Stevie Wonder was the main attraction, and deservedly so, while delivering a feel-good message along with solid gold hits by himself, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and the Beatles on Sunday (May 19), the final night of the 2013 Hangout Festival.
At age 63, Wonder's "Little Stevie" days may be long behind him, but that soothing, moving voice remains crystal clear as he broke out with Gaye's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" before most of the 35,000 ticket-buying music lovers who stayed until the remarkable end of this three-day, mixed bag of kicks.
While the band kept playing, Wonder interrupted his own self to deliver a powerful message in between screams from the crowd. "In my lifetime, the most important thing I wanna do is bring people together," he said. "I know that some of you people think that some people just love to hate. ... But you know all that hate is just a bunch of bullshit."
Wonder cited some of the tragic episodes in recent history such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Boston bombings as reasons to come together, then challenged today's youth. Understanding who was undoubtedly the key demographic of this festival, with rap and EDM getting their very own Boom Boom Tent, Wonder (right) preached what he practiced.
"It is up to you to make a difference in this world," he said. "In my life, most of all even more than music, I want you to use me to be an instrument that brings people together. ... So right now, I want to bring y'all together and sing this song. You see, I'm taking the Marvin Gaye song that was then done by James Taylor and I'm using it differently. I'm talking about how sweet it is to be loved by God. To be protected with love. Now you may not have a religion, but it's not about the religion, it's about the relationship."
And without hesitation, to paraphrase "Ebony and Ivory," the song he recorded with Paul McCartney in 1982 and performed later this night, they all joined together "in perfect harmony" for a divine chorus.
It was more than 40 years ago when I had the pleasure of seeing Wonder open for the Rolling Stones in Mobile, Alabama, just about 45 miles northwest of Gulf Shores. The Deep South might have proved it has come progressively further since, and with unforgettable moments like that, you don't have to Wonder why.
Here are more personal festival faves to round out the Hangout High 5:
2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sunday
Wonder, the SoulMusic and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer behind hits such as "Isn't She Lovely," "My Cherie Amour" and "Superstition," even got a shout-out hours earlier from Karen O (left). The expressive, explosive mind and stick-figure-thin body behind Yeah Yeah Yeahs was a whirling dervish of gangly activity whose twisted style on this night combined bits and pieces of Sally Jessy Raphael, Olive Oyl, the Riddler and Gwen Stefani.
About halfway through their sizzling 60-minute late-afternoon set on the same Hangout Stage where the Motown legend would later perform, Karen O, wailed, "Time for a Yeah Yeah Yeahs love song. Alabama! On the beach! Sunday! Stevie Fucking Wonder! I love all those things."
After dishing out messages of love to her crew and tour manager Bob Whittaker, she continued: "I'd like to dedicate this show to Stevie Wonder. Aw man, let's just get this shit over with so we can watch Stevie."
From there, they stormed into "Maps," the single from 2003's Fever to Tell, their debut album, that essentially put the avant-garde New York-based outfit on the map.
The original and outstanding power trio that includes guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase (with second guitarist David Pajo a regular touring member since 2009) created such a phenomenal mixture of reverb, distortion and blunderbuss beats that, combined with Ms. O's wonderfully weird stage antics, made it nearly impossible to follow.
O's wild wardrobes are a trademark, and her sparkling lime green shorts-and-jacket ensemble with a Michael Jackson T-shirt and knee-high red-and-pink socks didn't disappoint. All over the stage, the walk-on-the-wild-sidewinder threw some figurative knockout punches with a single red glove. Her weapon of choice was the microphone, whether it went down her pants, her throat or snuggled up against her beating heart as another personal expression of going-deep affection.
They delivered the final blow with "Zero" from 2009's It's Blitz, leaving many deciding to stay put and rest up for Wonder's cool vibes that were still two hours away.
Sunday's tantalizing lineup turned out to be the best of the fest, though. Solid early sets were offered up by brassy, ballsy Galactic, with special guest vocalist Corey Glover of Living Color fame; British pop temptress Ellie Goulding, who (except for the cute aqua nail polish) looked and worked like an aerobics instructor with a one-piece all-black outfit and matching tennies while following through with a number of exhausting moves; then Imagine Dragons and moe., who duked it out from separate stages at the same time.
Yet it was Yeah Yeah Yeahs who stole the show away from anyone who preceded them. Dipping heavily into the recently released Mosquito, their fourth studio album but first in four years, they continued a popular theme of reemergence or redemption that ran rampant throughout the festival.
3. Kings of Leon, Friday
Following a nasty incident that led to an extended hiatus and two years of dormancy, the Followill Family Band returned to fine form on opening night at that same Hangout Stage, setting off the event's first fireworks.
Caleb Followill (right), the fiery frontman and lead singer of the Kings of Leon captured so brilliantly in the gripping 2011 documentary Talihina Sky, was a relatively chipper presence onstage, quickly addressing the fans after singing "Fans" from 2007's Because of the Times.
Wearing a plain white tee and gold cross, he said, "This is our first time to have the opportunity to play this amazing festival. And I feel like we're surrounded by our own people here. So I'm just gonna be myself tonight."
Followill, his brothers Jared (bass) and Nathan (drums) and cousin Matthew (lead guitar), are apparently making up for lost time, planning for a fall release of their first album since 2010's Come Around Sundown.
Reaching the halfway point of their 100-minute set with "Notion" from 2008's Only By the Night, Followill, married two years to Victoria's Secret Angel Lily Aldridge and the father of their 11-month-old girl, added, "I am having a good time up here. This is the best American crowd we've seen in a long, long time."
With an adoring kingdom spreading far and wide, he followed that up after "Be Somebody" "Pyro" and "Knocked Up" with, "Thank you guys for letting us be here. We really appreciate it."
4. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Saturday
"Thank you so much, thank you very much. Wow, we're on the beach in Alabama. Crazy. Well, we're pretty excited to be here. We've got a lot of songs planned out for ya tonight."
Petty (left) the hitmaker delivered his own personal anthology, churning out recognizable chart-toppers for the first 30 minutes. "So You Want To Be a Rock 'N' Roll Star," "Love is a Long Road," "I Won't Back Down," "You Wreck Me" and "Mary Jane's Last Dance" were reeled off in succession, with only the brief audience interplay after the first two songs.
The string was finally broken with "Good Enough," a blues number from 2010's Mojo, Petty's last studio album with the Heartbreakers, that featured Mike Campbell's guitar wizardry.
In his best nasal twang, Petty quickly returned to the well, dedicating "Free Fallin' " to anyone "that might be sneaking out on the old lady tonight," hastening to add after a few boos, "or the old man."
Still rockin' hard at age 62, hopefully it'll be awhile before he's knockin' on heaven's door.
5. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit with Amanda Shires, Sunday
An Alabama favorite son, ex-Drive-By Truckers singer-songwriter/guitarist Isbell is making a comeback that's more personal than professional. A recovering alcoholic since February 2012, he married Shires this February and, though they have separate solo careers, the pair are finding a way to make their fair share of beautiful music together.
Isbell took the opportunity on the compact but acoustically friendly BMI Stage to perform several numbers from Southeastern, his first studio album since 2011, which will be released June 11.
He might not wear his heart on his sleeve but does visibly show his passion for songwriting with lyrics to Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather" tattooed across his left forearm -- "Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled from across that lonesome ocean."
Isbell and his fiddle-playing partner looked and sounded like a loving couple still on their honeymoon, harmonizing on songs such as "Stockholm" and Candi Staton's "Heart on a String."
And they scorched instrumentally through "Decoration Day" and Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" as Isbell cleared the way with a Duesenberg electric guitar in hand. (From left, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell.)
His 400 Unit -- Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass) and Derry deBorja (keyboards) -- were ready, willing and able to supply the requisite power.
The home-state crowd obviously gave Isbell all the vocal support he needed on "Alabama Pines," for which he won 2012's Americana Music Association's Song of the Year.
"That's a fun song to play for you folks, especially," said Isbell, appreciative of the enthusiastic response he received from one of the BMI Stage's biggest crowds, all of whom were just hanging out near the Hangout, the restaurant that bears the festival's name.
The two shore things on the Gulf of Mexico also share the same motto: "Be nice or go home."
It's a form of shaka therapy worth experiencing at least once in a lifetime.
Photos by Michael Bialas. See more from the 2013 Hangout Festival.
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