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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Stagecoach Festival review-May 1

A version of my review originally ran in the Register newspaper and can be viewed at ocregister.com/entertainment. Carrie Underwood and k.d. lang photos were taken with my Sony Bloggie Touch. Check out my video introduction below the Vincent pic.

Rhonda Vincent photo by Robert Kinsler
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One of Sunday’s standout sets came early in the afternoon: L.A.-based Truth & Salvage Co., in their second Stagecoach appearance,  kicked off the Palomino Stage proceedings with a strong batch of Americana-leaning tunes from last year’s self-titled debut.

Produced by Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes and featuring contributions from Luther Dickinson and Katy Perry, it brings to mind the best of the Band and the Jayhawks — especially when the four members harmonize together and trade off on lead vocals.

Onstage, the guys were even more earthy and transcendent, most notably during a rustic “Heart Like a Wheel,” “Welcome to L.A.” (my first accordion sighting of the fest), piano-led “101″ (another California-themed travelogue), the breezy, optimistic jam “Rise Up” and the emotional vocals of  “Jump the Ship.” But the gospel-leaning finale, “Pure Mountain Angel,” provided the most goosebumps-inducing moment, when four of the guys combined their voices with only piano accompaniment.  

Leon Russell, who appeared on the same stage later thay night, watched half the set from the wings. No surprise there: this band is definitely one to keep an eye on in the future.

Following them in Palomino was roots-music veteran and SoCal mainstay Rosie Flores, a flower in her hair, playing an aqua-colored electric guitar and backed by members of Big Sandy‘s Fly-Rite Boys (Sandy was slated to join them at the end of the set). She turned in a spunky and fun performance highlighted by songs (like “Chauffeur” and a peppy cover of Johnny Cash‘s “Get Rhythm”) from Girl of the Century, her 2009 collaboration with Mekons leader Jon Langford. On another of that disc’s songs, “This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’,” Flores aptly laid on the stage and played guitar for a bit while kicking her legs in the air.

Patriotism is regularly intertwined with country music. Yet over the weekend there were so many American flags seen around the Empire Polo Grounds (on top of RVs, placed next to Mane Stage denizens’ blankets on the grass, as a clothing and bandana design), it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine it was suddenly Independence Day.

During an evening when our nation rejoiced about a terrorist finally meeting his demise, Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers bookended their enjoyable set, appropriately enough, with “America the Beautiful.”

After a long hiatus, the siblings returned to recording and live appearances with 2009’s Pilgrimage. The enlightening studio release found them mixing their old and new country/gospel songs with narratives and help from Kris Kristofferson, Randy Scruggs and producer John Carter Cash. A 60-song retrospective came out last year. Lately, Larry has also served as a TV commentator on Fox News and subbed for radio personality Don Imus.

The moderate-sized crowd watching The Gatlins at the Palomino Stage witnessed a somewhat shortened set due to previous delays in the tent (Junior Brown’s basically unannounced switch from Sunday to Saturday at that location might’ve had something to do with it; earlier, I talked to some Brown fans who were unaware and disappointed).   

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While Larry didn’t reference the bin Laden takedown directly, he did recall the group performing the standard immediately after 9/11. It was merely a single example of how the veteran trio’s stunning harmonies remain in robust form nearly 40 years down the line. The freewheeling performance was characterized by Larry’s storytelling, good-natured bantering with the crowd, poking fun at the band and several song reprises.

There were old school country hits (“Night Time Magic,” “Houston Means I’m One Day Closer to You,” “I’ve Done Enough Dyin’ Today,” “Denver,” “Broken Lady”), dramatic solo singing spotlights from Larry (“Brothers,” from the soundtrack to 1989 Patrick Swayze flick Next of Kin, “Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall,” recorded by Elvis Presley in 1976), a pair from Pilgrimage (the nationalistic “Americans, That’s Who,” “Johnny Cash is Dead and His House Burned Down”) and their big smash “All the Gold in California” (seen in the above video).

Earlier in the afternoon, Easton Corbin was a real crowd pleaser on the Mane Stage. The appealing Florida newcomer went down well and easy with people relaxing in the mild windy weather, especially on the party-minded “A Lot to Learn About Living” and chart topper “A Little More Country Than That.”

Making my way over to the Mustang Stage, I saw one of the day’s more interesting t-shirt slogans (“I love Sarah Palin”) and found plenty of whooping and hollering directed toward bluegrass master/perennial Grammy winner Ricky Skaggs and his longtime band Kentucky Thunder. The exceptional musicians were picking up a storm on several foot stomping instrumentals such as Bill Monroe’s “Bluegrass Breakdown” and impressing with their high lonesome tenor vocals.  

Here, much like in the other tents at the festival, it didn’t take much prompting for young guys and gals to suddenly get a little boot scooting action going on. Older folk were always content to stay seated on chairs lined up at front of the stages or on bales of hay.  

“It’s a great music establishment here and we appreciate you sponsoring anything in this economy. If y’all didn’t buy tickets, we’d probably be sittin’ at the house, putting on strings or something,” said Skaggs, before providing a mini-history of bluegrass music and launching into the Stanley Brothers’ “Lonesome River."

Taking a more serious turn, Skaggs did the smooth, acoustic guitar-based “Can’t Shake Jesus,” from his 2010 Beatlesque-sounding gospel album Mosaic.

Jack Ingram defines outlaw country. With attitude aplenty, the Texan and his fiery band raised quite a ruckus directly across the way at the packed Palomino. The spiteful “Mustang Burn” and “Keep On Keepin’ On” - where the raspy singer/guitarist held his instrument aloft and stood on the monitors – featured fiery guitar work.

A rousing “One Thing” found Ingram relating a story about watching Bret Michaels’ VH1 reality series “Rock of Love” and wondering why he wasn’t getting the same female action. Before searing country rocker “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke,” he recalled a conversation with Willie Nelson, where the legend was in a chemically enhanced state. That wasn’t the only Red Header Stranger story: on Saturday, the Secret Sisters recalled playing some gigs with him and being pointedly cautioned “not to go on the bus.”  

Later, the chatty musician - who holds the Guinness record for most interviews in a day - recalled early bar band days and hearing his single on a country top 40 radio countdown show for the first time. 

Saving some best known hits for last, “Wherever You Are,” showed Ingram excels even when the volume is decreased, kiss-off tune “Love You” saw him flip the bird at detractors and his boots were stacked atop a mike stand on the crowd stirring, set-ending “Barefoot and Crazy.”

While Carrie Underwood had a majority of Stagecoach attendees’ attention at the Mane Stage, Leon Russell played his blues-based, country rock to the half-filled Palomino. 

I arrived right when the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was finishing his take on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” The silver-maned pianist played the keys with abandon on The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and his thick Southern drawl vocals made his interpretation of “Georgia on My Mind” unique. The crowd went nuts for Russell’s oft-covered signature composition “A Song For You” as well as “Delta Lady.”

It’s been awhile since k.d. lang touched upon her country roots. Excellent new album Sing it Loud with the Siss Boom Bang, is the Canadian’s first with a regular band since the mid-1980s, when she started out with the Reclines. Not exactly a return to that early style, the music is more luxurious in tone, accented by dobro, pedal steel, ukulele and banjo.

Known for possessing one of the most gorgeous female voices in all of modern music, lang held a decent-sized Palomino crowd in rapt attention for the entire hour-long set. Concentrating on graceful and retro-leaning selections from Loud, they didn’t do the sublime take on Talking Heads’ “Heaven” heard on the album, but all of them could definitely be described that way.

Clad in matching black attire and red shirts underneath, the band propelled lang’s dramatic and nuanced vocals with finesse. She had a good time on stage, smiling throughout, making connections and even doing some dancing as the music often swelled to Roy Orbison-esque proportions.

Standouts included opener “I Confess,” “Asleep with No Dreaming,” the shimmering “Water’s Edge,” “I Dream of Spring” (from the deluxe edition of Watershed), understated take on Chris Isaak’s “Western Stars” (off 1988’s Shadowland), glorious cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless,” the Little River Band’s “Reminiscing,” done in a light and breezy fashion, and a rock edged revamp of her big hit “Constant Craving” that worked very well.  

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