Pent-up demand after the Covid crackdown has brought Stagecoach fans to Indio. Although the green grass at Coachella had been largely trampled over the previous two weeks, there was a lot to love at the nation’s premier country western festival.
Charley Crockett hopped on the Palomino Stage mid-afternoon Friday to kick off our weekend. His retro style brought out the Dwight Yoakam fan in me. (In fact, the first time I saw Yoakam live was at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood, hence the name of the stage in Indio and a coming festival in Pasadena).
Crockett’s lyrical pitch covers Friday nights, jukeboxes, broken hearts and the need to get away from home. His crack band (The Blue Drifters) was excellent. Nathan Fleming’s steel guitar twang anchored the band’s sound.
A cover in the middle of a slow Jerry Lee Lewis song slowed the pace a bit, but soon keyboardist Kullen Fox brought out his trumpet and picked up the pace. Fans showed their appreciation with the self-referential “Jukebox Charley”.
Crockett’s set was fully satisfactory.
Jordan Davis took the Mane Stage at 6 p.m. sharp. Its approach of rolling out a rock and roll edge is understandable, it has moved many artists up the county charts. His poignant “Buy Dirt” sparked a huge song. Extended Springsteen-style guitar codas and a big bass drum beat exploded into the long shadows of the Golden Hour.
Indeed, hours later, Friday’s headliner Thomas Rhett and his band essentially eschewed cowboy hats in favor of baseball caps. Besides Rhett’s elongated syllables, his line towards traditional country was long and winding. But there’s apparently no arguing with success!
Midland delivered a superb set in the middle of Golden Hour. Their most sublime arrangements were the perfect tonic in the transition to the evening sets. The band’s multitude of guitars (five!) belied the sweet melodies delivered by the band’s core: Mark Wystrach, Cameron Duddy and Jess Carson. The savory harmonies and infectious songs pleasantly remind many older folks of Poco, one of the criminally underrated bands of the last half-century. Midland tested the excellent title track of their next album (“The Last Resort”), which sounded more like the first Eagles than the other song of the same name from the latter.
Tanya Tucker has had several decades more touring than most artists playing Stagecoach, and she brought that experience with a heartfelt set. With two Grammys and a myriad of No. 1 hits, she had a deep, rich well to draw from. She had an “aw shucks” reaction to the adulation from the crowded audience, both of which seemed very real.
Tucker seemed a little indifferent to the usually precise deadlines set by the promoter, coming in a bit late and happily strolling around in her between songs.
At one point, it seemed like she was drifting too far when she asked a roadie for her cell phone. But she was ultimately able to connect her call and brought more than a few tears to the audience when Brandi Carlile responded. Tucker had taken Carlile’s place when the latter came down with Covid a few days earlier.
Elsewhere on set, Tanya showcased her Cosa Salvaje-branded tequila, likely not on offer at the merchandising tent. Later, she passed the bottle of tequila to Guy Fieri, tapping her foot into the photo pit. The bottle was later seen in the hands of a security guard, who was checking drink wristbands and pouring shots.
Tanya’s daughter, Presley Tanita, provided perfectly delicate harmony vocals, and the rest of Tanya’s band was excellent, again anchored by evocative steel guitar.
Drifting past the published set time, she called out a beep and brought half the group back to her microphone for a a cappella version of his 1991 hit “Down to My Last Teardrop”. It was a transition to a finely tuned mix of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and Cash’s “Ring of Fire”.
She ended her set with the opening verses of “Amazing Grace” followed by a pregnant break, then her monster hit “Delta Dawn.” She launched her career with this song at 13, fifty years ago. Orville Peck was seen hiding to the left of the stage and coming out to finish the song with Tanya, following a tradition of myriad unique couples on these grounds over the years.
Peck would be back 26 hours later to close out the Palomino stage on Saturday.
Lee Brice ushered in the Golden Hour with the gritty rock sound that just keeps selling out. “If you” punctuates the territory of Brice not far from the strict respect of the second amendment. It echoed the sentiments of Mitchell Tenpenny’s earlier song, which proudly and defiantly insisted on “no more dealing with female dogs”. A few people following the lyrics wondered what was so funny about grace, love and a certain tolerance.
But Brice fired up the crowd with songs to “I Drive Your Truck,” possibly at a “Parking Lot Party” when he was a member of the “Drinking Class.” At some point, I believe they opened a song with the intro of “Foreplay/Long Time” from Boston. Was I crazy in the desert heat, or did anyone else recognize this tune from 1976 and the second greatest debut rock album in history? (The biggest debut album was by Guns ‘n Roses, more on that in a bit).
The Osborne Brothers upped it mostly to 11, with searing lead guitars, thundering drums and stomping beats.
Although Carrie Underwood brought pyrotechnics and a bull horn to close out the Mane scene on Saturday, hers was a pleasant setback to the testosterone-fueled sets that came before it. She previewed her next album, slated for June, and also dug into her bag of success. Adding to the list of surprise duets, Axl Rose (he said the greatest debut album of all time) joined Underwood towards the end of his set.
At the end of the weekend, collaborations would also include Lana Del Rey with Nikki Lane, Mike Love of the Beach Boys with Locash, Ashton Kutcher with Thomas Rhett and Jon Pardi with Midland.
The Mavericks kicked off the jams and delivered extended dancehall versions of their greatest hits. It was the highlight of the weekend. Raul Malo was aided and abetted by the scorching guitar work of Eddie Perez. Several musicians (dubbed The Fantastic Five) sporting horns and a crucial button accordion dotted the playlist. The band’s unique Americana/roots fusion of country, rock and Tejano/Tex-Mex influences culminated two years ago in their album “En Español”. It proved to be a groundbreaking project, bringing together fans from different cultures, genres and languages: the album debuted at number one on Billboard’s “Latin Pop Albums” chart, iTunes and Amazon Latin Music charts. and became the first-ever album to simultaneously land in the Top 10 of the Americana and Latin Music charts. It was great that such cross-pollination resulted in such a receptive reception by the ecstatic Stagecoach crowd.
Even jaded cameramen were seen launching into gloriously extended versions of “All Night Long”, “Back in Your Arms”, “Loving Tonight” and the traditional “Bring Me Down” set.
Smokey Robinson followed on the Palomino stage, once chilled from the previous set. It started with a dip in its vast and deep catalog, but it might have been better to put aside the late-night seduction of “Quiet Storm” for another gig. The Motown hits he is responsible for represent one of America’s greatest songbooks, and for that crowd’s appetite, it was just the ticket. By the time he eschewed the ballads and turned to “My Girl” and “Tears of a Clown,” all bets were off and he had the audience in the palm of his hand. Several generations were singing, confirming that his songs have become entrenched in the culture.
His set seemed somewhat abbreviated, based on the printed program and the songs he wrote.
At The Mane Stage, the Black Crowes charged through a series of gutbucket rock and roll. It’s easy to see why Jimmy Page joined the band long after Led Zeppelin played its last chords.
SOME CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS
It’s commendable that Goldenvoice was ambitious enough to schedule the simultaneous diversity of Smokey Robinson and Black Crowes at a country music festival. In fact, a closer look at the lineup revealed a share of black and gay performers who were arguably more representative of the audience than is believed (or generally admitted). Kudos to Goldenvoice for providing a range of performers that goes beyond what might seem like a narrow definition of what is acceptable in country/western music.
Either way, the most common theme for non-musician T-shirts was pro-Trump and anti-Biden.
Commendably, the most common musician t-shirt was overwhelmingly Johnny Cash.
It would be interesting but impossible to measure how many cowboy hats and boots will remain until they are dusted again next year.
Non-aerial photos by Joy Auerbach, otherwise courtesy of Stagecoach