Sunsets, Vapes and Lana Del Rey: An Indelible Hangout Fest

Sunsets, Vapes and Lana Del Rey: An Indelible Hangout Fest

By Joan SummersMay 23, 2024

The sun sets out at the edge of the world, and it paints the milky skyline in passionfruit and amber. My cigarettes are nowhere to be found so I settle for a vape dug out from the bottom of my purse. It quickly fills itself with the specks of the Gulf as a warm wind sweeps past me from out there beyond the horizon, where I watch innumerable fish jump up to catch the last rays of sunlight as the sky turns an inexplicable shade of lavender. A Lana Del Rey song plays out the extra large cup I’ve turned into a makeshift speaker. Condensation from the Diet Coke I’d sipped pensively while wandering along the side of the highway, before I found myself at this unnamed beach, has bonded with the sand to form a soft shell like the turtle I watch skitter by on the shoreline, safe in the municipal sanctuary we’ve briefly sheltered in. The world around me grows dark, darker and then gone. Did you know there’s a tunnel under Ocean Boulevard? I must have stumbled through it to Alabama, to 2024’s Hangout Festival.

It’s mostly a happy accident that I found myself in Gulf Shores at all. PAPER’s Music Editor Erica Campbell had shared, some random Tuesday morning, that Lana Del Rey would be headlining a festival just west of the infamous Flora-Bama beach bar, straddling the state line between Florida and Alabama like a bikini-clad 20-something riding her boyfriend’s ATV around town while vaping. True story, actually. That’s just the sort of vibe the whole place is steeped in.

Upon viewing the rest of the lineup, my face lit up, and then my brain: Chappell Roan, Reneé Rapp, Zach Bryan, Sexxy Red, Tanner Adell, Doechii, and more. There was no way I’d miss the opportunity to visit Alabama and see all the rising stars on the bill perform on the beach, bikini on, vape and drink in hand. A chance to witness Lana Del Rey’s follow-up to her highly buzzed-about Coachella performance was even more incentive, least of all in a place with Waffle Houses lining the highway like mini-shrines to the Patron Saint of Americana.

And so it was that I got herded into a shuttle outside the Pensacola Airport a day before the festival, earlier than most other colleagues whose flights had been postponed by a storm that had passed through northern Florida. The van was empty save a small suitcase and my driver. So, I crawled into the front seat with her to gossip, eager for the scoop and company. She told me about working festivals all over the country while her stuff was packed away at her parent’s in Atlanta. I’d just driven my own stuff across the country, and we compared weird gas station names, and the states we refused to make stops in. After leapfrogging from the aesthetics of Florida to what it was like being on the road most of one’s year, I pensively broached my anxiety about sobriety, and deeper, about traveling alone to Alabama. These were the sort of confessions one would make to a priest, or a new friend they might never see again.

I nervously fidgeted with my phone as she pointed out the aforementioned Flora-Bama bar. The night before, en route from the airport, traffic had piled up because of a brawl in the street that blocked both lanes. I don’t think she meant it as a comfort, but it relaxed the tension between my shoulders. I could work with this combination of beach houses and surf shacks and barefooted people whizzing by on the tiny, single-lane highway.

Later, the sun was still high above the families and friends that scurried along the beach like packs of crabs, at least from the vantage of my hotel balcony, so I set out for something to do. I changed into my 3XL Morphine t-shirt — call me, Morphine! — and some sandals, hair up and makeup refreshed. A few minutes down my side of the highway I found an intersection. On the other side of it, a seafood restaurant clung to the edge of a pond, shaded by trees and tall reeds. I grabbed a high top outside, and the hostess gave me a quizzical stare when I declared it’d just be me. I absentmindedly flicked through my menu, already knowing I’d settle for a salad and a Diet Coke, and checked my itinerary for the week while a country singer crooned. Halfway through the schedule, my ears twitched as I recognized “Maybe It’s Time” from A Star Is Born, and I swiveled around to where he sat, grinning. Who on earth covers Jackson Maine songs, in Alabama no less? My waiter coughed, just slightly, to let me know I’d accidentally ignored him. I ordered my salad and Diet Coke, handing him the menu while he doled out a “thanks, sweetie.” I paused, flattered, then flushed, then embarrassed I’d had a visible reaction to it, but he was already gone. Imagine if a man had said that to me in New York, I ruefully wrote down beneath my anecdote about Bradley Cooper’s directorial masterpiece, then underlined it, then crossed it out.

Buzzed off my diet coke and the flurry of “darlings” and “sweeties” from my waiter, I wandered into a Dairy Queen another mile down the highway, and then to the beach outside my hotel, where I watched the sun set that first night. Phone in my cup, Lana Del Rey’s latest on loop, faint cries of gulls all around. The haze of my evening softened into the gentle sound of the tide that next morning, and then the purr of shuttle tires on asphalt as we hurtled towards Hangout Fest. Behind me, a girl who’d driven from somewhere leaned in close to her friend, and intoned: “If the bitch ain't on the beach in front of Lana when that bitch starts, it’s trouble.” A bitch gets it.

I wore jeans and a little cropped Lady Gaga “Monster Ball” tour t-shirt Friday, abs out, Vans checker slip-ons half on my feet. I was overdressed, of course, as most of the bikini and board shorts and mesh cover-up compatriots in the crowds around me clearly communicated with their eyes. I probably would have joined them, had I not been on the job. Still, Hangout Fest might be the only place on this earth where I’d do said job in a bikini. Emphasis on might. Ducking and dodging around sloshing beers and pizza slices and ice cream cones, I sampled the various activations. Club, another club, as Lady Gaga always says, except here the club is the Takis tent and the 7-11 Slurpee truck. I sat sipping a white can of Monster in the SHEIN beach club, and wrote in my notes: Has anyone cruised in the SHEIN beach club? I found my way over to an Acai Bowl vendor, ordered extra fruit, and wandered into the VIP areas, where the not-yet-sunburned lounged in pop-up pools and on palatial, shaded verandas. The white can Monster wasn’t enough, so I grabbed a cold brew from the refreshments stand back behind the verandas, and ducked into the artist’s compound to meet my handlers.

Sara, Jelani, and Caitlin were my main points of contact throughout the weekend, and they showed me where the trailers were camped for the weekend. Through a crevice in the backstage security, we walked by guards whispering about something big that would happen that night, and onto the private beach walled off for the artists’ to enjoy in and around their sets. I considered ordering another Diet Coke, but settled for water, and Sara and I mapped out the day’s plans: The Beaches were on in 30 minutes, and we’d go from there to A Day to Remember, where I’d peel off for G Flip right after and then catch Del Water Gap and Dominic Fike’s sets. A brief break for dinner and the sunset back on the beach, then NLE Choppa soon after and a hike deep into Lana Del Rey’s crowd for the headlining set.

This being the Gulf, the air was thick with the anticipation of thunder, and I spent my time between performances listening in on radios about the local storm watchers, lazily munching on Takis tucked into my purse and gossiping with the publicists about most things. It was, crowds considered, the most relaxed I’d ever been at a festival, let alone one I worked at. The line-up was diverse, and there was a distinct sense of adventure winding my way through surf and sand to the various stages, eager fans pressed as close as they possibly could be to artists both familiar and new to me. G Flip was explosive in person; the music off their last album Drummer translated perfectly to the wide open spaces of the Gulf Shores, as if it’d been recorded here in the first place. The Beaches were high energy, and NLE Choppa put on a great set, crowd dancing about as hard as they later would for Sexxy Red and Doechii. Dominic Fike, a favorite of PAPER’s music crew — and Sara, who practically ran to his pit — was also a surprise.

Backstage, I heard more chatter about what would go down that night, although security remained tight-lipped when asked if they knew what Lana had planned for us. Artists traveled in and out from the beach as their set times demanded, filming social content, conducting interviews, lounging in the sun. After watching them wrap up with G Flip, I wandered over to MTV’s press crew, and made fast friends. Cheryl Krucas, senior producer at MTV, introduced herself, and we later sussed out we had the “Emo Nite boys” in common, myself having interviewed them for a show in East Village earlier this year. The rest is a trade secret, of course, but we promised to link up again tomorrow, after darting off to catch Lana.

Good thing I ran as fast as half-on slip ons would allow, because the girls and gays were out for Lana, the most visibly non-straight crowd I’d seen at the festival. Between chants of “Lana! Lana! Lana!” I chatted up stagehands and artists crowded into the area we’d been herded into. Behind us, fans talked of driving all night for her, missing jobs and birthdays and responsibilities back home to be here. I scanned the sky, absentmindedly thinking maybe she’d one up the Coachella motorcycles and show up via chopper. No, sadly, but I spotted a handful of drones darting out beyond the stage, invisible except for the faint blinking LEDs. Others must have heard it too, because the crowd hushed, and engines sprang to life in the distance. The jumbotrons flashes and there she was, leading a charge of ATVs down a makeshift road along the shoreline.

The next hour and a half compressed and then expanded On the ATV, Lana’s hair blew in the wind, herself appearing like a princess of legend, riding out with her cavalry. Onstage, she was supported by pole dancers and acrobatics and supporting vocalists Jasmine Rose, Porctia Symone and Chelsea West, as seen on the honeymoon_angelsingers Instagram account. (Real Lana fans know!) She played the hits and then some, with appearances from Tommy Genesis, Benson Boone, Nessa Barrett and Jelly Roll. The whole experience was like nothing else in my entire professional career. Despite how utterly enraptured I was by her stage presence, I hastily noted the joy written plain across her face. Her vocals both seared and soothed, Lana never once losing command of the music and the crowd. Kudos to her guitarist, also, who’s riffs rose over the noise from her audience, like the haunting melody of a ghost ship sunk right off the coastline. From my notebook: I think she’d like that metaphor for her arrangements.

As the final notes of her “Sweet Home Alabama” cover with Jelly Roll faded out, and the crowd erupted in screams, I stood there just long enough to be completely lost in the crush of people. I didn’t want the moment to end, not there on the beach, not on the shuttle back to my hotel, not at 3 AM on my balcony, legs pulled up to my chest, the rhythm of the waves pushing me back to bed.

The relative stillness of the morning was broken by a thunderclap that shook my windows Saturday. Denizens of the hotel sprung to life in an avalanche of bare feet to tile floors and a push notification told me that the lightning had set back the day’s festivities. Likewise, Sexxy Red’s set would be postponed until a later time on Sunday. Eventually the thunder receded back over the horizon, and I braved the remnants of its passing rainstorm for a donut and coffee. I munched on a monstrosity of a pastry, encrusted in sprinkles and gooey frosting, and reconfigured the day’s plans. Dasha, the rising country star, would perform shortly after the gates opened, Chappell Roan following right behind her. I’d need to catch Jessie Murph’s set, then Cage the Elephant and Flyana Boss, finding time somewhere to recuperate before Odesza that night.

Shortly before 3 PM, I ducked into Dasha’s pit with Sara. The crowd hummed excitedly, and she emerged from the side stage to rapturous cheers. While most might know “Austin,” even Dasha seemed surprised at how much of the crowd knew the words to her other tracks. As fans clambered onstage with her to line dance, Sara and I dashed behind to the road Lana had driven on the night before, a shortcut to the mainstage for Chappell Roan's set. Weaving through photographers and pink cowgirl hats, we crouched, and then gasped with everyone else when Roan showed up in football padding and a jockstrap. Smart references, as always, like the Lady Miss Kier drag at Coachella. More than that, though, her performance capabilities are unmistakable. For a brief second, I really did think she’d been possessed by the crazed theatrical spirit that once haunted Lady Gaga.

Luckily, Jessie Murph could be heard and seen from the artist’s compound, where I sat with Dasha. Not quite recovered from the packed morning, I ate dinner on the beach to the soothing sounds of Cage the Elephant, halfway napping as the sun set, storing up my energy like photosynthesis before the night’s headliner. Back in the pit, Odesza’s crew were strict, but not quite like Lana’s, who kept us out entirely. (For good reason.) They let Jelani and I stand just out of reach of the pyrotechnics and fireworks. Something about the beach did something to the acoustics, the air turning to thick jelly around me. I hadn’t seen them live since I was a teenager, back when my sister and I were obsessed with EDM. She has a kid now, with another on the way. Those days are behind us, but more than anything I missed her as those fireballs nearly singed my eyebrows off. I left early, so nobody could see the tears that welled up behind the lights in my eyes.

In my hotel room the next morning, I contemplated what I should wear for my last day of the festival. I had a maxi dress, but it felt matronly, almost, next to those bikinis. Juliana, my roommate from ELLE, watched as I hacked it into a two piece, a bra and low rise maxi skirt, midriff and chest tattoo completely exposed. (Along with a little underboob, of course.) Hemlocke Springs went first, fantastic as always. I chatted her up later, being a PAPER star and all, at the front of house for Reneé Rapp’s mainstage performance. All Time Low started soon after, and I was only able to catch a few songs, like a brief cover of Hoku’s “Perfect Day.” Blessedly, Tanner Adell’s set was shaded, at least partially, and I quickly scarfed down a snack before the crowd and I whipped into motion at the sight of her. My interview with her can be read here, but it bears repeating: it was a highlight of the trip for me.

Afterward, I dashed to the artist’s bathrooms to clean myself up before that same interview, heading straight from her trailer to Reneé Rapp’s pit, where we were escorted to the front of house with the photographers. I’d never quite gotten around to digging into her discography, but the set left me desperate for more. Beyond the incomparable voice and dynamic stage presence, her charm is captivating, as is the chemistry with her band and relationship to the fans. I gushed about it with the MTV crew, who’d also talked their way into the pit, later on the beach. Our weekends had finally winded down, duties done, and the rest up for our pure enjoyment. They hadn’t spent much of their stipend for the weekend, so we grabbed food and found a spot to camp out for Zach Bryan. That same sister of mine is obsessed with him, and demanded I stay for a few songs. I munched on pizza and recorded videos from our vantage point, absentmindedly making conversation with the guy whose table we took over by accident.

Bryan's appeal is readily apparent, as is my sister’s affinity for him, but more than anything I was stunned by the size of the crowd sprawled out before us. It seemed to stretch endlessly in every direction, dwarfing every other mainstage crowd by a country mile. Dreading the moment when the tension broke, and the last dregs of Hangout Fest washed out to sea, we peeled off, and bid our farewells at the shuttle.

A few nights prior, Sara, Jelani, and Caitlin had talked about Waffle House, and how some of them had never been. I’d chimed in that it was the one sight I needed to see before the weekend was done, and we’d made plans to stop at one before heading back to the airport. Monday was somehow the hottest yet, and we crowded into the rental car, stopping at a beach shack Sara had scoped out on Google. A beleaguered airbrush artist inside solemnly told us he had a wait time, dashing my dreams of a “Cuntry Strong” t-shirt, and settled for a pink hat with an airbrushed mermaid instead. The chaos inside the Waffle House nearby lived up to its reputation, as did the All-Star breakfast platter. Back in the car on the drive to Pensacola, we passed a sign for a thrift store called “The Occasional Wife.” I laughed, my divorce just recently settled, and made the final note of the trip.

After our final goodbyes, I sat alone with myself and my notes until I came to in the backseat of a cab in Philadelphia at 3 AM. I smiled despite the sudden tears, salting the earth as the skyline sprung into view. The spires atop the Comcast Technology Center and One Liberty Place pointed the way home but also back to Alabama. There was still so much I wanted to do, wanted to see. So many places I’ve traveled to for work or otherwise, and I’d somehow stumbled on something truly special, mostly by chance. I never got my airbrush t-shirt, and I didn’t see half of what I wanted, or eat nearly as much, but there’s always next year. Thank god, and Waffle House, and Lana Del Rey. There is always next year.

Photography: Alive Coverage