Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Stagecoach Festival 2012 review: Saturday

photo by Robert Kinsler

My review originally appeared at 

I arrived here early for Day 2 of Stagecoach, providing ample time to watch people with chairs line up strategically in hopes of securing a prime spot at the Mane Stage once gates opened.

While they scrambled, I leisurely headed out to the Palomino tent, where many of the best acts are scheduled, and immediately found a bale of hay to sit down on.

The stage is adorned with wagon wheels and animal skulls — definitely a cool touch. For the first performance of the afternoon, onetime Nickel Creek singer/fiddler Sara Watkins held court in the shade, with support from a bassist and her brother Sean (both pictured above) on backing vocals and guitar.

They debuted several charming new songs from Sara’s upcoming album Sun Midnight Sun.

Standouts included the sprightly “You and Me” … “Lock and Key,” characterized by subtle violin shadings and intricate acoustic guitar picking … a tension-filled, Dan Wilson-penned “When It Pleases You,” with Sara banging on a lone drum … and an upbeat, strummy take on Willie Nelson’s “I’m a Memory.”

After noting that she used to constantly listen to her mother’s old cassette of Linda Ronstadt’s Greatest Hits as a child, Sara sang a sweet version of the Stone Ponys’ “Different Drum.” It got a very enthusiastic response from the moderate- sized crowd. 

Overall, a breath of fresh air.

More great sibling harmony continued at the same spot with the very entertaining McEuen Sessions. Led by John McEuen, masterful string player and founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the trio features his two sons on guitars and vocals. Their solid album release together, For All the Good, came out a few weeks ago.

Quite the entertainer, John told plenty of humorous career anecdotes throughout the set while spotlighting dexterous folk- and bluegrass-accented tunes like “Hills of Sylmar” (I enjoyed the lyrics about the Ronald Reagan freeway), “Grand Design,” the title track and a smooth version of Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band.”

But the highlights were a winsome medley of “Sunny Side of Life” and the old Dirt Band hit “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” plus Prince’s “Kiss” done bluegrass-style, complete with Jonathan’s high falsetto.

When a band is genuinely having a good time onstage, the feeling quickly transfers to the audience as well. That was definitely the case Saturday night during the Mavericks' (pictured, below) first public concert in nine years, a jewel of a Stagecoach booking that also served as the initial stop on the band’s North American reunion tour.

From the ’90s through to the early 2000s, the highly eclectic group amassed both a platinum- and gold-selling album; several Grammy, ACM and CMA awards; and placed more than a dozen singles on the country charts. Yet the quartet – lead vocalist and guitarist Raul Malo, lead guitarist and backing vocalist Eddie Perez, bassist Robert Reynolds and drummer Paul Deakin – should have gone on to much bigger success.

photo by Robert Kinsler
With any luck, their new studio album, due this fall on Valory Music Co. (home to Reba, Jewel and others), will be met with open arms.

If the handful of fresh songs debuted in Indio – notably the captivating single “Born to Be Blue” – are any indication of what the remainder holds, that won’t be a problem.

Despite a middling mix on the Palomino stage that found them blaring at arena-level volume, the expanded lineup of horns, an accordionist and keyboards still created a glorious sound for a medium-sized yet enthusiastic crowd of faithful devotees.

Both Deakin and Malo were all smiles, and the latter’s robust voice was a godsend on old favorites like “Pretend,” “There Goes My Heart,” “What a Crying Shame,” a subtly gorgeous take on Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” and the wonderful main set-closer, “Dance the Night Away.” (Couples could frequently be seen doing exactly that.)

Perez’s chiming electric work and Deakin’s inspired style brought everything to a whole new level. The Mavericks encored with a fun, extended version of their biggest single, the Tex Mex-leaning “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down.” This was the best thing I’ve seen at Stagecoach so far; wonder if anything can top it.

Out on the Mane Stage shortly before the Mavericks’ turn across the field, Luke Bryan kept the festival’s party atmosphere alive with good-time tunes that went over especially well among the overly inebriated. Loud cheers were heard after the hunky Georgia native boasted he still had a hangover after watching Jason Aldean and Alabama from the reserved seating section on Friday.

Emerging to the sound of a storm, Bryan and his band opened with his No. 1 country single “Rain Is a Good Thing” and asked people if they were ready to “get frisky.” The gregarious singer gave an exuberant delivery on other major hits, including “Country Man,” the chunky rock of guitar-driven “Someone Else Calling You Baby” and the metal-tinged hunting track “Drinkin’ Beer & Wastin’ Bullets.”

Trying to avoid having brew spilled on me as a gaggle of women in American flag-festooned bikinis hoisted their drinks in the air, I spotted one with a red Solo cup photo actually attached to her outfit. She must be a big Toby Keith fan, or was simply getting super drunk.

Earlier in the afternoon, celebrated singer, songwriter and actor J.D. Souther, whose tunes have been covered by countless musicians over the past 40 years (most notably the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt), turned in a relaxed set inside the Palomino.

The music vet was accompanied by a bassist playing an upright and a keyboardist on a black grand piano.

His often hilarious between-song banter encompassed preferred song topics (“sex, death and political history”); a visit to one of Levon Helm‘s Barn Rambles in Woodstock shortly before the Band drummer died about 10 days ago; going on a long vacation but returning to find that a song placement on a Dixie Chicks album had sold millions (“they suddenly became my new favorite band”); and a recent acting gig where he had to grow his hair (“I was supposed to be a hoodlum redneck”).

The music? A mixed bag. Many selections were done in the jazzy, adult contemporary vein of his 2008 comeback effort If the World Was You and last year’s Natural History, for which the fragile-voiced Souther re-imagined songs spanning his entire career.

A feisty “House of Pride” bore the closest resemblance to anything remotely related to country music. The quiet “I’ll Take Care of You” (the Dixie Chicks did it on Wide Open Spaces) got a good crowd response, as did Souther’s self-described “New Orleans version” of “Heartache Tonight,” plus another Eagles classic (“Best of My Love,” so old “my nieces think it’s a folk song”) and his own Orbison-styled hit from 1979, “You’re Only Lonely.”

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