Thursday, May 5, 2011

Stagecoach Festival review-April 30

A version of my review originally ran in the Register newspaper and can be viewed at The first two photos were taken with my Sony Bloggie Touch MHS-TS10.

Experiencing the 2011 Stagecoach country music festival, after doing the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival two weeks prior at the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, Calif., is a study in contrasts. 

Though the attendance level at Stagecoach is roughly 55,000 (compared to 75,000 at Coachella), it seems like a whole lot more. People arrive earlier and stake their claim to a prime spot on the field adjacent to the Mane stage with their chairs and blankets behind the huge reserved seating section.

For those who want to sample the equally stellar action on two smaller stages throughout the day, it’s nearly impossible to have a decent view of the top tier action from late afternoon onward. 

Another key difference between the festivals is that alcohol consumption appears to begin at sunrise for many folks at Stagecoach. While waiting in a long, slow line of traffic getting into the venue and making a lengthy trek to the entrance, every other group of festivalgoers hauled 12-packs of beer and ice chests around (where they would actually be able to imbibe was a mystery). I saw plenty of young women pass by in matching American flag bikinis or the same color t-shirts to promote their organizations.
There are polite musicians in every music genre, but country acts here tended to ask “do you mind if I play a new song?, rather than stating what they’re going to do next like the rock, rap, hip-hop and dance ones do. Since both children and grandparents are among the  Stagecoach concertgoers, a friendlier all-around attitude is also present. One older woman could be heard exuberantly greeting her “neighbor” as she spread out a big blanket on the grass.

Later, while sitting on a bale of hay in the Mustang Stage, two young guys inquired whether they could move one clump beside me (I’m sure the sound crew didn’t like their barriers being taken apart). 

Come nightfall, the Empire Polo grounds didn’t have quite the same magical luster as it does during Coachella with more brightly lit art installations, skylights, balloons, etc. Still, there was plenty to savor on Saturday - and I’m not talking about the wealth of barbeque competition delights either.

The Cleverlys came armed with a few lessons when they helped kicked off Stagecoach proceedings about an hour ago on the Mustang stage. The first? Pop hits adapt extremely well into bluegrass numbers. Another was that a little down-home humor goes a long way toward making a set enjoyable.

Hailing from the Ozark Mountains, the family band just made its SoCal debut here in Indio. Opening with a couple fast-paced instrumentals, lead singer/acoustic guitarist Digger Cleverly initially cautioned the crowd to “stay away from the blue acid,” then noted their preferred music style is done in the manner of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. Everyone sitting inside the tent on bales of hay cheered loudly when the Cleverlys tore into a spirited cover of the Black Eyed Peas‘ “I Gotta Feeling.”

A funny original song “about a dead friend’s funeral” found the quintet singing dolefully about a “girl with no pantylines” and briefly taking off their cowboy hats in tribute. Digger laughed to himself before a relaxed cover of Shaggy‘s “Angel,” nailing the toasting bits in a Southern drawl while the musicians played tightly and harmonized in unison. Later, feisty versions of the Zombies‘ “She’s Not There,” Cee-Lo‘s “Forget You” and Beyonce‘s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” went over well with several scantily-clad cowgirls who danced around in circles.

Former Nickel Creek singer/mandolinist Chris Thile and his progressive bluegrass band the Punch Brothers amazed a small crowd at the Mustang with several dazzling displays of instrumental dexterity.

Starting with “Watch at Breakdown,” from his How to Build a Woman from the Ground solo CD, the quintet frequently recalled Dave Matthews Band in the way they locked into an extended passage and wove the sounds into a rapturous tapestry. A spirited take on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Brakeman’s Blues” found Thile playing the life out of his mini-stringed instrument, doing a sustained falsetto vocal note and some yodeling. The Gillian Welch/David Rawlings-penned “Wayside” was a standout. Other songs, like the edgy, keening violin-led “You Are,” the playful, harmony-rich “Next to the Trash,” Dixieland jam vibe of “Don’t Need No” (sung by fiddler Gabe Witcher) and festive hoedown closer, “Rye Whiskey,” from last year’s Antifogmatic fared particularly well. 

Over at the Palomino Stage, the Secret Sisters provided delightful doses of old school country and rock ‘n’ roll music. As an opening act, the duo usually performs with just acoustic guitars, but Stagecoach fans got treated to a full band performance. Their charming 2010 self-titled debut was executive produced by T Bone Burnett and recorded using vintage equipment. As a result, the songs sound like they could’ve been done in the late 1950s. Live, they replicated it wonderfully.

The Rogers sisters chatted with the audience like they were relaxing in a coffeehouse. “We don’t have deserts like this in Alabama; I thought it would be all cactus and sand,” said Laura, as sister Lydia smiled widely and the heavy winds blew inside the tent (later, commenting on the weather, the former opined that Carrie Underwood’s lovely hair probably doesn’t get messed up like theirs did).

“I’ve Got a Feeling” showcased the pair’s supple harmonies alongside reverb-drenched electric guitar. A stripped-down “Why Worry” was still beautiful in its simplicity. Hank Williams’ “Why Don’t You Love Me” positioned the Sisters as the female Everly Brothers.

Finger-snapping covers of “Ring of Fire,” George Jones’ “Why Baby Why” and Buck Owens’ “My Heart Skips a Beat” were totally fun. But the singers also impressed with graceful piano-based original ballad “Tennessee Me” and the angelic vocal trills of gospel standard “In the Sweet By and Bye.” Hope they return to SoCal in the near future.

Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell (pictured left, in 2008) rarely plays live in the region, so he was definitely one of my must-see acts at Stagecoach. I was not disappointed. Once a member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and ex-husband/musical collaborator to Roseanne Cash, his tunes have been covered by hundreds of country, pop and rock artists (Bob Seger, Juice Newton, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Lee Ann Womack, to name a few) for more than three decades.

Unlike Crowell’s late ‘80s heyday, when the album Diamonds and Dirt spawned several country chart toppers, his last few releases have delved into more nuanced, roots rock and Adult Alternative music territory.

At the Palomino, he kicked off the lively set with the jaunty “Stars on the Water,” from 1981’s eponymous effort. Simmering organ and smart, rapid-fire lyrical wordplay characterized the more recent Fate’s Right Hand, which was extended with a moody, Dire Straits-type coda.    

Longtime guitarist (and sometimes Crowell producer) Will Kimbrough absolutely smoked on the latter song, not to mention Lightning Hopkins’ bluesy “Come Back Baby” (loved that billowy organ sound) and the Nashville Teens’ Sixties rock hit “Tobacco Road, where everyone kicked out the jams and did some great harmonizing.

Crowell didn’t do much talking, except to explain that the romantic ballad “Making Memories of Us” - which Keith Urban had a No. 1 hit with - was written with the intention of getting current wife Claudia in the mood for love. That prompted squeals from the cowgirls beside me.

Other highlights included older selections like "Stars on the Water," "Old Pipeliner," the more recent, affecting “Learning How to Fly,” smart and sexy rocker “Say You Love Me,” plus a rollicking “Like a Rolling Stone.” Crowell had a mighty good time singing all of Dylan’s verses and engaging the audience in some call and response action. I’m sure the drunken guys at the side of the stage hoisting their beers didn’t really know the lyrics and were actually singing gibberish.

Darius Rucker has had no problem parlaying his ‘90s pop/rock success with Hootie & the Blowfish into an equally fruitful country solo career (six top 5 singles to date). By the time his 7:45 p.m. set rolled along on the Mane Stage, many people had been drinking alcohol for half the day. As a result, some of them paid little attention to the music and used it as a soundtrack to their crazy and obnoxious shenanigans.

That was a shame, because Rucker put on a solid, enjoyable set filled with warm, good time tunes. “Alright” found fans dutifully singing along loudly and the vocalist admitted he’d be happy to sing “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” for the rest of his life. 

“This was the first country song I ever wrote,” he explained, before delving into Hootie’s “Let Her Cry.” The ballads “I Got Nothin“ and “It Won’t Be Like This For Long” found multiple cowboy-hatted couples slow dancing along. Two other Hootie hits (“Only Wanna Be With You,” “Hold My Hand”) got twangy revisions with added lap steel, violin and mandolin. “Family Tradition,“ a rowdy ode to hedonism by Hank Williams Jr., fit well in this environment. Recent radio faves “This” and “Come Back Song” went down a storm. Finally, Rucker closed with a soulful rocking cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” complete with the iconic electric guitar solo at the end.

Kenny Chesney has been one of America’s top touring draws for most of the past decade.  Watching him perform on the Mane Stage showed why: the country superstar can engage and command large crowds like few other artists in the genre. The 90-minute set at Stagecoach was mostly a hit-packed, high energy affair.

After some intro music including Sammy Hagar’s “Mas Tequila” and the usual brief welcome film showing Chesney and friends living it up on exotic beaches, the band kicked into an extended Who-like intro for “Live a Little,” from latest album Hemingway’s Whiskey. The sound mix was a bit muted to start, but quickly gained clarity as the set progressed. Chesney constantly worked both sides of the stage and high fived fans in front of the stage as his tight band delved into one supercharged number after another (“Summertime,” “Beer in Mexico,” “Big Star,” “Living in Fast Forward”), included resonant life reminisces (“I Go Back,” “Young”) and more contemplative numbers (“Anything But Mine,” “Somewhere With You,” “How Forever Feels,” “Never Wanted Nothing More”).

A mass exodus of concertgoers started about a half hour before the end. They ended up missing fine versions of “When the Sun Goes Down” (the loping reggae groove comes across better without Uncle Kracker’s vocals), the elegant change of pace “The Boys of Fall,” with scenes and audio from the aforementioned docs and usual rambunctious finale, “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.”

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