By George A. Paul
Stagecoach pulled back into Empire Polo Field in Indio, Calif. (near Palm Springs) for its 10th Anniversary on April 29-May 1 and did another great job at showcasing past and present country sounds.
Among the top grossing music festivals in the world (cousin Coachella takes the top slot), it featured headliners Eric Church, Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan performing to a sellout crowd of 75,000 daily.
All types of patriotic items were visible while walking around the expansive grounds, where people spread out folding chairs and blankets behind the huge reserved seating section. I spotted a man in red, white and blue sunglasses, pants and sports coat.
Young gals tended to favor tiny shorts with bandanas around their legs (when not used as a facial shield from heavy winds), while guys often wore t-shirts with profane statements or walked around only in blue jeans and cowboy hats.
Since Stagecoach has a family friendly element, it wasn’t unusual to see whole generations attending together. Little tykes would frolic as music blared from the three stages.
They could also play games, make crafts at the Half-Pint Hootenanny and partake in the petting zoo. This being an election year, some concertgoers made subtle political statements. One man in the VIP standing corral, who sported a Reagan-Bush ’84 trucker hat, got many high fives of approval.
Friday afternoon, I finally got to meet Kristian Bush, who I had interviewed by phone when Sugarland played the inaugural Stagecoach. He also was the first set I caught on the Mane Stage. The singer/songwriter/guitarist (pictured in the press tent) put out his solid debut solo album “Southern Gravity” last year.
A welcoming presence, Bush provided background behind the songs and said “music should shake your hips or explode your heart.” That was definitely true of his engaging set, frontloaded with the loping groove of hit “Trailer Hitch” (plus a snippet of Prince’s “Lady Cab Driver”).
Stripped-down takes on Sugarland’s “Baby Girl” and “Stuck Like Glue” drew loud howls from fans (the former was preceded by a story about its genesis) and were just as compelling as when Jennifer Nettles sings them. The breezy album title track and “Feeling Fine California,” with brother Brandon Bush’s swelling organ work, were standouts. Bush’s band even gave “All I Wanna Do” a bluesy treatment that came across well.
Jana Kramer took the Mane to the strains of Aerosmith’s “Come Together” and her band sure did rock. Wearing a Tom Petty t-shirt, Kramer was all smiles and quite a spitfire. After the sensual grit of “Pop That Bottle,” several songs were tailor made for a Stagecoach set – namely the raucous “One of the Boys” and “Good Time Comin’ On.” Kramer fared better with hit ballads like “Why Ya Wanna” and “I Got the Boy.” Her cover of Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” came with a funny story about her new husband, baby and changing diapers. She appended another tune with a bit of Martina McBride’s “This One’s for the Girls.” Recent playful single “Said No One Ever” was right in Kramer’s wheelhouse.
Later on the same stage, Eric Paslay showed why he’s been one of the most sought after songwriters in Nashville over the past few years. Leading with catchy hit “Song About a Girl,” off 2014’s eponymous effort, Paslay excelled with the driving “Never Really Wanted.” It smoothly segued into a bit of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” Some chart smashes he penned for others (“Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” “Even if it Breaks Your Heart”) were enthusiastically received, but Paslay’s standout moment came via the stirring ballad “She Don’t Love You.”
Out on the Mustang Stage, Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives, impeccably attired as always, provided a good time party from the get go. They started with the fast ‘n’ twangy “Stop the World (And Let Me Off)” – a Waylon Jennings hit in 1965. Fans sang along loudly to “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin,’” and the band did “La Tingo Tango,” the surf music instrumental that plays over the end credits to Stuart’s TV variety show. Though barely touching upon his best known tracks, the singer/guitarist did indulge in excellent takes on old school rock flavored “Tempted” and “Hillbilly Rock.” The entire group provided stellar harmonies and each got to take a lead vocal spotlight (or two). That weighed the hour-long set down a bit.
Before a stunning take on Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” Stuart grabbed a mandolin and shared how he was recently asked to play it at a tribute to the original’s Spanish guitarist Grady Martin and didn’t realize how many words it contained (“469!”). Stuart also noted that the only two musicians he ever worked for (Lester Flatt, Johnny Cash) also happened to put out the first two vinyl records he ever bought.
Another Flatt anecdote came with “The Orange Blossom Special,” where Stuart showed off his dexterous mandolin style. Fellow Stagecoach performer Dale Watson joined for a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” They concluded with a rip roaring’ “Tear the Woodpile Down,” which featured the topical lyric, “Think I’ll run for president/Then I won’t have to pay no rent.”
Emmylou Harris and her band (including the female members of Kennedy Rose) did an elegantly understated set on the Palomino Stage.
Although the tent was barely half full, those fortunate enough to be in attendance were surely enraptured by the country/folk veteran’s trademark quavering vocals on “Red Dirt Girl,” “Michelangelo,” as well as covers of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” and Patti Scialfa’s “Spanish Dancer.”
Eric Church definitely nailed it at the festival. Beginning with the inspiring “Knives of Orleans” (the first of three from last year’s excellent “Mr. Misunderstood”), the leather jacket-clad North Carolina native did many of his best known numbers (“Talladega,” a soaring, banjo-driven “Give Me Back My Hometown,” “Drink in My Hand”) with a strong sense of urgency.
He recalled having the early afternoon slot at the inaugural Stagecoach in ’07 to loud cheers. Then, indicating the audience size back then, continued, “none of you were there.” Standouts included some feisty soul in “Chattanooga Lucy,” the laid back “Like a Wrecking Ball,” a defiant, verging-on-metal “Lotta Boot Left to Fill” and wistful ode to high school outcasts “Mr. Misunderstood” (dig the Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy name checks). Unlike others on the bill, Church didn’t need to add a Merle Haggard cover to pay tribute to the late legend; he’s already had one for a decade: concert staple “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag.” Still, it was prefaced by a bit of Haggard’s “Kern River” and proved powerful in Indio.
Sam Outlaw (pictured left) brought a little South of the border flair to his fine traditional country tunes at the Palomino tent, thanks to some mariachi musicians – first on “Who Do You Think You Are” (which he said was about “love lost and found in Baja, California”) and later, the sublime “Angeleno” (dedicated to his latest album’s co-producer, Ry Cooder).
The LA singer/guitarist also engaged in some humorous between song banter as Molly Jenson added vivacious harmonies during the memorable “Jesus Take the Wheel (And Drive Me to a Bar),” “Ghost Town” and “Keep it Interesting.” All went down well with the audience.
Next up on the same stage was British singer/actor Sam Palladio, who portrays Gunnar Scott on the ABC-TV drama “Nashville.” He came across like a breath of fresh air and bested his co-stars’ appearances at last year’s Stagecoach. Amid the impressive sized crowd were young gals that squealed with delight. Backed by Alabama band John & Jacob (a much talked about Stagecoach ’15 participant and “Nashville” song contributor), Palladio and company made the biggest impression during a rocking “Gun for a Mouth,” the stark ballad “Fade into You,” an appealing Eagles-styled “Hello Heartbreak Blues (which is slated for an upcoming EP), ebullient harmonies of “Borrow My Heart” and the winsome folk of “Be My Girl” (complete with trumpet and whistling).
For those of us seeking to experience as much live music as possible at the festival, there are always set time conflicts. My toughest one Saturday came when I had to exit Lee Ann Womack’s performance just a few songs in to catch Rodney Crowell on the Mustang Stage. My hopes that she would dash over after finishing up to duet with his composition (and her big hit) “Ashes by Now” never came to fruition. But the masterful singer/songwriter was sharp as ever; so was his crack band featuring ace guitarist Jedd Hughes.
A jangly “Earthbound” got everything off to an upbeat start. The affecting “Learning How to Fly,” another cut from 2003’s exceptional “Fate’s Right Hand,” was driven by swelling organ and Hughes’ strident guitar work. Although the twangy “Stars on the Water” was the only major Crowell hit in the set, shining moments were plentiful: Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues” (Crowell was music supervisor on the recent Hank biopic), Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” (the audience handled the chorus), the roaring “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” and barn burner “Say You Love Me.”
Before doing a stunning take on Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” (which started out a capella), Carrie Underwood said, “I’m blessed to be part of country music…it’s real life stuff.” She brought all her current tour’s dazzling bells and whistles along to Stagecoach. Among the most riveting female country singers to emerge in the past decade, Underwood rarely oversells the drama. Half of her latest album “Storyteller” was aired in Indio. “Heartbeat” (described as “one of my few love songs”) was lovely; unfortunately, Sam Hunt didn’t reprise his backing vocals onstage. Elsewhere, Underwood wailed with abandon during “Wasted,” “When I See You Again” and “Blown Away.” After removing her high heels to move around easier, she tore into “Dirty Laundry.” Slinky story song “Choctaw County Affair” was a real eye opener. It featured bluesy harmonica licks by the singer herself.
Stagecoach attendees typically party heartily on Saturday night, making Sunday afternoon a lazy one with sparse crowds at the stages.
As I walked around the field to peruse some retail clothing, hat and jewelry booths, the traditional country strains of Austin band Midland lured me to the Palomino. There, the guys were killing it as Mark Wystrach sang “Texas is the last stop before I get to heaven” and concluded with a rousing “Check Cashing Country,” from latest album “14 Gears.”
Those who stumbled out to the Mane Stage in time for Old Dominion were treated to breezy country rock tunes that went down real easy in the afternoon. The band dispatched latest hit “Snapback” immediately and people quickly ran over to them. “Half Empty,” the R&B groove of “Crazy Beautiful Sexy,” the sly wordplay in “Said Nobody” (not to be confused with Jana Kramer's similar song) got enthusiastic responses. Matthew Ramsey was a man of few words until set’s end, when they presented a CMA trophy for Best Music Festival to Stagecoach. The chiming rocker “Song for Another Time,” which strings together past popular song titles, was an obvious standout. “Break Up with Him” elevated the excitement level even more.
Each year, Stagecoach excels at luring a revered old timer for a rare appearance in the tents. This time it was Johnny Lee (pictured below). He drew a near capacity crowd to the Palomino during a memorable set rife with hilarious asides and audience banter such as “it’s been a long time since I made the ladies scream. Thank you.”
The veteran came across like an uncle with no filter. He opened with “Good Lovin’ Woman Bad,” from “You Ain’t Never Been to Texas,” from the first studio album in 10 years (due June 3). “So glad we passed the drug sniffing’ dogs this week. We just visited Willie,” he noted with a grin, before the loquacious “Picking up Strangers.” Lee recalled playing Gilley’s nightclub in Texas, and then did a solid “Cherokee Fiddle” from the “Urban Cowboy” soundtrack, joined by daughter Cherish on backing vocals.
Other highlights included 1984 chart topper “The Yellow Rose,” a rousing “Hey Bartender” (including a nod to Little Richard) and his signature hit “Lookin’ for Love.” Lee said he was honored to sing the song, worked both sides of the stage (paying close attention to fans’ attire and actions), did a selfie with Cherish, then gave a shout out to all veterans and emergency service personnel before admitting to being happy “they finally invited my country ass out here.”
On the Mane Stage, A Thousand Horses, augmented by three female backing vocalists, emerged firing on all musical cylinders with the soulful and spirited “Landslide.” Michael Hobby sang wildly during the bluesy rocker “Travelin’ Man.” Prominent violin strains and a snippet of The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” elevated “(This Ain’t No) Drunk Dial,” while “Heaven is Close” and “Southernality” featured tasty guitar work by Bill Satcher. Frequently compared to the Black Crowes, the band took on Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” and it was a perfect fit. Meanwhile, hit single “Smoke” benefitted from lush keyboards and riff rocking closer “First Time” was pure early 1970s Stones.
Dustin Lynch immediately followed and had no trouble getting the crowd riled up with “To the Sky.” His hard rocking country band kept the energy level going strong with “Halo” and the booming, fist pumper “Name on It.” Stirring sing-along ballad “Cowboys and Angels” saw several couples slow dance along. Lynch debuted a few promising songs from a forthcoming album, including the high energy “Party Song.”
“Here’s hippie music from your token rock band this evening,” said Patrick Simmons, as The Doobie Brothers packed the Palomino. Showing few signs of rust, the Seventies classic rockers did sturdy versions of “Jesus is Just Alright with Me” and “Rockin’ Down the Highway.” Then the three singer/guitarists ably traded lead vocals on some deep album cuts.
Little Big Town delivered an excellent performance that ranked among the best Stagecoach had to offer. Getting right down to business with the swampy gospel fervor of “Little White Church,” the crowd went wild when the quartet followed it with slinky No. 1 party hit “Pontoon.” Their crystalline harmonies shined throughout, especially amid “Front Porch Thing,” the sweet midtempo number “Sober,” stomping, banjo-driven “Pavement Ends” and usual intense take on Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” There was plenty of drama too, courtesy the ladies’ individual spotlights (Karen Fairchild with “Tornado”; Kimberly Schlapman with “Save Your Sin”). Of course, the loudest cheers came from Stagecoach’s unofficial theme song “Day Drinking” (featuring a cool silhouette effect on the big screens) and Fairchild’s captivating “Girl Crush” (complete with mirror ball).
Luke Bryan’s opening song couldn’t have been more appropriate for drought-stricken California: “Rain is a Good Thing.” The gregarious country superstar poured on the charm in Indio and adhered to the line about getting a little frisky by shaking his tight jeaned hips. That drove female fans nuts. Before the sensual piano ballad “Strip it Down,” he even asked, “Are you ready to get naked?” Bryan has so many country chart toppers, it’s insane. Many were well-represented during the set and found him in fine voice: “Drunk on You” (replete with lasers), “I See You,” “Rollercoaster,” “Play it Again,” “Crash My Party.”
All photos by Robert Kinsler.
My review will also appear at www.musicnewsnashville.com