festival date.
No entourage, publicist or autograph seekers were in sight as Ludwig-Leone arrived, looking more like a guy who studies rock formations than a composer and performer of art house rock. (He dislikes the term "baroque pop," by the way.)
Under the influence of New York composer Nico Muhly fresh out of high school, Ludwig-Leone learned to appreciate music that reached outside his comfort zone.
"When I was working for him, I would basically just do anything from helping with his ballets and things like that to concert music to helping with recording sessions that he did for ... arrangements he did for pop artists," Ludwig-Leone said. "And I think seeing that happen and seeing how he navigated those different roles, certainly rubbed off on me a lot."
The fan of the Ben Folds Five played recitals as a schoolkid but "mostly just listened to Beck or whatever," Ludwig-Leone said. "And then I went to college and they don't teach rock music in college. (laughs) So I was like, all right, well I guess I'll really throw myself into the classical music thing. And I think through that I learned a lot about arranging and how music is put together."
Just a couple of years later, Ludwig-Leone is traveling in a cramped Sprinter van that often includes his seven band mates and three crew members.
He was pleased with the enthusiastic reception from the small but boisterous crowd at the Salt Life stage, but recognized the popularity issues San Fermin faced on this hot, muggy night along the Gulf Coast.
"With these kinds of things ... it's almost better to play earlier on a different stage," he said. "You're basically competing with Skrillex and Father John Misty," referring to the two acts that his band was up against (including one of the most popular on the EDM scene whose sounds from the nearby Boom Boom Tent were clearly audible) during the 7:15-8:15 p.m. time slot.
"I felt the crowd was great and it was cool because they obviously all were there for us," Ludwig-Leone added. "Usually with a festival crowd, people are just kind of there, but those guys, obviously, all of them knew all the words."
Expect more singalongs to take place as San Fermin makes its way through the summer circuit, including stops at the Nelsonville Music Festival and the Forecastle Festival, a July tour with Alt-J, then the Austin City Limits Music Festival in October.
Even before selling out the Troubadour in Los Angeles on May 19, Ludwig-Leone just seemed delighted to be playing anywhere where San Fermin can spread the word through their music after releasing its second full-length record, Jackrabbit, in April.
"We put out the album, did two shows at Music Hall in Williamsburg (in Brooklyn on April 23-24) and basically went off to play every single night," said Ludwig-Leone, who also contributed synth and additional percussion on Jackrabbit. "So I haven't really had any chance to digest the fact that we put it out. It's just been go, go, go. But they're really fun to play live and the fans seem to like it, so it's going good so far."
While treating fans to an occasional offbeat cover like Weezer's "Buddy Holly," it's the songs on this latest album that needed one important change from 2013's self-titled debut for the man who's responsible for all the original music, lyrics and arrangements.
"I think I tried to make it more personalized to the band," Ludwig-Leone said. "Those parts were written for those people this time rather than sort of in the abstract."
His long cast of characters includes: Allen Tate, one of the lead vocalists and the group founder's collaborator almost since the time they met at a Berklee College of Music summer program when Ludwig-Leone was 15; Charlene Kaye, the Hawaii-born, Arizona-raised singer-songwriter who replaced Rae Cassidy in 2014; Rebekah Durham, violin; John Brandon, trumpet; Stephen Chen, saxophone; Tyler McDiarmid, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, electric bass; and Michael Hanf, drums, vibraphone, glockenspiel, additional percussion. (At left, Charlene Kaye and John Brandon play to the crowd.)
Along with Tate, Ludwig-Leone has worked with his kick-ass brass players Chen and Brandon for years, "So there's a lot of trust that's built up." But when it comes to a live setting, "I can't control any of them," he said with a laugh, mentioning they have the freedom to improvise during solos.
"It's kind of a different thing. Most bands don't have a trumpet player who goes out in the audience. As long as people dig it, it's fine with me. As long as the music is played well, that's all I care about."
Kaye and Durham also bolted out front during the Hangout performance, which included riveting versions of the album's title track and "Philosopher," both sung by the 28-year-old woman whose high and mighty voice wonderfully complements Tate's low-range dulcet tones.
"She was recommended to me by I think maybe Allen's vocal teacher," Ludwig-Leone said of Kaye, who has recorded two solo albums. "And then it was like a match made in heaven. ... She got thrown into the fire pretty quick. The first thing we did (after she joined in 2014) was go to Ireland. And we did this crazy European tour. And she was still learning the lyrics. But she's really come into herself. It feels so natural now."
With so much going on visually and aurally onstage, San Fermin's show is reminiscent of another recent musical treat, when David Byrne and St. Vincent collaborated and toured with a brass section behind their Love this Giant album.
"Yeah, I loved that," Ludwig-Leone said, seemingly flattered by the comparison. "I actually didn't see them live but my family did and told me about it. But I've seen videos. I love that record."
Regarding his role in San Fermin, Ludwig-Leone said, "I'm certainly like the bandleader. But I try not to think of it as a dictatorship. ... Musically, I arrange everything and I bring it to the band, but you'd be stupid not to trust your musicians. They're all such great players."
They, in turn, can thank their bandleader for developing a sophisticated sound that's becoming more difficult to find in such frenzied surroundings like these.
Can smart, dramatic lyrics with a challenging presentation keep frat boys and bikini-clad girls entertained at festivals where the party animals often are waiting for the next round of drinks instead of the next song?
Let's hope so. At least, Ludwig-Leone sees endless musical possibilities because of the Internet.
"The way that the music business is set up, there's so much music now with really diverse influences," he said. "I think how things have kind of split up and become more varied, people are able to pull from wherever they want. For me, it just happens to be my musical training and my background just happens to have this mixture of stuff. I didn't really set out to combine genres or anything like that. I just wanted to make music that felt honest to me."
While Ludwig-Leone's act of courage was truly hard to beat, there were four more subjects of Hangout hero worship worth writing home about:
Houndmouth's Zak Appleby (left) and Matt Myers.
Favorite acts were plentiful, led by Houndmouth, the rock-hard quartet from southern Indiana that was profiled here before the festival. Their March 2015 record, Little Neon Limelight, is one of the best of the year. The fearless foursome led by frontman Matt Myers in leopard-skin pants, a "Slippery When Wet" T-shirt and blue cape confirmed they belong among Americana's best emerging artists (they have my vote) after a stunning show on the smallish BMI stage. With rousing numbers like "Black Gold" and "Sedona," it was hard to pull away, but there was an L.A. woman calling from the Hangout stage.
MADE IN THE SHADES
Jenny Lewis was the epitome of a cool California girl walking on sunshine, showing off her fair-skinned legs, embracing the heat while giving a shout-out to the Mermaid Girl in the crowd and threatening to take a jump in what she called the ocean, even though those inviting waves were rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico. With Tristan Gaspadarek (keyboards) and Megan McCormick (guitar) in her stellar touring band, it was "Girl on Girl" power for Lewis, who introduced that new cut near the end of her set. She looked equally at ease as she strolled through songs from her solo career ("You Are What You Love," "Love U Forever") and her Rilo Kiley past ("A Better Son/Daughter"). She even bungled the opening to "Acid Tongue," but laughed it off before leading her huddled singers in a beautiful rendition -- followed by a dip into the "ocean."
Meanwhile, emerging pop singers Halsey (top right) and Tove Lo (right) sounded terrific and looked fantastic and ready for the beach in modified swimwear, but could learn a thing or two from Lewis about taking the heat. Less than two minutes into "Castle" to open her early Friday afternoon set on the BMI stage, Halsey, a New Jersey-raised singer, exclaimed, "It's hot as fuck up here!" Tove Lo, the sexy singer-songwriter from Sweden, had the crowd in the palm of her hand from the opening notes of "My Gun" on the massive Surf stage during a sweaty Sunday afternoon, and it didn't hurt that she removed her skirt for a song or two (with swim apparel underneath), then flashed her boobs for one bright, shining moment.
A prime-time showing on the Palladia stage on Sunday night just before Beck's swan songs felt just right for Phantogram, the electronic pop act powered by guitarist Josh Carter and keyboardist Sarah Barthel (left), the best-looking duo of the fest whose sweet, charming demeanor while taking selfies in the media tent hours before their set was an unexpected thrill. The strobe lights at dusk didn't have the impact of their claustrophobic indoor show of the fall, but it made watching the breathtaking Barthel dancing the night away in skin-tight leather pants even easier on the eyes. And one listen to "Fall in Love" from 2014's Voices will make one wonder why all electronic music can't sound this wondrous.
On a somewhat more primitive level, Five Knives got the party started in the Boom Boom Tent early Friday afternoon during a punk-driven electro-pop set that was bolstered by the Nashville quartet who also were profiled in advance of the festival. Fronted by lead singer Anna M'Queen (left, bottom), a former punk rocker who still possesses that stage-diving moxie, and guitarist/programmer Nathan Barlowe, they want to bridge the gap that separates DJ dance tracks from power pop. With songs from their June 2 release Savages such as the title cut and "Oblivion," expect that to happen sooner rather than later.
Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more from the 2015 Hangout festival on May 15-17 in Gulf Shores, Alabama.