Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Stagecoach Festival 2012 review: Friday

My review originally ran on

After spending last weekend at Coachella, walking back inside the Empire Polo Field for this year’s Stagecoach festival mid-afternoon Friday was sort of like déjà vu. Then again, maybe not; there are plenty of distinct differences.

Although the attendance level was capped at a lower level (about 55,000) than its rock- and dance-skewing cousin (which packs in at least 20,000 more), the sprawling layout – with a large reserved-seating section jutting out from the primary Mane Stage and seemingly endless rows of people on blankets and lawn chairs behind it – made everything seem much larger.

Only a handful of acts performed on Day 1, so it was a more relaxed atmosphere. I headed over to one of the food court areas, but the BBQ food vendors were doing minimal business; one worker used a megaphone to try to entice people to partake in his supposedly delightful brisket. The beer garden was a different story – lines were long. As gals in skimpy bikinis looked on, shirtless guys in various types of cowboys hats sat at picnic tables, spat tobacco and argued good-naturedly about moves in the latest NFL draft.

The Half Pint Hootenanny kids space had some little tykes trying out crafts and playing games (a female Scoutmaster and a boy were engaged in a floor version of checkers) while a performer sang simple, innocent tunes. Today, country veteran Johnny Lee’s daughter is appearing there with Dallas TV star Charlene Tilton.

By evening, Alabama surfaced for a rare Southern California appearance. One of the most successful and lauded bands in country music history, they went on a farewell tour early last decade but reunited a few years later for sporadic benefit shows down south. More recently, Alabama put out a pair of inspirational albums and guested on tracks by Friday’s headliner Jason Aldean and Sunday’s closer Brad Paisley.

In Indio, the core trio of singer/guitarist Randy Owen, guitarist/fiddler Jeff Cook and bassist Teddy Gentry were joined by five auxiliary musicians. Together they made a full-bodied sound and still managed to reach the classic harmonies of yore, although at times their sound came across wavering and muted, hampered by persistent winds.

During the ’70s and ’80s, Alabama scored dozens of No.1 country singles and a handful of pop chart crossovers. For those who grew up in those decades, the music is probably ingrained in their minds, whether they realize it or not. But the crowd in my vicinity were more concerned with chatting than actually listening to the music – another difference from Coachella.

Owen said they came more than 2,000 miles to party with everyone and launched the set with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddler).” Steve Peffer’s spirited honky-tonk piano led off “Tennessee River,” which quickly increased in tempo via Cook’s feisty fiddle work. Many young people suddenly paid attention when Peffer did some barrelhouse playing on a fine medley of “Dixieland Delight/Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Before “Song of the South,” Owen related an anecdote about old family squabbles over the best vehicles; when he mentioned Chevy pickups, there were loud cheers. Then, before “High Cotton,” the singer pointed out how he once picked that material, and was indeed wearing it.

Longtime enthusiasts were treated to one rousing hit after another: “Love in the First Degree,” the warmly romantic “Feels So Right,” mildly rocking “She & I,” “The Closer You Get.” Owen had no problem on the sustained vocal note in the Allman Brothers-esque “My Home’s in Alabama.” 

Finally they closed with the stomping hoedown of “Mountain Music,” where the steadily increasing tempo and Cook’s fine fiddle work were handled with ease.

Headliner Aldean turned in a consistently rocking country set that found more favor with younger members in the audience. Booming drums and blaring guitars were at the crux of “Johnny Cash,” and the first major singalong came with “Big Green Tractor.” A glitch in clear projections on the big screens, however, made things difficult for those watching from afar.
“My favorite band in the world just played,” said Aldean, referencing Alabama.

“Crazy Town” received an enthusiastic response, as some impromptu line dancing broke out around me. If not for a little pedal steel in selected songs, it would be easy to mistake the singer/guitarist’s music for that of a regular rock band’s. His big hit duet with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” featured the female star on a video screen to accompany him, though those who weren’t paying close attention could have mistaken her for actually being there in person. It went down a storm.

Aldean’s “My Kinda Party” could be an unofficial anthem for Stagecoach, while his main set was capped with the booming drums of the thunderous “She’s Country.” He returned for encores with “Dirt Road Anthem” and a few more before calling it a night. All told, his meat ‘n’ potatoes sound was played and sung proficiently, finishing off a solid sampler before a complete country music lineup today.

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