Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Stagecoach Festival 2017 review: A standout six pack

photo: Erik Voake
Stagecoach – California’s Country Music Festival returned to Indio, Calif. (just outside Palm Springs) last weekend for another rip-roarin’ music party. The 11th edition, headlined by Dierks Bentley, Shania Twain and Kenny Chesney, featured 71 acts on four stages. 

Bentley and Chesney had played Stagecoach a few times before, while Twain made her debut appearance and premiered the first single from a long-awaited forthcoming album. All three put on stellar sets: Bentley brought Elle King onstage for their hit duet "It's Different for Girls" and their chemistry was undeniable. Twain's visuals and backdrop defied dazzling. She invited Kelsea Ballerini to assist on "Any Man of Mine" and their chatting afterward was like a mutual admiration society. Chesney was solid as always, with strong versions of "Young," "I Go Back," "Anything But Mine" and "Setting the World on Fire" (with a young female fan helping out) leading the pack and capping a weekend of eclectic sounds and fun times.   

This was my ninth time attending the popular event, which drew more than 75,000 people and is one of the world's top festivals. It always does an expert job at spotlighting the latest stars, rising talents, promising newcomers and legends in country music and related sub-genres. Among 27 full or partial performances that I caught at Empire Polo Club, here’s a six pack - and a few spares - that made the most memorable mark…


photo: Michael Drummond
Backed by members of veteran Canadian band The Sadies, critically-acclaimed Americana singer/songwriter Justin Townes Earle previewed his impressive Mike Mogis-produced studio album “Kids in the Street” (due May 26 on New West Records) by playing several tracks off it.

“What’s She Crying For?” boasted a countrypolitan sheen with sweet pedal steel, “15-25” had a strong New Orleans boogie woogie vibe (the mild-mannered Earle dryly told the crowd “If I clap my hands, don’t participate. This ain’t church,” then offered “apologies to Professor Longhair”) and “Trouble Is” was propelled by a sinewy groove. But the melancholy title track to 2012’s “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now” fared best.

photo: Michael Drummond
Also playing the Mustang stage that afternoon was Anderson East. The Alabama native and his sharp-dressed band – complete with horns - brought to mind 1960s-era Memphis soul during an exciting set featuring tunes from 2015 major label debut “Delilah.”

On “Satisfy Me,” the raspy-voiced singer spun himself in circles and grabbed his guitarist, jumped in the air during the buildup to ballad “All I’ll Ever Need,” described “Devil in Me” as being about “fornicatin’ with the preacher’s daughter” and did a sustained vocal wail at the end of last year’s punchy “Learning.” Elsewhere, a cover of The Faces’ “Stay with Me” (where East fell to the floor) and Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” proved a perfect fit and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps” really got the crowd riled up.

photo: Everett Fitzpatrick
Having heard raves from friends about The Zombies reunion shows, their festival appearance in Indio was a must-see. People that flocked to the Palomino tent to see the wild card booking weren’t disappointed.

The British Invasion group, led by original members Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent, still nailed those masterful pop harmonies and melodies, especially on “I Love You” (a 1965 single B-side), a cover of The Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and a trio of tunes from defining LP “Odessey and Oracle” (big hit “Time of the Season,” “This Will Be Our Year,” “Care of Cell 44”). Argent provided astute introductions and really proved his mettle with fancy keyboard flourishes amid an extended “She’s Not There” and “Hold Your Head Up” (from his own eponymous post-Zombies hard rock group).

Honorable mention: Elle King


photo: Michael Drummond
John Doe is no stranger to Stagecoach, having appeared with X’s roots rock-oriented side project The Knitters in the past. Here, with a tight backing band including X drummer DJ Bonebrake and backing vocalist Cindy Wasserman, Doe opened with Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” which he first recorded on a collaborative album with The Sadies.

Delving into last year’s fine solo effort “The Traveler,” the musicians got into a sinister groove during “My Darling, Blue Skies” and took things down several notches for though-provoking ballad “A Little Help” (which Doe introduced by saying, “Whenever you eat a piece of fruit, remember someone probably picked it with their own hand. This is for the farmworkers”). Keeping on a similar reality check theme, “Drink of Water,” also from “The Westerner,” featured a supple vocal blend between Doe and Wasserman and he pointed out beforehand that “even though there’s a lot of snow on Mammoth Mountain, the drought is still happening”).

Knitters fave “Call of the Wrecking Ball” was feisty as ever. They also played hard charging takes on X’s always timely “The Have Nots” and “The New World” (with a snippet of The Beatles’ “Revolution”) and a lively version of The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.”  

photo: Everett Fitzpatrick
Frequently recalling “Scarecrow”-era John Mellencamp, Kip Moore turned in a magnetic performance at sunset on the Mane Stage.

With a hard rocking band, the healthy dose of material from 2015’s criminally underrated “Wild Ones” was welcome. The set included its atmospheric and rousing title track, “I’m to Blame,” the unbridled sexuality of “Come and Get It,” riveting drama of “Running for You” and “That Was Us.” The crowd responded enthusiastically to Moore’s regular concert cover of Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” as well as “Beer Money” (the catchy top 10 country hit from 2012).

Honorable mention: Tommy James & the Shondells    


photo: Erik Voake
If anyone at Stagecoach had any preconceived notions about actors trying their hand at music before checking out Kiefer Sutherland, they were quickly dashed at the Palomino Tent. The veteran actor is the real deal as a musician. Drawing a large crowd, Sutherland and his band (including Dada’s Michael Gurley on guitar and backing vocals) played an energetic, authentic country set that wasn’t nearly long enough at just over half an hour.

Most selections were taken from last year’s debut album “Down in a Hole.” Sutherland said onstage that making it was “one of the best experiences of my life” and co-wrote the songs with longtime music business partner Jude Cole (they run the multifaceted Ironworks Music together). Sutherland’s raspy voice bore a passing resemblance to Mike Ness of Social Distortion. A very expressive performer, he hoisted his acoustic guitar in the air, whooped and hollered at times and generally had a good ‘ol time.

Highlights included the raucous opener “Can’t Stay Away,” with Gurley’s wicked slide work, the midtempo “Truth in Your Eyes,” an upbeat, spirited cover of Lone Justice’s rootsy “Ways to Be Wicked” and the traditional-style country story ballad “Shirley Jean,” for which a new video just debuted online. Before the latter – about a man on Death Row writing a final letter to his love - Sutherland said he was a huge admirer of how Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and others wrote about the dignity of people in prison. “I’ve never been to prison; but I’ve been to jail,” he admitted. By the end, the band pulled out all the stops on the dirty blues of the album’s title track. Graciously, Sutherland told the crowd that playing Stagecoach “meant the world” to him and it wasn’t an act.

Honorable mention: Los Lobos, The Long Ryders, Cowboy Junkies, Thomas Rhett

All photos courtesy of Goldenvoice

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