Monday, April 28, 2014

Stagecoach Festival 2014 review: Day 1

photo by Robert Kinsler
My review originally appeared in the OC Register.


One surefire way to tell if an artist's set is really cookin' is when an impromptu line dance crops up. Such was the case Friday afternoon during Sam Outlaw's fine set of traditional music on the Mustang stage.

The L.A.-based singer/guitarist (Outlaw is his mother's maiden name) is no stranger to the desert, having shot a music video in Joshua Tree. He cites influences like George Jones and Merle Haggard, and those sources showed amid the memorable song "Kind to Me" (prefaced by an introduction about how "pedal steel is still actually included in some country songs these days") and another tune that found him "going out on a limb to sing a happy love song." Two gals stood on bales of hay in front of the stage to dance before being shooed away by security.

photo by Robert Kinsler
Earlier, the Wild Feathers kicked off the Palomino action with a bang. Playing to in-the-know early birds, the band's highly enjoyable set featured some sizzling guitar work (the racing "Backwoods Company") and cascading multi-part harmonies plus lead vocal change-offs reminiscent of the Band and the early Eagles during "Hard Times" and "Left My Woman." "The Ceiling," another selection from the band's exceptional 2013 self-titled debut, finished everything on a high.

Speaking of great axework, Lindsay Ell (seen below) could give many guys a run for their money. 

The Canadian country singer/guitarist was discovered by Randy Bachman (of the Guess Who), has toured with Buddy Guy and released a pair of albums with another on the way. Without an introduction she launched the Mane Stage rundown, and her performance was an eye-opener, not necessarily for her vocals (which were merely adequate) but for her fast-fingered fretwork on her purple Gibson.

Best examples were the smoldering "State of Emergency" (co-penned by Carolyn Dawn Johnson), rockin' covers of "American Woman" (teased with licks from Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Aerosmith) and Keith Urban's "Who Wouldn't Want to Be Me."

She even did some light-touch hammer-on bits acoustically before the tender ballad "Not Another Me."

Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers, out of San Francisco, brought to mind '70s adult contemporary pop/rock with tunes from their eponymous effort from last year, notably on "Hey Stranger" and another moody one that wouldn't have been out of place on a Fleetwood Mac LP back in the day. The standout from the group's set was a faithful take on the Betty Everett/Linda Ronstadt staple "You're No Good," which gave Bluhm a chance to add vocal grit while her husband Tim (of the Mother Hips) played swelling keyboards.

Acclaimed Austin-based bluegrass performer Sarah Jarosz drew a small crowd to the Mustang with her trio. Songs from last year's solid, Grammy-nominated effort Build Me Up from Bones (like the title track) as well as a cover of Bob Dylan's "Ring Them Bells" were lovely and haunting. 

High tailing it over to the Palomino for the last half of Shelby Lynne's set, I saw the Grammy-winning, Coachella Valley resident bring a little gospel spark to Empire Polo Grounds. Before the luxurious "Road I'm On," she said, "Life takes us on a journey. I'm glad I get to write about it. This is about going to the light." 

Other spiritual-tinged numbers from last year's Thanks EP included the upbeat "Call Me Up" (Ben Peeler supplied tasty lap steel work) and slow groove of "Walkin'." The latter found Lynne bring veteran background vocalist Maxine Waters (spotlighted in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom) to the front of the stage for some call and response action.    

Thomas Rhett's earthy country tunes got a good response from the crowd. "'Round Here," penned for Florida Georgia Line, was described as "my first No. 1 as a songwriter" and performed solo acoustic. Everyone sang along loudly.

High energy hits "It Goes Like This" and "Something to Do with My Hands" also wend down well. Yet I thought the best segment came amid the poignant top 30 ballad "Beer with Jesus."

Then the Georgia native explained "I wrote it in college and it means a lot to me. Listen to the lyrics. If you don't want to, there's a Ferris wheel over there calling your name." He also did a fine take on the patriotic "'Merica," which Kenny Rogers recorded last year.

Many Stagecoach people do crazy things – that's a given – but it's rare to see it happen in the tents during an undercard's performance. Early Friday evening, as the Black Lillies played, a lady decided she wanted to take part of the Mustang stage's decor (an animal skull) and pose for a picture with it. Fortunately, security personnel saw what happened and made sure the item was returned.

And the Americana band from Knoxville, Tenn.? They put on the strongest set I saw in the tents, by far. Led by Cruz Contreras, the quintet mixed honky-tonk, rockabilly, noirish country-rock and more, all with plenty of verve. It brought to mind a similar nightcap here two years ago by a Latino-fronted band that I also couldn't tear myself away from: the Mavericks.

When Contreras sang in tandem with Tricia Brady on the rambunctious "Smokestack Lady" (off last year's Runaway Freeway Blues), the pair nearly channelled the spirit of Johnny and June Carter Cash. "Ruby," about a drug-addicted woman, featured a dramatic vocal delivery, while "Peach Pickin'" and "All This Living" were additional highlights.

Immediately preceding them inside Mustang, Canada's Wailin' Jennys turned in a charming set.

The Juno Award-winning female trio, a regular guest on Garrison Keillor's program A Prarie Home Companion, boasted a friendly repartee. Each took fine turns on lead vocals (soprano, mezzo and alto) and frequently changed instruments. The folk and bluegrass tunes went down well among the moderate-size crowd. Nicky Mehta got people to sing "hallelujah" during "Swing Low, Sail High" and the musicians' harmonies were just plain gorgeous. Other winners included "One Voice" and the jazz-inflected "Cherry Blossom Love."

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