Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Stagecoach Festival review: Day 1 (evening)

My review originally appeared in the OC Register's Soundcheck blog.

photo by David Hall

If there were any questions about differences between Stagecoach and Coachella, some obviously inebriated guys spelled them out beside me while waiting for Jeff Bridges to take the stage early Friday evening. 

"The girls are 90 percent hotter here," one said. "Coachella is a drug weekend; this is a get-drunk-and-party weekend," another one chimed in. "I just left Old Crow Medicine Show because I'm gonna be a few feet away from Jeff Bridges. It's so cool!" 

Never underestimate the power of The Dude.

Surely, the popularity of that Bridges character in the Coen brothers' cult classic The Big Lebowski helped draw a large crowd to the Palomino tent. His best actor Oscar win for playing washed-up country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart was probably another lure. 

Performing rootsy rock and country songs from his recent self-titled album with Santa Barbara-based backing band the Abiders (a Lebowski reference, if you missed it), Bridges received a hero's welcome the minute he appeared. 

The actor/singer was in a good mood throughout the spirited set, continually giving props to the songwriters of each song he performed, while switching from acoustic to electric guitar. Right before "What a Little Bit of Love Can Do," Bridges related how he first met a lot of music friends while shooting Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino's eviscerated epic from 1980. The shimmering, reverb-laden dual electric guitars on the tune made it an early highlight. "Maybe I Missed the Point," immediately after, was equally strong. 

A good-natured spiel about charity work on behalf of a children's hunger campaign was ignored by a good portion of the indifferent crowd. Bridges' frequently grizzled vocals often recalled Kris Kristofferson (a partial influence on Blake), and all the musicians sounded tight – the accordion player really got a good workout.

Their upbeat cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Looking Out My Back Door" got a rousing response, as did the introspective, pedal-steel-driven ballad "The Weary Kind," an Oscar-winning selection from the Crazy Heart soundtrack penned by Ryan Bingham and producer T-Bone Burnett. 

Another crowd-pleaser: "The Man in Me," the Dylan song prominently used in Lebowski, although you could tell not everyone knew the reference when he tried to get them to group-sing its "la-la-la" refrain. 

Having followed Roger McGuinn's fascinating Storytellers-esque career overview on the same stage, Bridges enthused about talking to the Byrds legend, then recalled ditching class in high school during 1967's Summer of Love. He closed with a raucous take on that group's "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star."

photo by David Hall
The Little Willies, the smart lounge-meets-Americana band featuring Norah Jones and some New York City musicians (a few are from her own regular group and pictured, left), released a debut album in 2006 and a solid follow-up last year, both of which went Top 10 on the Billboard country chart.

Up against Hank Williams Jr. on the Mane stage, however – and perhaps with most attendees unaware of Jones' involvement – they drew a small audience at the Palomino. 

Playing piano and sharing lead vocals with guitarist Richard Julian, Jones was nonetheless all smiles throughout the winsome set. Opening with a high-energy "I Worship You," punctuated by unusual, back-and-forth tempo changes, the band then put a sophisticated spin on Kristofferson's "Best of All Possible Worlds," plus Willie Nelson's "I Gotta Get Drunk" and "Night Life." 

Jones took lead on a haunting cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene"; her casual reading of Leiber & Stoller's Elvis Presley smash "Love Me" earlier in the set fit like a glove. Several couples danced around together near the stage as a romantic full moon brightly lit the sky behind the stage. 

"I don't think I've ever seen so many cowboy hats in my life," Jones noted, before the Little Willies' slow, deliberate version of Johnny Cash's "Delia's Gone." Other standouts in the hour-long set included "Streets of Baltimore," the smoky duet "Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves" and a rambunctious "If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)." 

Earlier in the afternoon, I arrived at the Mane Stage just as Maggie Rose, who used to sing in a Springsteen cover band, was indulging a lengthy introduction of her band, coupled with various classic rock and R&B snippets. It seemed to last an eternity. 

Still, she made up for any lag time with the feisty, tell-it-like-it-is tune "I Ain't Your Mama," a Top 40 country single off her 2013 debut Cut to Impress that came across strongly. So did the self-described "murder mystery" lyrics of "Preacher's Daughter." The fictional country-rock story based on Rose's own experience bore shades of Carrie Underwood's "Two Black Cadillacs." 

She ably displayed a quieter side on the organ- and violin-sweetened ballad "Better," and the sinewy groove amid a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" suited Rose's attitude-laden delivery.

View more photos by David Hall at 

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