by George A. Paul
Photos by Kelly A. Swift
Stagecoach always books the biggest names in country music as headliners, but the undercard acts often steal the show. Such was the case at last weekend’s sold out festival in Indio, Calif., where The Lone Bellow, John & Jacob, Nikki Lane, Lindi Ortega and Lydia Loveless all delivered strong performances. Meanwhile, legends like Mac Davis, Eric Burdon and the Oak Ridge Boys proved they could still hold their own.
The large outdoor Mane stage was the site of sharp early-to-late evening turns by Dierks Bentley, the Band Perry and Blake Shelton. Each received enthusiastic receptions from a crowd that had been doing plenty of “day drinking” (just ask Parmalee) and working on their suntans.
American flags were once again the fashion statement of choice, with the ‘ol red, white and blue worn in every way imaginable. I spotted a young man walking around the tents sporting rabbit ears like he’d just stepped out of an EDM tent at Coachella 2 the previous week. Could he have been to both fests? Possibly, but highly unlikely. More than 200,000 people attended the ninth annual event at Empire Polo Field.
Heavy winds put a slight damper on the proceedings, but that didn’t stop the party. As always, I started my Stagecoach experience in the tents.
Lydia Loveless drew a good sized afternoon audience to the Palomino tent with her vigorous brand of alt-country. The young Ohio native’s “no holds barred” lyrics recalled vintage Lucinda Williams and Shelby Lynne during tracks from 2014’s Somewhere Else, particularly the pedal steel-infused title track (containing a subtle nod to Tommy Tutone), a Byrdsy “Wine Lips,” riff rocker “To Love Somebody” and “Head.”
Immediately following her was The Lone Bellow, whose set had all the fervor of a church sermon, minus all the rhetoric. The Brooklyn-based Americana trio opened with “Then Came the Morning,” from its robust new album of the same name co-produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner. A joyous “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold” prompted several cowgirls to dance along.
Highly expressive lead singer Zach Williams briefly stood on bales of hay in front of the stage to make a more indelible impression. “Fake Roses” proved inspiring. The true standout moment arrived after the supporting band left and it was just an acoustic guitar and three supple harmonies left on the spiritual-tinged “Watch Over Us.”
High-tailing it over to the Mane stage, Parmalee’s mass appeal country rock seemed to go over well with the buzzed afternoon audience, notably on “Back in the Day,” the blaring guitars of “Musta Had a Good Time” and closing hit single “Carolina.”
Kacey Musgraves had made previous appearances at Stagecoach, but none were on the Mane stage – until Friday. Mostly performing songs from her winsome, multiple award-winning ’13 effort Same Trailer Different Park, the easygoing Texan arrived to the sound of an old Spaghetti Western movie theme. The laconic, Sheryl Crow-styled “Blowin’ Smoke” got a rousing response. So did her playful cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs” and Stagecoach headliner Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” (Musgraves co-wrote it). Folksy current single “Biscuits” and whistling “High Time” served as fine tasters for upcoming album Pageant Material, due in June. Finally, she finished with hit singles “Merry Go Round” and the free spirited “Follow Your Arrow.”
Back in the Mustang tent, veteran Steve Earle served up a top notch dose of blues tunes culled from solid latest effort Terraplane and several others dating back to the Eighties. Alongside his exceptional longtime band The Dukes, the outlaw country artist began with a harmonica blast and the swampy “You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had.” Fiddler/keyboardist Eleanor Whitmore got some lead vocal spotlights, as on the new album. Rocking classics “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road” still packed quite a wallop, while the inclusion of “Ben McCulloch” was a welcome surprise.
That night, Jake Owen appeared on the Mane stage before Tim McGraw and his tunes went down real easy. The country prince of surf ‘n’ sand vibes (the king would be Kenny Chesney), opened with – you guessed it – some smooth rap-styled cadences during No.1 single “Beachin’.” From there, “I’ll Go Anywhere with You” saw him do some electric guitar work and working both sides of the stage. Owen professed his teenage admiration for Sublime before indulging in a bit of “What I Got” and other famous rock riffs. A serious cover of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” was a nicely done. Highlights included other chart toppers like “Alone with You” (prefaced by an awkward intro about how his mother liked the booty call song) and the soaring closer “Barefoot Blue Jean Night.”
Sometimes the quietest music can make the mightiest impression. Case in point: John Moreland’s early afternoon set in the Palomino tent. Performing solo acoustic, the singer/guitarist let wrenching folk tunes such as “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry” (key lyric: “I’m the kind of love that hurts to look at”), “Cherokee” and “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars” from new alt-country album High on Tulsa Heat do all the talking. Not everything was bleak though. “Oh Julia,” from 2013, bore a more positive outlook.
Clad in t-shirt and shorts, Nikki Lane arrived next at Palomino with attitude aplenty. The South Carolina-bred singer and fashion designer and her band delivered one of the day’s more memorable sets. She kicked things off with a spirited take on the Buddy & Julie Miller rave up “Gasoline and Matches.” During “Man Up,” Lane sang with a stutter about a good for nothing husband. She described another song as about “being stoned in a small town” to crowd laughter and peppy new one “700,000 Rednecks” by conveying her future aspiration to headline Stagecoach. A twangy “Right Time” (from last year’s solid Dan Auerbach-produced All or Nothin‘) spotlighted her Tammy Wynette-styled vocals well, as did well chose Byrds, Faces and Waylon Jennings covers.
“You still remember me; that’s great, said Mac Davis, during his rare Southern California appearance at the Palomino tent. The singer/songwriting legend and actor, now 73, utilized an acoustic guitar duo “Storytellers” format and shared humorous stories about penning tunes for Elvis Presley before playing “Memories,” “In the Ghetto” and “A Little Less Conversation.” Davis said the latter’s resurgence in the 2000s, due to a hit Junkie XL dance remix and prominent film and TV placements, was unexpected.
He was in decent vocal form during pop and country hits like “Stop and Smell the Roses” (a title suggested by former Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen), “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me” (“this makes me feel like a dirty old man,” admitted the entertainer), not to mention the equally popular “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” “Texas in My Rear View Mirror” and closer “I Believe in Music.” The crowd heartily sang along.
The ABC-TV drama “Nashville,” which revolves around the country music biz, sent along three of its actor/singers to the festival in advance of a national tour in May. They packed the Palomino and went down a storm. Each one did about a half hour onstage, ably backed by the band Sixwire.
First up was Chris Carmack, who portrays a closeted gay country singer. He mixed songs from the show (“What if I Was Willing,” “I’m on It”) along with promising mid-tempo selections from an upcoming solo EP (“Too Many Pieces”) that were in more of a Rob Thomas pop/rock vein. Without missing a beat, Clare Bowen enthusiastically arrived on stage wearing a flowing white dress and flowers in her hair. She nailed the haunting “Fade into You” in a duet with the guitarist and belted out the dramatic piano ballad “Black Roses.” Bowen finished with a jubilant cover of KT Tunstall’s 2004 hit “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.”
Eli Young Band’s “Drunk Last Night” could easily have been the mantra for thousands of people at Stagecoach. The Texans’ Mane stage set was a real crowd pleaser – at least to those paying attention. Songs from the new Turn it Up EP fared well live – especially the buoyant title track. The band did their usual segue from “Even if It Breaks Your Heart” into Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” and “Crazy Girl” prompted an arm waving singalong.
Having missed the announcement that Mickey Gilley’s set time and stage were both changed, I unfortunately only caught the last 15 minutes. Yet I arrived at a good time: a suite devoted to the Urban Cowboy soundtrack, which helped revitalize Gilley’s career and same-named nightclub in 1980. The country legend, 79, let his female singers do most of the heavy vocal lifting, but he sounded fairly sturdy on the No. 1 single “Stand by Me” and the Johnny Lee hit “Lookin’ for Love.”
Dierks Bentley’s amped up performance on the Mane stage was sheer craziness. So it was only appropriate that the singer kicked it off with a dance remix intro of “5150,” before transitioning to the actual feisty tune. From there, the set included several selections aimed for the party hearty: “Am I the Only One,” “Tip it on Back,” “What Was I Thinkin’,” “Sideways” and electrifying capper, “Drunk on a Plane.” At various points, Bentley invited a fan onstage to help him imbibe, measured the body odor of a bandmate, crowd surfed and commented on some gals’ American flag bikinis. Still, it was the less intense moments that resonated more, notably the ballads “Say You Do,” “Every Mile a Memory,” soaring “Home” and “I Hold On” (with a touching story about driving his late father’s old pickup truck). Bentley even recalled driving through the desert when he lived in Arizona and would make trips into San Diego.
The third day of Stagecoach is always a lazier affair, as two full days of partying starts to take its toll. The people who want to stake out their places behind the reserved seating section to spread out chairs and blankets arrive early. Everyone else trickles in the gates.
Having heard raves about John & Jacob’s Mane stage set on Saturday, I wasn’t going to miss their brief appearance in the Toyota tent. The band definitely didn’t disappoint. Sporting matching burgundy suits and shades, the guys’ brand of alt-country often brought to mind the Old ’97s. There were terrific harmonies galore. Standouts included the finger snapping, harmonica-laden “Ride with Me” and trumpet-infused “Be My Girl” (featured on the TV show “Nashville”). Much of the small crowd was line dancing to the appealing songs and really went wild when John & Jacob did their own rip roarin’ version of “Done,” which was co-written with The Band Perry. Can’t wait to see them headline.
With “The Voice” judge Blake Shelton, plus Cassadee Pope and the Swon Brothers performing at the festival, the TV show was well represented over the weekend. Last year, Colton and Zach Swon put out an enjoyable self-titled debut album featuring a co-write with members of Lady A and a guest appearance by Carrie Underwood.
In Indio, they did hot weather tune “95,” “Pray for You,” dramatic ballad “Pretty Beautiful” (spotlighting the amiable duo’s falsetto range). Moving easily from acoustic to electric guitar, they also did a great bluesy cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and a fun Eagles/Doobie Brothers medley.
“I’ve been working on my guns,” exclaimed Frankie Ballard, showing solidarity with all the buffed bodies seen in the audience. He was so excited about being on the roomy Mane stage that he even did some leg kicks. The raspy-voiced country rocker displayed impressive electric guitar chops amid some swelling organ on “Young & Crazy.” He teased bits of AC/DC and ZZ Top before the earthy ballad “Helluva Life.” Then the Detroit native paid tribute to his roots with Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll,” extended for a long jaunt through the extended and general admission sections. When some gals near me saw Ballard pass by, one said, “let’s go make out with him.” The other replied, “I would if I could.”
Back at the Palomino, the masters of group harmonies (barbershop, gospel or otherwise) known as the Oak Ridge Boys proved they could still connect like few others after decades together. A total celebration, their fun and way too short set featured seamless vocal tradeoffs and ample highlights: “American Made” (where the crowd clapped along), “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” (the three guitarists did synchronized moves), “Love Song,” “Trying to Love Two Women” and finally, “Elvira,” where Richard Sterban’s low bass voice is still a wonder to behold. I was also amazed by Joe Bonsall’s energy as he dashed across the stage a few times.
Sara Evans brought some expert country/pop balladry to the Mane stage, with dramatic songs like “A Little Bit Stronger,” “I Could Not Ask for More” and the Rod Stewart-popularized “My Heart Can’t Tell You No.” Each was punctuated by wailing vocals and even a sustained note or two.
The Band Perry did a dazzling performance at sunset. Despite touring latest album Pioneer for the last two years, there was no sign of fatigue. The energetic sibling trio opened with “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” and only occasionally let up on the gas. “Done” was a pure adrenaline rush; “Night Gone Wasted,” a real stomper. Elsewhere, “I’m a Keeper” was strong and the more stripped down Grammy-winning cover of Glen Campbell hit “Gentle on My Mind” and “If I Die Young” both proved endearing live.” Their usual take on Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” merged from rock to country hoedown, while Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” worked surprisingly well in the Perrys’ able hands.
Before Blake Shelton closed the Stagecoach proceedings, “Something Bad” – his wife Miranda Lambert’s duet with Carrie Underwood – served as the intro music. When Shelton emerged on the Mane stage, he said, “Let’s go out with a bang and raise some hell.” The first half of the mostly solid two hour performance was a little heavy on mid-tempo numbers that made the female fans swoon (“Doin’ What She Likes,” “She Wouldn’t Be Gone,” “Mine Would Be You,” current single “Sangria”). Shelton joked about all the guys who were probably dragged to watch his set. In reality, nothing else was going on. But there were just enough attitude heavy tunes (“‘Ol Red,” “Kiss My Country Ass,” “Hillbilly Bone,” “The More I Drink”) to rope the guys in too. Later, he brought backing singer Gwen Sebastian (yet another alum from “The Voice”) front and center for a duet on “My Eyes.”
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