Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Stagecoach Festival review: Day 2 (evening)

My review originally appeared in the OC Register's Soundcheck blog.
Live photos by David Hall.

"We came to play some high-octane hillbilly music," exclaimed Marty Stuart, at the start of his Stagecoach stint in the Mustang tent late Saturday afternoon. 

Indeed. Stuart and his aptly-named backing trio the Fabulous Superlatives, put on one of day's most enjoyable performances.

The veteran artist, who logged major time as guitarist for Johnny Cash and Flatt & Scruggs, was clad entirely in black (including a scarf) while his cohorts were dressed in matching turquoise suits. If there was a "Best Dressed" award at Stagecoach, they'd be in serious running with Dwight Yoakam's glittering combo. 

Stuart's 2012 effort, Nashville Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down, is highly recommended. Here, they opened with "Stop the World (and Let Me Off)," the guys sizzling right from the get-go. Stuart whooped and hollered as he shared the microphone with guitarist Kenny Vaughn and advised the crowd to "cut it loose; we can take it." 

Several rockabilly-tinged songs boasted stellar group harmonies. "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'" and "This One's Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time)" – both Top 10 hit duets with Travis Tritt – were standouts here, not to mention other country faves like "Tempted" and "Hillbilly Rock." Stuart's dramatic reading of "The Long Black Veil" and ensuing instrumentals (especially a lightning-quick mandolin solo) were riveting. 

An audible, calling out for the theme to television classic Bonanza, was a sheer joy to watch; this man's enthusiasm is simply contagious. But when the band downshifted to allow everyone else to take vocal spotlights (including Stuart's own Country Hall of Famer wife Connie Smith, who had performed on Friday), the previously soaring set lost some momentum. 

Like Stuart, contemporary country songstress Suzy Bogguss (pictured, left) enjoyed major success in the '90s. In 2011 she released American Folk Songbook, which she spotlighted here via some of those quiet acoustic ballads, assisted by two other musicians in the Mustang tent. 

The warm and inviting set included "Outbound Plane," a graceful vocal on "Aces" and some intricate guitar picking during Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone" (Bogguss recorded it with Chet Atkins). She also provided background details on traditional numbers "Careless Love" and "Wayfarin' Stranger," then threw in a few yodels later. 

Acclaimed alt-country musician Justin Townes Earle, son of Steve Earle, has a laid-back style, and that's part of his appeal. Watching the singer-guitarist and his band play a batch of starkly personal songs in Palomino was almost like eavesdropping at times. 

In recent years, Earle has appeared alongside his dad in the HBO drama Treme, produced an album by rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson, and put out the exemplary effort Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, his fifth album, earlier this year. 

Here in Indio, Earle dressed dapper in a white suit. "Look the Other Way" and "Mama's Eyes" went down real easy, while the dreamy electric guitars of "Am I That Lonely Tonight?" and "Harlem River Blues" both worked well.

He explained that the former was "like therapy and coming to terms with your limits," while the latter tune included an admonition not to actually jump in the tributary. (Some diehard fans had apparently done just that, and "I wouldn't want you to get some disease or something.") Other self-described "swampy, greasy" songs inspired by Memphis blues got the best crowd reactions. 

Heading out of the tents to bake in the triple-digit heat, I watched Jana Kramer launch the Mane Stage with an exuberant set. Best known for her acting stint on TV's One Tree Hill, she seemed like a cheerleader onstage. That was probably a good thing – it helped wake people out of their sweaty, mid-afternoon stupor (yours truly included). 

Kramer possesses a serviceable singing voice and her pop/country songs were somewhat engaging. The upbeat "King of Apology," "Good Time Comin' On" and "What I Love About Your Love" all got loud responses from fellow tank-top and short-shorts-wearing gals in the audience. Before mid-tempo ballad "Whiskey," the vocalist even admitted (to cheers) that she and the band previously had a few shots in the tour bus. 

But later an overstuffed medley came off like a train wreck. What she mashed together might explain why: chorus snatches or licks from Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train," Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream," Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks," Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child 'O Mine" and Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'."

Still, she redeemed that poor idea with a rockin' retort to an ex, "I Hope It Rains," and her first radio single, the singalong "Why Ya Wanna."

After finally getting the chance to see Lady Antebellum in concert ay Stagecoach, I was mightily impressed by Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Heywood's group harmonies and comfortable sense of togetherness.

They opened the set with an excellent version of insanely catchy current hit "Downtown" and "Our Kind of Love" simply soared. The title track to forthcoming album Golden and compelling new one "Goodbye Town," made me even more anxious to get 'em this month.

The vocal blends on "Our Kind of Love" and "American Honey" and "I Run to You" were pristine. Lady A's cover of Kenny Chesney's "Back Where I Come From" as well as Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" (a ragged impromptu choice where they were joined by Dierks Bentley) were pleasant surprises.

By the way, these past two days I've noticed a puzzling trend among Mane Stage acts: displaying baby pictures of band members on the big screens. It was a considerable time-waster when Bentley did it Saturday night. Moreover, who cares? 

View more photos by David Hall at

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