Stagecoach 2010: A Perfect Night For a Concert – Day One Recap
Could the parking at Stagecoach be any more hellish than it was last year? Yep, turns out it could. I remember an equation from high school physics that went: rate multiplied by time equals distance. As we closed in on that last mile between us and parking, we were covering something like one city block every half hour. At that rate our estimated time of arrival would be…? Well, it was going to be lousy and it also meant missing Bobby Bare and that was a sad way to start the day. Reaching the parking lot made the reasons for the delays readily apparent, no one seemed to be in charge or have any idea how to run a parking operation. After hosting ten years of Coachella shows and three previous Stagecoach Festivals they ought to have this part down. Ah well, it was time to see how well I could run in Justins to try to catch some of the early acts.
First up was BJ Thomas. I was born too late for the heyday of the mellow and easy, country rock acts that were in abundance in the one hundred and ninety-seventh decade of our Lord and their place in the pantheon of country music hasn’t always sat so easily with me. I confess, I am usually the first to sneer at songs like “Rocky Mountain High” or “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” but there is no denying that BJ is a pro. It is also worth noting that he had the Palomino tent far more crowded than I’ve ever seen it for one of first acts of the day.
Clearly, plenty of people had dragged themselves down there nice and early to make sure they didn’t miss his set. BJ gave back with that big, white-soul voice of his and a slew of hits spanning three decades like “Hooked On A Feeling” and “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” I thought of my uncle, the one with all of the Poco and Pure Prairie League albums. This was his brand of country and I think I spotted a few of his old drinking buddies dancing and singing along. BJ’s band was tight and he worked the crowd like a pro spinning the kinds of showbiz yarns you only get from a guy who has done hundreds of shows a year for the last three decades. He related an amusing story of how he saw Burt Bacharach’s girlfriend — a foxy young Angie Dickinson — topless before launching into the hit he and Burt made famous, “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.” I guess stories about pretty girls will always be a hit and no matter where you come down on the mellow country argument, at least BJ kept it entertaining.
There are many fascinating things about festival shows like this one; the guy who shows up wearing nothing but paint and doing hula-hoop tricks and the guy in the giant sombrero, just to name a couple. Among these oddities are the seemingly incongruous transitions between diverse artists and Saturday was no exception. Nick 13, who is best known for his front man duties in the punk/rockabilly band Tiger Army, immediately followed BJ Thomas’ set.
I didn’t really know what to expect, but then again, this was his first full show to promote his new country music project and nobody knew what to expect. He was supported by a healthy contingent of his fans from the psychobilly scene but even the traditional country fans who were waiting for Ray Price seemed to enjoy his set. Earlier in the day, Nick told me that he’d grown up listening to many of the same country albums I did and that he was as jazzed as anyone to catch Ray Price and Merle Haggard later on that night. It was no surprise then that he played a set of straight-ahead, traditional country infused with some rockabilly and a bit of Ricky Nelson. It was downright entertaining and I look forward to hearing his record when it comes out.
As the sun passed it zenith it seemed to bake the parched Indio landscape and all of its country music revelry into a very fine and sepia tinted dust. It was hot, I was thirsty, and it seemed like a good time to take a walk. I caught sets by Phil Vassar on the Mane Stage and Trampled By Turtles in the Mustang Tent where most of the bluegrass and folkier stuff was taking place. Phil was tossing out all the big hits he’s written for himself and others, like Jo Dee Messina, interspersed with snippets of oldies radio favorites by Frankie Vallie, The Beach Boys, and perhaps most surprising, The Zodiacs. It was just the kind of fun, party atmosphere, paired with an easy to digest set of tunes, that the throng of clothing optional, beer bonging revelers were hoping for while waiting for the likes of Sugarland and Mr. Nicole Kidman to take the stage. I suppose if Ray Price weren’t hitting the Palomino stage in about half an hour, and I weren’t on deadline for a story, I just might have jumped in there, grabbed two beers and a funnel and shown the world what I really learned in college. Oh well, that’ll just have to wait for another day — perhaps the No Depression Festival later this year.
Trampled By Turtles weren’t even on my radar until a few weeks ago when a good friend slipped me a copy of their excellent 2005 release Blue Sky And The Devil. This band of Minnesotans have slowly built a following by little more than word-of-mouth, quiet determination, and of course, some incredible bluegrass songs. While bands like The Avett Brothers skim off the lion’s share of the credit for a renewed interest in the old-timey string music, I always felt that their music left much to be desired. Trampled By Turtles, on the other hand, deliver truckloads of what makes bluegrass so exciting in the first place; well written songs, tight harmonies and skilled command of their instruments. They can really sing and play. Their music makes people want to move, sing, and dance and that’s exactly what the packed crowd at The Mustang Stage did for nearly an hour.
Back at the Palomino Tent I was given a few minutes to talk with Ray Price just before his set. Technically, I was not supposed to be back stage, so reaching him took a bit of fast talking but when I did, Ray was in good spirits and ready to go (read the Q&A here).
Sitting on the grass listening to Price on Saturday night was a little slice of heaven. The heat of the day was starting to give over to a gentle breeze, it must have been seventy-two degrees out and just about perfect. While the sinking sun was busy turning the Little San Bernardino Mountains beautiful shades of orange and red the band played so sweet it could make your teeth hurt, and for the next hour all of the hustle and bustle of the day disappeared and time itself seemed to stand still. I pondered how I could die happy right there, just slip off quietly to a honky tonk heaven while Ray Price sang “San Antonio Rose.” He was accompanied by a large band, at least eleven pieces, just like the big acts used to do. Instead of twin fiddles, he had four. Now that my friends, is how it’s done. He worked through one great song after another: “Crazy Arms,” “Heartache By The Numbers,” “Make The World Go Away,” “I Won’t Mention It Again”,” and then, perhaps a dozen more. At the start of each new song the crowd erupted into appreciative applause of recognition. They were there to hear the honky tonk classics that were huge hits for Ray and he delivered them to a crowd that hung on his every note, sang along with every word, and loved every moment of it. I can’t say for sure the last time he had an audience like that one; the Palomino Tent was packed to capacity and spilling out onto the surrounding lawns with a fairly even mix of the folks who remember when the songs came out and the younger fans who have rediscovered his music. It was standing room only, it was packed, it was hot, and everyone was excited to be there.
Ray Price responded by performing the best set of music I’ve ever seen him deliver. His voice was in fine form, as if he had recorded “Night Life” just yesterday and he clearly enjoyed the exuberant audience response; feeding off a crowd that was on its feet and shouting out requests. There was none of the fluff in this festival set, just a fifty-five minute shot of honky tonk classics straight into the vein that left everyone hollering for an encore. When it was all over, there was the thrilling recognition that in another twenty minutes or so, Merle Haggard was going to come out and do it all over again.
It was a tough set to follow, but if ever there was a man for the job, its The Hag. As his road crew set up, the keyed-up crowd began to shout “We want Merle, we want Merle!” And when he took the stage he owned every inch of it. Merle has played to bikers and The Grand Ole Opry, to roustabouts and hipsters and cowboys so tough they could kick all of our butts. The man saw Johnny Cash play San Quentin Prison three times and that was from the audience. Southern California is definitely Haggard Country and he was treated like a conquering hero when he walked out to play in The Palomino tent and he returned all of the love with interest. I don’t think I’m making too big of a deal when I say that he burned the place down Saturday night. For one hour he treated the crowd to favorites like “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink,” “Silver Wings,” “Swinging Doors,” “Working Man Blues” and many other classics. Just before launching into “Mama Tried” he told the audience, “This next one is for all of the moms here tonight. Later, I’ll play one for all of you mothers.” If the crowd was rowdy for Ray they were barely contained when Merle played. “What do you want me to sing,” he asked the crowd. The response was an incomprehensible roar of requests. “Alright then,” he quipped before launching into “Big City.” Haggard, who turned 73 this month, further joked, “It’s so nice to be here and playing all of these old songs again, many of which I wrote back in my twenties. Here I am in my forties and I’m still playing them.” He wrapped up his set with “Folsom Prison Blues” and local favorite, but rarely heard, “Kern River.” For the latter he announced, “This is a song about a place in California not too far from here.” The sentiment out in the crowd was a palpable: “Welcome home Merle, it’s nice to have you back!”
Next up on the Mane Stage was Atlanta, Georgia’s own Sugarland. I don’t mean to sound complainy, but after Haggard, Sugarland just seemed to fall flat. Listening to their albums and radio hits, I’d expected more from the duo, a lot more, but their stage show seemed ham-handed and overly flashy. It was the kind of performance my grandad would have called “all sizzle and no steak.” Songs like “Baby Girl” and “Stay” resonated well with the crowd, but the high points were few and far between. In the meantime, we suffered through a frustrating selection of covers by Neil Diamond, Beyonce, and The Jackson 5. Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy those songs as much as the next guy, but this was like watching an amateur band at my local sports bar and not at all like seeing a headline act at a major country music festival. Had I been at the sports bar, had a good buzz, and the cover charge was only a buck or two, it might have seemed like a good entertainment value. The set ender, a note for note cover of Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass,” felt pointless and confusing. I’ve seen country versions of that same song that were so good you’d think it had been a Nashville hit first and was only remade years later by a CBGB’s band who were being cheeky. This version, which kicked off with what sounded like a sampled Blondie riff and Jennifer Nettles’ rejoinder that we all just “take it to the disco,” left folks scratching their heads. In hindsight the Stagecoach Festival should have given their spot to Haggard and sent Sugarland back to the Palomino Tent until they were ready to put on a headline quality show. At least they didn’t play “Free Bird.”
At that point, I began to worry about what sort of antics Keith Urban would serve up for his set and conjured images of a Cirque du Soleil meets Kiss pyrotechnics horror when he finally took the stage. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by his performance. Keith seemed right at home in his role as festival headliner. He knew what was expected and he delivered with a stripped-down band of four guys playing song after song with out the cannons, confetti and explosions. He stuck mainly to his hits and didn’t stray into new, unfamiliar material and his set was, thankfully, free of silly covers. It was about as country as Kid Rock’s set last year, more Journey than Johnny, and permeated by a few too many extended guitar solos, but by now the country purists were making their way to the parking lot and the weary, sun burnt Urban fans that remained found their second wind for tunes like “Days Go By” and “Stupid Boy.” They cheered loudly when he jumped into the audience for two songs and it was clear Urban was having a the time of his life playing to his biggest Southern California audience to date. As the moon came up and the palm trees swayed he commented, “What an absolutely perfect night for a concert!” It was indeed.
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