Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Stagecoach Festival 2012 review: Sunday

photo by Robert Kinsler

My review originally appeared at 

Once I returned for the third day of Stagecoach, my first order of business was to catch the reunion of the Unforgiven. Hailing from the Inland Empire, the cowpunk band attained a cult following during the mid-’80s, played Willie Nelson’s early Farm Aid events and put out one major-label record before calling it quits.

Lead singer/guitarist Steve Jones later helped form Hollywood Records; another guitarist, Johnny Hickman, went on to great success in Cracker, but for unknown reasons opted not to participate in this regrouping.

Goldenvoice head honcho Paul Tollett used to book the group when he promoted small IE shows and was key in getting them back together for the first time in 25 years at Stagecoach. I noticed the company’s Bill Fold and Skip Paige turned up to catch a few songs.

Clad almost entirely in black, several members of the sextet even wore black hats and trench coats — just like the old days. Grappling with the usual muddled mix in the Palomino tent, the Unforgiven persevered with trademark gang vocals and blaring guitar riffs. Alan Waddington looked like a kid in a candy store back behind his drum kit.

“Some of us haven’t been on friendly terms over the years, so our rehearsals were like therapy,” noted Jones, early in the loud, rousing set. “All Is Quiet on the Western Front” featured an extended jam; “Roverpack” boasted a duel between the axemen; “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” had stinging solos, plus Jones’ comments about wisdom coming with age; “Hang ‘Em High” could’ve been on the soundtrack to a classic Western film for more reasons than its title.

Before the strident, anthemic “Days Like These” (a Jones-penned AOR hit for Asia), the raspy-throated frontman related an interesting story about meeting Kris Kristofferson. For the finisher “I Hear the Call,” a flute player and seven young members of the Inand Empire Drum Brigade appeared onstage to give the performance a patriotic, percussive bonanza conclusion.

photo by Robert Kinsler
Fashion statements aplenty – for better and worse – were made over this long weekend at Stagecoach.

Most were of the patriotic or revealing varieties, but then there was the elderly woman I stumbled upon while passing through the Mustang tent. Looking a little like Minnie Pearl, she sported a wide-brimmed, flower-festooned hat and sat next to a bicycle with matching large sunflower attached. I inquired about the origins of both and was told the bright yellow garden plants came courtesy of a man in the nearby kids space, the Half-Pint Hootenanny. Neat.

Aaron Lewis really packed ‘em in at Palomino, and some very excited young ladies stood atop bales of hay to get a better view. The heavily-tattooed Staind frontman unofficially filled the “outlaw country” slot that Mike Ness and Shooter Jennings assumed here previously. 

Given his overlapping fan base, he easily could have done double-duty at Coachella and Stagecoach, though some regular attendees of the former fest might cringe at the thought.
Here, a seated Lewis performed on acoustic guitar, accompanied by a lap and pedal steel player.

Having already made inroads at country radio with last year’s Town Line EP and hit single “Country Boy,” he will follow that with a full-length solo effort, The Road, due in June. I’ve heard the solid collection and there are sure to be more country charting singles in the months ahead.

Hard living and trucker tales populate some of the lyrics, all eliciting hearty cheers from this Indio crowd. Prime examples were “Grandaddy’s Gun” (co-penned by Rhett Akins), where the baritone Lewis sang “a gun’s like a woman / It’s all in how you hold her,” and “State Lines,” in which the line about “carrying contraband” met with equal approval.

There was a massive singalong during Staind’s big hit “Outside,” while the latest single “Endless Summer” contained a carefree, almost Kenny Chesney vibe and “Lessons Learned” found Lewis intoning “appreciate the little things life provides for you.” Well-put.

Across the way in the Mustang tent, a sparse crowd witnessed acclaimed bluegrass band the Grascals. Specializing in the high lonesome sound Ricky Skaggs helped popularize, they performed with dextrous ease. Besides “You Can Mark It Down,” they served up a sweet take on Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” and a Hank Williams Jr. medley comprised of “Born to Boogie” and “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.” Now that was unexpected.

Staking out my closest vantage point to the Mane Stage all weekend for Martina McBride (not that I’m a big fan, it was mostly due to timing and circumstances), I spotted security guys emerging from the reserved seating section with a naked female blow-up doll, which they promptly deflated while chuckling about it amongst themselves.

McBride turned in a terrific performance that ranged from sultry grooves (“Wrong Baby Wrong Baby Wrong”) and family-centric themes (“Teenage Daughters”) to warm, poignant ballads (“I’m Gonna Love You Through It,” “Marry Me”). She even did some harmonica blasts. What a voice.

Kenny Rogers was such a heavy draw at Palomino that he could have – and should have – been on the Mane Stage like Alabama before him on Friday night. Why not have made time for him, say, right before Sheryl Crow?

Lately, the country legend has had a prominent live and television profile while helping promote old pal Lionel Richie’s chart-topping country covers collection Tuskegee; they do the Richie-penned “Lady,” which Rogers reached No. 1 with in the early ’80s. This year marks the Gambler’s 50th year as a recording artist, and at 73, he remains in admirable vocal form, the only real trouble during his set coming amid an attempt on John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.”

The Stagecoach audience gave Rogers a hero’s welcome, and though I’ve seen his comedic concert schtick in recent years, it continues to be funny. Backed by a slick seven-piece band, the singer’s claim of providing “hit after hit” wasn’t technically true, but there were enough pop and country staples (“Lucille,” “Lady,” “Coward of the County”) to satisfy even the most casual fans, as well as Big Lebowski lovers who delighted in hearing his old First Edition psych-pop classic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).”

Those who have attended a Rogers gig in recent years saw a set that was pretty much the same. Yet audible sighs from several ladies in my vicinity could be heard at the start of a ballad medley, and the singalongs were among the loudest I’d heard at the festival. People in front got to be part of the proceedings after Rogers handed them tambourines for the closer, “Islands in the Stream.”

It was another memorable live turn, one of several from this past weekend. But I’d still give my top nod to the Mavericks, whose display of musicianship Saturday evening was top-notch.

Setlist: Kenny Rogers at Stagecoach Day 3, April 29, 2012 
Love or Something Like It / It’s a Beautiful Life / If You Want to Find Love / Medley: Through the Years > You Decorated My Life > She Believes in Me / Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town / The Greatest / Coward of the County / Daytime Friends / Buy Me a Rose / Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) / Love the World Away / ‘Ol Red / We’ve Got Tonight / Have a Little Faith in Me / The Gambler / Lucille / Lady / Islands in the Stream

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