Words & Images by: Forrest Reda
Stagecoach Music Festival :: 05.05 & 05.06 :: Indio, CA
Goldenvoice aspires to host a country festival on the polo grounds where Coachella takes place. It's a grand idea, and the first Stagecoach Music Festival included glimpses of a future that incorporates Americana, bluegrass, folk, alternative and radio country in a way that showcases the rich history of American music.
Driving into the festival parking lot, the first immediate difference between Coachella and Stagecoach was obvious. Flying NASCAR and confederate flags, RVs were parked in rows as far as the eye could see, and from the looks of the parking lot, the party had started the night before.
One of the questions waiting to be answered over the weekend was whether mainstream country music fans would venture out of their comfort zone and listen to the artists on the alt-country and bluegrass side of the festival or would they remain glued in front of the aptly titled Mane Stage. As we walked into the festival on Saturday afternoon, the music on the Mane Stage hadn't even started yet, but there were already people crowding for pole position and putting down blankets instead of exploring the rest of the festival. Some of the crowd might have taken a lap around when they walked in, but most just sat and waited for the headliners. Throughout the weekend, this left the four stages not called Mane mostly empty of spectators.
Willie Nelson's guitar "Trigger" :: Stagecoach
We walked straight to the Palomino Stage, known as the Outdoor Theater at Coachella - the second largest stage at the festival - and home to many of the "must see" acts circled on our schedules.
The Old 97's got things off to a great start with an inspired set of country, surf, indie-rock. Vocalist-songwriter Rhett Miller writes songs like "Won't Be Home" that evoke classic outlaw imagery of being doomed (in love) since birth.
Rhett Miller - Old 97' s - Stagecoach
I was born in the backseat of a mustang
On a cold night in a hard rain
And the very first song that the radio sang
Was "I won't be home no more"
Intensely gazing at the unknown horizon, Miller had the look of a poet in his eyes. The band was tight in a way that doesn't necessarily mean hours of practice, but many nights playing together in bars and clubs. Bassist Murray Hammond harmonized with Miller and also sang a few songs in a nasally Texas twang that helped vary the set. The band performed valiantly but mainstream country fans wouldn't know good music if it bucked them in the ass, judging from the criminally small crowds throughout the weekend.
Early on during the festival, we made the decision to simplify our concert experience by skipping the Mane Stage and its rowdy crowd completely, focusing our ears and energy on the terrific bands being ignored. This was liberating and allowed us to enjoy the open range, even do a little square-dancing at the Mustang Stage to the Sons of the San Joaquin, whose deep throated, epic vocal harmonies recalled a John Huston soundtrack.
The Grascals :: Stagecoach
The Grascals are an all-star selection of musicians who have toured with most of the classic names in country including Dolly Parton, and their set included a spirited take on Elvis' "Viva Las Vegas."
Yonder Mountain String Band did what the band does best; high-energy progressive bluegrass coupled with self-deprecating humor from Jeff Austin, who commented on the apparent buckshot holes in the stage backdrop. Ben Kaufmann set the tempo on his standup bass as the band crackled through an afternoon set dedicated to preserving the heritage of bluegrass while infusing some youthful bravado. There were a few jam-kids near the front, respectfully dancing off to the side so the seated audience could see the band. When Austin let loose on the mandolin, the collective energy in the tent simmered to a boil and more than one "yee-haw" was heard. YMSB won themselves a few new fans as they set the stage for Nickel Creek's slot.
Jeff Austin - YMSB :: Stagecoach 2007
Nickel Creek enjoyed the largest tent-crowd of the weekend. The combination of Chris Thile's mandolin and Sara Watkins's violin is a potent mixture of Americana and bluegrass that carries the torch for these blending genres, setting the bar extremely high for anyone who follows. Some tap-dancing percussion added a wrinkle to their Stagecoach set, and Thile endeared himself to the crowd when he somehow started talking about the proper way to conjugate Hippopotamus (and he was right, hippopotami is correct) while mentioning that he was home-schooled. The Grammy Award winning wunderkinds have lived up to the lofty expectations bestowed upon them and then some. Besides Willie Nelson, they were the only band to play both Coachella and Stagecoach, and their brilliant sets at both show why.
Chris Thile - Nickel Creek :: Stagecoach
Lucinda Williams treated fans to a set full of seductive lyrics and suggestive rhythms. The regal songwriter makes even the most suggestive lyrics sound beautiful with a voice that is as timelessly American as the cowboy hat she wore. She channeled both Jim Morrison and ZZ Top and as the sun went down, every bit the outlaw as any of the bad boys that came after her.
Lucinda Williams - Stagecoach
Willie Nelson's guitar is a thing of beauty. Nicknamed Trigger, the 1969 Martin six-string is pockmarked and dinged by a life on the road, but it still produces a sweet sound and is an extension of Nelson's visage. Willie's set on the Palomino Stage drew the largest crowd at that stage all weekend, but the crowd wasn't as big as his audience had been at Coachella the week before. The promoters were careful to place his set between Sara Evans and Alan Jackson's sets on the Mane Stage but it didn't matter. Nelson's set at Stagecoach was very well received, and he may have been the only act to lure fans away from the Mane Stage. Nelson truly is "Last of the Breed" of the old outlaw country singers.
Goldenvoice's motive for placing Nelson on the side stage might have been to motivate fans to visit the Palomino Stage. However, mainstream country music fans' idea of a festival appears to be drinking in the RV before the show, sitting in lawn chairs drinking during the opening acts, dancing and drinking rowdily as the sun goes down and picking fights with anyone looking at their girl the wrong way or invading their space.
Willie Nelson - Stagecoach
The large crowd that gathered for Nelson dissipated quickly as Alan Jackson started his set. After catching John Cowan's last song in a tent with maybe 20 people, we took a listen to Alan Jackson's bland sounding set, checked out the various homophobic, sexist and racist t-shirts being hawked by vendors and quickly made our way back to the Palamino Stage for Robert Earl Keen.
Keen could give a damn if his crowd was small. Smiling and wearing sunglasses at night, he treated the slight with humor as he rocked "That Buckin' Song," complete with crowd singing-a-long:
I had a horse named Bad Luck
She weren't good lookin'
But she sure could buck
He enjoyed every moment of his set, and those who were there enjoyed it, too. His band played loud enough to drown out the other noise and the crowd danced and drank with him, enjoying the extra room. With a devil may care attitude and grin, Keen is a storyteller in the tradition of greats like Cash, Kristofferson and Nelson. His stories of drinking sound real because they are likely true.
Robert Earl Keen :: Stagecoach
Neko Case seemed out of place as her folk-country poetry went underappreciated amidst the blare of George Strait coming from the Mane Stage. Case's music sounds best when the atmosphere is right for careful delivery and comprehension. It was nearly impossible to achieve this at Stagecoach, but when Case sang, she made it seem like she was the only one performing. Try as she might to joke between songs about multitasking by performing a set while attending a George Strait concert, it was obvious that the sonic intrusion bothered Case. Her bass player was also absent, involved in a traffic accident, and resting with some busted ribs. Despite all this, Case and her powerful voice conjured up the ghost of Patsy Cline and she sparkled in the darkness.
On Sunday, the artists on the side stages seemed more prepared to deal with the distractions blaring from the Mane Stage. Uncle Earl's Abigail Washburn and her Sparrow Quartet featuring Ben Sollee, Casey Driessen and Bela Fleck performed much too early in the day, but we caught the end of her set and her songwriting impressed as much as her stellar backing band.
Neko Case :: Stagecoach
Back at the Palamino Stage, John Doe , former bass player of the legendary LA punk band X, delivered a powerful, gritty yet vulnerable set that could only come from LA. With vocalist Kathleen Edwards adding a bit of harmony, Doe delivered the goods and exhibited why he is such a popular artist for other musicians to collaborate with. As he sang "Golden State," his words combined with the scenery of a gorgeous afternoon and palm trees swaying behind him to create a festival moment.
We are luck
We are fate
We are the feeling you get in the Golden State
We are love
We are hate
We are the feeling you get when you walk away
Later in his set, Doe exhorted the crowd to remember to vote, saying that the job was only half done, which drew immediate, raucous applause.
The anti-Bush momentum continued later when Alejandro Escovedo lifted a self-imposed ban on his song "Castanets," which hadn't been played for two years. Escovedo told a cheering crowd, "This is a song I fell out of favor with after it ended up on George W. Bush's iPod Top 10 list. What sort of bad karma is it for that to happen to me? Anyway, he is on his way out, so here it is." With that, he broke into song and the crowd joined in. Like John Doe, Escovedo's music is full of passion and memories of a thousands different sunsets. The Palamino Stage was definitely the place to be on Sunday – the vibe was positively electric. It didn't feel like a country festival, it was a rock festival and each successive musician built upon the vibe of the one that came before.
Alejandro Escovedo :: Stagecoach 2007
Watching and listening to Ramblin' Jack Elliott was as important and meaningful to me as going to a country-western museum. I didn't realize he had a no-photo policy until he called me out and an assistant told me to stop taking pictures or he'd quit playing. However, I'll never forget that bit of connection that I had for a moment with the grandfather of the folk movement, who along with Woody Guthrie spawned Dylan and everything else that came after. The man can still play and sing and tells a story like the best of them. It was fitting that he performed just before Garrison Keillor. Before I settled in to enjoy Keillor's tales of Lake Wobegon, I went back to the Palamino Stage to listen to Kris Kristofferson.
Ramblin' Jack Elliott :: Stagecoach
Kris Kristofferson was beginning his set and the crowd listened in rapt attention as the icon played his guitar, sang and blew on his harmonica. The Air Force veteran also called out George W. Bush, dedicating a song "to all the veterans of the war in Iraq who are against the war in Iraq." He played "Me And Bobby McGee" early in the set - carefully, with meaning, feeling every bit as faded as the legendary jeans of the song. Like the other troubadours who'd performed before him, Kristofferson is authentic and has lived the stories in his songs, and they carry extra weight because of this.
Kris Kristofferson :: Stagecoach
Garrison Keillor was reaching the point in his story where everything came together, something about a cancelled wedding, some Lutheran ministers, a dog who liked to roll in dead fish and a hot-air balloon ride gone awry - all happening at once on Lake Wobegon. His unique storytelling gift was such that I could catch-up on the events he was relating and marvel at his ability to weave everything together.
Emmylou Harris :: Stagecoach
On the way back to Emmylou Harris, I was fortunate enough to catch The Flatliners strum through "Sitting on Top of the World," the perfect segue into the set I was about to see from Emmylou Harris.
Her voice is truly timeless and a national treasure. Emmylou Harris has an elegance and presence that transcended the competing noise. She said, "The more music, the better, I like to say." The grand dame of Cosmic American Music dedicated Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" to Johnny Cash, and it might have been the highlight of the festival as she glowed a slight shade of blue in the darkness of the stage.
There was just enough time to catch the end of the Del McCoury Band. I witnessed McCoury break a string and replace it mid-song, holding the guitar up to his ear to tune on the fly. It was an impressive feat, and if I didn't know any better I would have guessed he did it to show off.
Patterson Hood - DBT :: Stagecoach
There was still a few minutes before the Drive-By Truckers took the stage so I listened to Kenny Chesney on the fringe of the massively packed Mane Stage long enough to scratch my head in disbelief at the mass adoration. Chesney seems nice enough, and the feel-good music isn't necessarily bad, but Chesney is no more than a pop star running around with a microphone singing about Mexico but without any of the culture.
The Drive-By Truckers couldn't start soon enough and once they did, the legendary Southern rockers lived up to all the praise I've ever read about them. The size of their crowd didn't matter as much as the energy and enthusiasm the audience exhibited. Folks love this band, and that passion is deserved because the Truckers truly embody the sprit of the characters they sing about.
Junior Brown :: Stagecoach
Listening to Junior Brown rip on his Guit-steel - a crazy looking double necked contraption that is both six-string guitar and steel guitar - wearing his Stetson, concentrating on the music, I decided that I was happy the mainstream country crowd stayed away and let the rest of us enjoy the soulful emerging artists on the side stages. It had been a long two days of great music crammed together and my time listening to the music on the Mane Stage was less then two songs. Still, I felt like I hadn't missed out on a thing.
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