Monday, April 28, 2014

Stagecoach Festival 2014 review: Day 2

My review originally appeared in the OC Register


Given its three male headliners - Friday opener Eric Church, Saturday star Jason Aldean and Sunday closer Luke Bryan - and the nature of their music, some people have dubbed this testosterone-heavy edition of Stagecoach the "Bro-Down."

Dan + Shay definitely fit that description as well. The latest hit-making duo in country music emerged Saturday afternoon on the Mane Stage with energy galore, calling out party references and urging early birds to make some noise several times.

But the crowd standing directly in front (far larger than Friday at the same time) needed no prodding; a bunch of young cowgirls shrieked loudly from the moment Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney appeared.
A few weeks ago, their album Where it All Began debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's country albums chart and the single "19 You & Me" went Top 10. Here in Indio, the hunky guys emerged in black jackets, then the good-time tunes flowed like gravy.

Constantly working both sides of the stage or singing side by side, their chemistry couldn't be denied, particularly during "Somewhere Only We Know," which lyrically name-checked Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" (an acoustic cover showcasing a fine harmony blend followed), "Stop Drop & Roll" and the soaring current hit, during which Dan + Shay sang "you were California beautiful" and drew cheers.
Right before them, Sara Haze (below) started the Mane stage with a thoroughly pleasant blend of country-pop. The Lake Forest native has placed her songs with major acts (the next arrives next month on Rascal Flatts' new effort) and is set to open for Little Big Town this summer at the OC Fair. Her acoustic set here featured a mandolin player and guitarist.

"I've been to Stagecoach many times and am happy to play here," she said excitedly before the upbeat "Handcuffs."

Highlights included a spunky "Warpaint," the poignant life lessons of "Hand Me Down" (inspired by her family, whow were in attendance) and "Famous," the latest hit for one of Friday's Mane performers, Kelleigh Bannen. 

A large number of people here with general-admission access stake spots early in the day at Stagecoach and never move. That leaves plenty of downtime, especially for older folk who aren’t constantly chugging down beers.

Late Saturday afternoon, one woman in the Palomino tent bided her time by knitting a hat while sitting on a bale of hay. Those makeshift seats became a hot commodity by the time acclaimed Americana singer-songwriter Jason Isbell and his band the 400 Unit performed there.

The former guitarist for Drive-By Truckers made plenty of critics’ best-of lists last year with his frequently captivating album Southeastern. Next fall, he’s doing three nights (two are sold out) at the 2,300-capacity Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Like country legend Rodney Crowell and alt-rocker Josh Ritter, Isbell has a knack for crafting vivid, highly personal lyrics that cut to the quick. I’d only seen him perform via a pair of recent PBS specials, so this was my first opportunity to catch the Alabama native live. Definitely not a disappointment: his 50-minute set was the best thing I saw on Day 2.

photo: Eric England
Rootsy opener “Flying Over Water” saw Isbell serve up the first of several tasteful solos. Second guitarist Sadler Vaden provided sweet backing vocals on “Stockholm” and others, while “Outfit,” penned for his father, and “Cover Me Up,” which touches on sexual abuse, were just plain riveting. Isbell moved from whispered to wailing vocals, Vaden offered up great slide guitar work – and several shirtless guys in white cowboy hats whooped and hollered as the latter song reached a crescendo.

Another fine touch: Isbell’s between-song banter came peppered with self-deprecating humor. Other standouts included “Alabama Pines” and the lean, early-’70s Stones vibe of “Go It Alone” and “Super 8” (as in “I don’t wanna die” in one).

Dashing out to the Mane stage, I arrived right when Ashley Monroe acknowledged marijuana smoke and recalled co-writing "Heart Like Mine" with Miranda Lambert before fellow Pistol Annies bandmate recorded it. Even one of the usually stone-faced security guards sang along. The Annies' "Unhappily Married" was still damn catchy in her solo hands, while "Weed Instead of Roses" was quite a hoot.

Crystal Gayle (below), the country-pop crossover star of the ’70s and ’80s who hasn’t recorded a new studio album in more than a decade, made a rare Southern California appearance Saturday at Stagecoach. Elderly concert-goers helped fill much of the Palomino.

The sophisticated singer, 63, had a spectacular chart run from 1976-86 when she notched a dozen or so No. 1 singles and was equally known for her exceedingly ravenous long hair. (It still almost reaches the floor, though it’s wispier these days.) One lady standing next to me exclaimed: “She’s still gorgeous.”

Instead of a crowd-pleasing hit parade in Indio, however, Gayle turned in a somewhat erratic set.

Clad in a glittery silver-and-black outfit, she started with “Half the Way” and routinely clipped her vocal phrasing. Her takes on Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” and a tune popularized by Mary Hopkins, “Those Were the Days,” were merely adequate.

Backing vocals were supplied by her sister Peggy Sue Webb. The pair indulged some good-natured duets, including a bit from famous sibling Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” a sprightly “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and the Peggy co-write “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).”
Later, the band’s timekeeper was given a solo and did some of “Little Drummer Boy,” and there were forays into jazz. Still, longtime fans were treated to smooth versions of “Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For,” “Talking in Your Sleep” and, of course, her signature smash, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”
By the time Nitty Gritty Dirt Band hit the same stage right before 8, Stagecoach attendees were well into wild party mode – something Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland couldn’t fulfill on the Mane Stage. (I overheard some guys joking about her: “Nettles is from Sugar WHO?”)
That atmosphere made it unbearable for those who just wanted to enjoy the veteran Long Beach folk/rock outfit’s career-spanning set.

After 40-plus years, John McEuen’s chops on mandolin, fiddle and banjo are still sharp as ever. Drummer Jimmie Faddon played harmonica simultaneously with his rhythms, and Hanna reminisced about playing the old Golden Bear nightclub in Huntington Beach during the band’s formative days.
Before the spirited hit “Dance Little Jean,” amiable lead singer/guitarist Jeff Hanna half-joked: “There’s 10 marriages between the four of us. We had to work hard at our divorces.” Another one of their staples, “Mr. Bojangles,” prompted a hearty sing-along. Inspired ballad “Working Man,” a feisty version of “My Walking Shoes Don’t Fit Me Anymore” and “Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble to Me” (from 2009’s Speed of Life) all came across well.

But once they went into some mellow extended jams, like “Rippling Waters,” the energy level in Palomino deflated and there were some quick exits. Those who remained, though, were rewarded with the anthemic “Fishing Hole” and Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” – both developing into quite the hoedowns – and naturally the band closed with its staple rendition of the century-old hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

For more coverage of the festival, go to: 

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