Walking Man’s Blues: Stagecoach ’09 Reflection and Recap
If you’re a person who appreciates crowds, the desert sun, girls in bikinis, walking, being surrounded by people who are blissfully hammered, and country music of both the awesome and terrible variety, then you would have been wise to truck yourself on out to Indio, CA last weekend for the annual Stagecoach Music Festival.
Thanks to my handy geographic location here in Los Angeles, the brothers Vercher once again dispatched me to Indio to chronicle the goings on at Southern California’s only major country music event. I was totally ready for two days of country music madness accompanied by my pal and trusty photographer Mr. Rob Black (who plays bass in the Los Angeles honky tonk band West of Texas) but events conspired against us to shorten my recap of day one considerably.
My day one recap will take the form of conversation I had with Mr. Black upon approaching the festival grounds.
“Man, after that long and crazy trip we’re finally approaching the festival grounds, hey Black, roll down the window will you, lets see if we can hear who’s playing right now.”
*Black rolls down the window*
“I think that’s Reba, Ben.”
“Hmmm…that means that after parking, the long walk, picking up the tickets at will call, and walking to the Mane Stage, we’ll probably only catch one or two Reba songs and then Brad Paisley’s set.”
“Brad Paisley sucks man. I’m still mad at him for making me suffer through Play, I hated that record. In fact, I was borderline personally offended by that record.”
“Yeah dude, that album was really terrible.”
“Let’s just go tomorrow.”
“Sounds good to me.”
So we retreated, confident that we wouldn’t miss anything except another opportunity for me to malign Brad Paisley, which I was confident I could work into my recap anyhow (and without the walking and having to battle the crowd.) It was a strong decision.
It was a hot and stale Budweiser sort of day as we entered the festival to the sound of the Zac Brown Band crooning that the “muchachas call him Big Poppa,” but we had no time for his bearded, UB40-esque take on “country” music as we had to check out the ghost of pop-rock country past: The Pure Prairie League.
The Pure Prairie League were playing at the Palomino tent which last year featured acts like Hayes Carll, Ryan Bingham, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Mike Ness, George Jones, and Dwight Yoakam. I was definitely skeptical about how much I’d enjoy this set of tunes, but I have to tell you, it was really good. Their lead singer had really solid pro vocal phrasing, the guitarist was playing good sounding licks, and their set was well constructed. They played a song called “Getting Over You, Getting Over Me” that was a legitimate country song. It was a touch generic, but in a familiar rather than frustrating sort of way. They also snuck in a completely effective cover of Haggard’s “It’s Not Love, But It’s Not Bad.” These seemed to be the sorts of indulgences that a band can take when they are at the point in their career when people still show up to shows, but no one cares what you play. They neared the end of their set with a tune I think was called “Love You Tonight” that, despite being co-written by Gary Scruggs, was the kind of faux-Eagles pop soft rock that appealed to the kind of people then who would like Rascal Flatts now. All and all, Pure Prarie League can go home feeling pretty good about their set at Stagecoach though, the crowd was alright and they played an exceedingly professional set of music.
Next up on our agenda was Ricky Skaggs.
Ricky Skaggs, who at this stage in his life bears a distinct resemblance to Guy Clark, took the stage with his 6 piece band Kentucky Thunder, welcomed all of us “hot & sweaty bluegrass enthusiasts,” and got to playing some bluegrass music. I’m not very knowledgeable about bluegrass music but the first part of his set struck me as surprisingly not that awesome. It was certainly pro, and the solos were fast by golly, but it didn’t strike me as anymore interesting than Pure Prairie League’s soft country rock. The band seemed to warm up though when they kicked into a hot instrumental that featured really sick soloing from Skaggs and his lead guitarist. Next up was a banjo/fiddle number about a pig, after which Skaggs joked about this being his “20 minute bluegrass workout.” Things only got better after the “workout” as Skaggs told a story about how much seeing Bill Monroe meant to his daddy –“the show cost a quarter, but daddy said he’d a paid a dollar!”–and went on to play some tunes from his Grammy Award winning album Honoring The Father of Bluegrass, which were all awesome. If you haven’t heard the song “Mother’s Only Sleeping,” go track it down and hear it. It’s chilling and mesmerizing.
Continuing with the Country Rock theme established by the Pure Prairie League, Poco was next up over at the Palomino stage.
Poco did absolutely nothing for me. The harmonies didn’t sound as sweet as I expected them to and their brand of soft rock was less engaging than Pure Prairie League’s was. After being bored for a few songs I decided to make my first trip over to the Mane Stage to check out some contemporary country music in the form of Lady Antebellum.
Walking from the Palomino and Mustang tents–with their fairly humble sized crowds of attentive and enthusiastic music fans who were clearly focused and appreciative of what they were seeing–over at the Mane Stage was a strange and sobering experience. This part of the grounds was certainly the meat of the festival; this sea of people camped out on blankets, the shirtless dude bros, the aforementioned girls in bikinis, the ubiquitous security guards checking what style of bracelet you had on, the giant video screens, the standing army of speakers. This was a clear example of music on a macro-scale.
I’ll go ahead and give away my bias–I don’t think this is any way to experience live music, especially live country music. I’d guess experiencing live music isn’t the point for the large majority of the festival go-ers anyhow though. It’s a chance to get away, a large gathering of people, and the performers meet the only standard that seems to matter anymore: they’re famous. Don’t get me wrong, I can see how getting hammered and rambling around getting into adventures with new people is fun, and Stagecoach is as good a place as any to do that, it’s just that the sort of music that makes a good soundtrack for that–boring, non offensive, bland sounding pop-rock that one is familiar with on account of it being on the radio but isn’t good enough to demand attention–isn’t music that appeals to real music fans. I guess what really disappoints me about the whole thing is that America used to be full of real music fans. Young people used to set aside a certain amount of recreation time to enjoy good music and wouldn’t have spent the time or money to come out to a festival that featured so much blatantly bad to mediocre music that they hear too much of as it is. Okay, this rants over, back to Lady Antebellum.
Lady Antebellum was alright, man. I mean, they were terrible, but for a terrible group they were alright. Charles Kelly can actually sing and is definitely a talented and charismatic performer. Hillary Scott was a touch more generic, but more or less held up her end of the deal. They reminded me of two theater kids who grew up singing, and really love it, but have the wrong idea about what it means to sing country (or even rock) music. Their performance was all fun and games, like the sort of thing you’d expect to see from well paid performers at Disneyland. But their vocals, like their music overall, didn’t have any sense of the pain, anger, despair, sex, reflection, or tempered joy that the vocals in American Roots Music should have. These guys deserve to be professional singers, but country music isn’t their place as they obviously don’t want to accomplish anything more artistic than the kind of singing that takes place at amusement parks, on cruise ships, and in Christmas specials. What I saw of their set was basically an inoffensive waste of time.
After Lady A cleared the stage it was time for one of mainstream country’s most heralded and respected new artists. Former Nashville Star contestant, crazy ex-girlfriend, and unintentional Steve Earle plagiarist Miranda Lambert.
I was really curious about Miranda Lambert. I’ve sort of liked some of her radio stuff–mostly “Gunpowder and Lead” and a touch less so “More Like Her”–and since, like every other sensible person, I want country music to get better (and her press releases indicate that she’ll be a force pushing country in that direction) I wanted to like this one.
It was weak to mediocre. Her vocals were so-so, nothing special to be sure, and noticeably worse than on the record. The arrangement to “Kerosene,” or as I call it “that Steve Earle song,” was needlessly and unmusically complicated and gimmicky. In fact, her whole act was like that. The pink guitars that runners delivered to her between songs were silly, and she didn’t really play them, only strummed, and seemed to struggle and glance at her hands while switching from a G chord to the D chord. It’s like, “Yo, Miranda, you can afford to hire an acoustic player for your band, girl!,” though she could probably do without one anyhow since the arrangements were all so crowded. Speaking of her band, the bass player had a mohawk, which is lame.
That sort of summed up her act to me, all smoke and mirrors to dress her up as a rocking singer songwriter. But it was all B.S. She can’t play the guitar and can afford an acoustic player, so the pink guitars were just props. There was absolutely nothing whatsoever punk about her act and yet there was the bass player wearing a mohawk. Hearing the material in this setting convinced me once and for all that there is absolutely nothing qualitatively different between Miranda Lambert and an artist like Taylor Swift. They are both pop country artists in the 90’s girl-power pop-rock tradition. There isn’t anymore difference between them than there is between novelty license plate holders that say “Daddy’s Little Princess” and those that say “Girls Love Trucks.” Miranda is fine as a “slightly smarter than the norm” addition to country radio playlists, but until she ditches the pink prop guitar angle, gets a real band, and focuses more on the music and less on the “act,” she’s really not worth taking seriously as a live artist.
My next stop was back to the Mustang tent–once again having to traverse the controlled, expensive, pandemonium that is the world around the Mane Stage–to catch Ralph Stanley.
Ralph Stanley was small in stature, and his face was bandaged, and he appeared old and frail, but once he opened his mouth and kicked into an old hillbilly song, he loomed large and his presence seemed to expand to inhabit the tent like a spirit. He wasn’t “alright,” he was amazing. The reaction I had to his voice was nearly involuntary; it takes your breath away. He had Jim Lauderdale come up and take the stage with him, which was neat, and then did a tune with Ralph Stanley II, which was also nice, but I don’t think there was a singer in attendance who could have held a candle to the raw emotive power of Ralph Stanley himself. Well, maybe one, but I’ll get to that later.
I had to cut out on Ralph Stanley, to my dismay, but over in the Palomino tent The Knitters were getting ready to kick off.
The Knitters are the country project of the legendary Los Angeles punk band X featuring Dave Alvin on guitar. I love their two records, was thrilled to see them play live, and was way stoked that they brought Dave Alvin with them. Part of my enthusiasm is an L.A. thing I think, since X and The Blasters (Dave Alvin’s breakthrough band) are a big deal out here, and for good reason. But I guess that was a long time ago because the Palomino tent was emptier for The Knitters–The Knitters!–than for Poco or Pure Prairie League. Superbummer. John Doe, Exene, Dave Alvin and company didn’t seem too deterred though as they tore into an energetic, joyous, and compelling set of country music. John Doe and Exene are sort of the anti-Charles Kelly and Hillary Scott in that neither of them have showy voices, and their harmonies are frequently a touch dissonant, but whereas the latter leave you impressed but cold, the former leave you appreciative and enthralled.
I need to take a special moment to recognize Dave Alvin’s guitar playing. His tone was absolutely killer. It was the first time all day that an electric guitar sounded good and his playing was monstrous (in a good way). He kept everything rocking along great with his killer tone while playing rhythm and when it was time to unleash on a solo he just hunkered down and seemed to rip greatness from the instrument. Dave Alvin taking a moment to shine and absolutely laying musical waste to all that was before him while playing with The Knitters–seriously, The Knitters, so rad–is exactly the kind of moment that I look forward to when going to shows. I’ll never forget it. It was the musical highlight of the night.
The Knitters really were great all around. They did a phenomenal Dave Alvin song called “Dry River” that was really impactful. They did a fun version of the Jones/Wynette duet “Something to Brag About.” They tore through their trademark tunes like “Walking Cane” and “Wrecking Ball,” and they brought that “I’m one of you” DIY punk enthusiasm and energy to their whole set. It was awesome.
I was now faced with a choice, head back over to the Mane Stage to see Kid Rock, or hang out at the Palomino stage to check out Jim Lauderdale and his Dream Players. By now you guys can probably guess the choice I made.
Jim Lauderdale took the stage with a deep blue, nearly purple, western suit on that looked like a color that medieval kings would go to war to procure the dye for. It was intense. Lauderdale is one of those guys who has been around the music business forever, has been universally recognized as talented, and has always managed to stay working despite never really having any hits–which is a pretty impressive accomplishment. He brought with him a band of dream players including James Burton (!) and Al Perkins. James Burton is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and played on the Ricky Nelson records, some early Merle records, Elvis records, the Gram records (where he teamed with Perkins), and like a million other records. He’s a big deal.
So how was this set of music? It was good. In some ways, aside from the minor musical mistakes that occur when you have a band of great players who don’t have the time or inclination to rehearse, it was beyond criticism. Lauderdale is a pro vocalist who has country phrasing nailed. The band was filled with great players. Lauderdale’s originals are seemingly solid country songs and he played a number of choice covers including Ricky Nelson’s “Traveling Man,” Haggard’s “Lonesome Fugitive,” and Parson’s “Oooh Las Vegas.” But my overall impression of Lauderdale is that he’s a talented, earnest, and all around adequate practitioner of the right kind of country music, but he doesn’t have that spark of creation around him. He’s like a more talented version of George Strait and one that’s trying harder. To put it another way, if one were casting a movie and needed a real country singer who could seem real enough to be completely believable, but wasn’t distinct or quirky enough to steal any attention from the scene, Lauderdale would be perfect. His songs were all fully functional, but never surprised or revealed anything to me.
I will say one more thing about Jim Lauderdale though, my associate Mr. Black–who is himself a talented musician and connoisseur of country music–thought Lauderdale’s set was amazing. I’ll allow that maybe there’s something I’m missing here, and maybe I’ll come around to it.
The next act up on the Palomino stage was none other than the Emperor of Country Music, the man who plays songs so sad it makes Chuck Norris cry, the one, the only, Dale Watson!
By the time Watson took the stage it was windy and cold. The crowd had dwindled to a terribly small number of true country fans–as Watson quipped later “I’m really glad you’re all here, cause I realize the big show is over there!”–and everyone was pretty tired. Despite him being the emperor of Country Music and all, I had never gotten too deep into Watson’s music and was really interested to see if he lived up to the hype.
Boy Howdy, Good God Almighty, Hot Damn, did Dale Watson ever live up to the hype. One of the first songs he kicked into was “Sit and Drink and Cry” a great country shuffle with an infectious melody that he sang with a level of precision, phrasing, and tone that was extremely impressive. I don’t think his records manage to capture his immense vocal talent. By any metric you can apply in evaluating country singers–the aforementioned phrasing, precision in pitch and volume, tone, as well as other metrics such as the ability to present a varied performance, or even the ability to perform vocal tricks like hiccups, yodels, growls, etc–Dale Watson is a master country singer. Also, the feel of his set, his band was tight and driving and energetic but still restrained and spontaneous sounding, hit just the right note.
He called out to the crowd that he’d doesn’t use a set list and would be taking requests–which is something of a gimmick, but an effective and exciting one–and the first request was for his tune “That’s Country My Ass.” He quipped “Why, whatever made you think of that song here?” to the crowds delight. He went on to play it as a singalong and this small, wearied, remnant of country music fans in exile that had gathered in the Palomino tent because we don’t care about Kid Rock or Kenny Chesney were shouting the hook line at the top of their lungs.
Watson went on to play some excellent tunes from his latest album The Truckin’ Sessions, Vol. 2 record that’s out now, and in the midst of the tunes gave the crowd vocals reminiscent of Merle (obviously), but also Marty Robbins, Ray Price, and Elvis. By the time he got to his beautiful ballad “Dreamland,” I was feeling all of the things that real country music is supposed to make you feel and was convinced that Dale Watson is the best country vocalist I have ever seen live.
I know that the modernists will roll their eyes, the teeny boppers will “pshaw,” and Alison Bonagurro–were she reading this–would burst out in a disdainful, high-pitched, corporate guffaw, but if it still mattered how good a country singer was live, or how musically and emotionally impactful their songs were, or how much they were willing to give to the art, if those things still mattered to people, Dale Watson would have been the reason all those people came out to the Coachella Valley last Sunday. If I wasn’t already in love with Country Music, his set would have done it. It at times was heartbreaking, at times riveting and rocking, at times funny, and all the time impressive. It was incredible.
As Mr. Black and I–now exhausted, hungry, and freezing cold–started the long, long, walk from the Palomino Stage, around the Mane Stage, out the gate, and through what seemed like endless parking lots, twists, and turns, while growing more raggedy and wobbly with every step until we reached my car to finally leave, Kenny Chesney provided us with our soundtrack. We saw part of his stage show on the way out, enough for my tastes. He was out there with his little self, running around with an arm outstretched to the crowd, a ridiculous band that functioned as a glorified karaoke machine, and crazy looking videos on in the background to help transform his stage show into a “spectacle.” The songs–radio hits that have been played to death over the years–sounded basically like his records. What was remarkable though was that it seemed that no matter how far away from the stage we walked, step after step, portion after portion of our journey, his music remained just as loud. It kept reverberating on and on, following us.
Stagecoach was discouraging for me last year, but more so this year. Given the small size of the crowds at the Palomino Stage, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they made it an exclusively mainstream country music festival next year. We can debate whose fault it is, but the fact is that the Kenny Chesneys of the world (and the Garth Brookses, the Tim McGraws, the Brad Paisleys, the Rascal Flatts etc) have the general public amassed in seas of glassy eyed appreciative recognition (enthusiasm is too strong a word), and no matter how brilliant the music that preceded it was, its their music that seems to be following us around now. It’s their music that has doggedly trailed us for nearly 20 years already and Stagecoach proved to me that it’s showing no signs of trailing off. By all rights it shouldn’t have traveled so far. How could something so insignificant endure for so long when something so compelling has already become a faded memory?
Nevertheless, no matter how far you try to distance yourself from it, it seems that packing up and leaving all together–grateful for the instances of transcendence you experienced while they lasted, but bitter and wearied at what managed to persist during the long retreat–may be all that’s left to do for fans of that venerated American art form in decline–Country Music. The only other choice is to take your place in the crowd, to pull up a blanket, and stare at the giant video screens, trying your best to appreciate what you can from this song or that, giving yourself over to the pop rock conventions of bridges and musical breakdowns, and telling yourself over and over again that it was never really any better before, it is what it is now either way, and it still beats what’s happening in other mass appeal music formats.
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