A view from Hangout. Photo by Kyle Hannon.

Politically-driven speeches bookended the opening day of Gulf Shores, AL’s first annual Hangout Beach, Music and Arts Festival. Alabama Governor Bob Riley officially kicked off the three-day event with a press conference during which he urged fans to visit Gulf Shores in the wake of the recent oil crisis facing the region. Later in the day, political heir Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, the granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy, introduced the evening’s headlining act Zac Brown Band. Kennedy, who is onsite helping Riverkeeper, discussed the oil spill and spoke out against the big oil companies. Her left-leaning message was met with mixed results. The event’s promoters intend to donate all their profits to coastal conservation and restoration.

Musically, the Hangout got off to a strong start. Billed as the first large-scale music festival on the beach, the event’s two mainstages are located on a long, clean strip of white sand. The Hangout is also built around a huge, partially enclosed restaurant of the same name, allowing concertgoers access in indoor bathrooms and shaded rest areas.

Zac Brown Band headlined the festival’s main Hangout Stage with an extended 135-minute set. The country-jam crossover is currently riding a wave of success thanks to a pair of Grammys and numerous hits on the country charts. His set featured several covers from the classic rock songbook, including Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” and Bob Dylan/The Band’s “I Shall Be Released.” After showing his appreciation for U.S. troops stationed oversees, Brown launched a rendition of “America the Beautiful” that led into his signature songs, “Chicken Fried.” Brown is currently working on a new studio album and thanked the crowd for being “guinea pigs” as he tests out the new batch of songs. He also invited out the members of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band onstage for a grand finale that led into a massive fireworks display. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band then marched into the audience and paraded through the festival grounds.

The day’s musical offerings featured a mix of Americana, singer/songwriter and jamband talents. The Black Crowes’ farewell tour continued with a 75-minute greatest hits set that included classics like “Jealous Again,” “She Talks To Angels,” “Hard To Handle” and “Remedy.” Crowes guitarist Luther Dickinson also played an additional set with his brother Cody and an auxiliary drummer/keyboardist as the North Mississippi Allstats Duo. The three musicians played a more rhythmic, aggressive variation of the North Mississippi Allstars’ signature blues sound that occasionally recalled the Dickinson Brothers’ punk roots. Luther Dickinson also reminded the crowd that he and Cody used to play in the area as a duo in their younger days and name-checked a few of their old haunts. Across the beach on the Verizon Stage, longtime NMA collaborator Robert Randolph performed with his own Family Band. Though Randolph is preparing for the release of his new album We Walk This Road, the pedal steel guitarist focused on his earlier compositions, including “The March.” He also revealed backstage that he recently recorded on the new Elton John/Leon Russell album.

Later in the day, Allison Krauss & Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas played a beautiful set of bluegrass and Americana as the sun faded over the beach and a light breeze moved through the festival. Concurrently Girl Talk offered his trademark hyper mix of urban beats and uber-short samples on the Playstation stage, which is located in a converted, concrete parking lot. Both performances drew large crowds—especially Girl Talk, whose set was easily the largest of any sidestage act throughout the day. Both performers also nodded to the jam-scene’s forefathers: Girl Talk sampled the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones,” while Douglas referenced the Allman Brothers Band’s “Little Martha” during an extended solo.

Other highlights included an afternoon set by newly trim singer/songwriter Brett Dennen and a late night performance by Big Gigantic that included a cover of the theme from How to Make it in America. Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jeff Austin also played a set of covers and originals with the Keels as Jeff Austin & Friends. The Hangout will continue this afternoon.