Monday, May 02, 2011

Stagecoach: Day 1 with Rhonda Vincent, Mel Tillis & Kris Kristofferson

Day 1 at Stagecoach welcomed the old and the new, the good and the bad across a long unseasonably cool day in Indio. While many of the country music festival performances on the Mane Stage played out against the gigantic party that is undoubtedly the biggest attraction for the beer-drinking masses, gratefully there was solid music-making throughout the day.

Kicking off the action in the Palomino tent earlier today, David Serby & the Dirt Poor Folklore were not out to blow away the audience with a sonic roar. Rather the four-man outfit was quick to impress an early-arriving crowd with a fine blend of acoustic country rooted in traditional folk, C&W and Appalachia sounds.

While Serby’s previous releases have been steeped in ’60s California honky-tonk, his wonderful Stagecoach set focused strictly on his forthcoming album Poor Man’s Poem, a thoughtful collection of songs set in the 19th century. During the performance, Serby noted that while his songs are set in the 1800s, the issues addressed are in tune with our times. “Sugar Creek,” for instance — a song evoking Harvest-era Neil Young that he wrote about the suicide of soldiers returning from the Civil War — was influenced by present-day stories from American troops.

Other numbers addressed a wide range of topics with lyrical depth, from pieces about Native Americans to narratives about self-preservation (the protagonist of one breaks the law because “I just stole back what was mine”). Banjo, mandolin and accordion — provided by the songwriter’s band: guitarist Edward Tree, multi-instrumentalist Matt Cartsonis and bassist Mark Goldberg — all helped bring extra shades to arrangements built on Serby’s acoustic guitar and rich vocals.

That artistic momentum continued a bit later when New York quintet Phosphorescent – a band I sadly missed when it performed at Coachella a few weeks earlier — delivered one of the strongest sets of the day.

Though the group is now based in Brooklyn, singer Matthew Houck took the stage noting that he wanted to dedicate the first song to his home state of Alabama, hard hit by massive tornadoes that decimated areas. The driving “It’s Hard to Be Humble When You’re from Alabama” sounded as if it could have been penned by Chuck Berry working with a member of the Georgia Satellites. But as Phosphorescent moved through its 45-minute outing, it was clear why the band is so unique. Few outfits blend old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, garage-rock, alt-country, blues and folk so powerfully.

“The Mermaid Parade” was dreamy and beautiful, with an otherworldly guitar solo, while a mini set of Willie Nelson covers boasted versions of “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way” and “Reasons to Quit” that tapped into the group’s influences without losing their own far-flung approach to Americana. Through it all, Houck’s real-world vocals never lost their authentic edge. Yet, as great as the first 30 minutes of the band’s performance was, nothing could have prepared for the set-ending “Los Angeles,” a Neil Young-meets-Band of Horses rocker that included a pounding piano and guitar solo duel, plus an explosive, chills-inducing ending.

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Singer and mandolin player Rhonda Vincent‘s 50-minute showcase in the Mustang tent was just as strong, but here the emphasis was all about breathtaking bluegrass and virtuoso musicianship from both the Missouri favorite (pictured above with banjo player Aaron McDaris) and her fantastic four-man band the Rage (guitarist Ben Helson, banjo player Aaron McDaris, stand-up bassist Mickey Harris and fiddler Hunter Berry). Featuring songs from Vincent’s latest album, Taken, “Ragin’ Live for You Tonight” kicked things off with a trot, allowing breaks for band members to trade solos. Later, “Back on My Mind” featured incredible vocal harmonies from Vincent and her group, while “A Little at a Time” was a slow ballad featuring her stunning soprano.

I was not nearly as impressed, however, by Chris Young‘s set in front of a crowd at least a thousand times larger on the Mane Stage. Young, 25, shot to fame after winning Nashville Star in 2006, and he has kept his sights on being a major player in modern country via a string of one-dimensional hits whose titles pretty much sum it all up: the ballad “The Man I Want to Be,” party rocker “Small Town Big Time.” Here, he added what undoubtedly will be future smashes from a forthcoming album, like “Save Water, Drink Beer” and “I Can Take It from There.” But it was only when singing the pretty ballad “Tomorrow” that his approach veered into slightly deeper artistic waters.

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Mel Tillis, one of country music’s greatest-ever songwriters, crammed a lot of classic material into his hour on the Palomino Stage, backed by a nine-member band whose strength helped the 78-year-old legend deliver a big but nuanced performance. Highlights of his set included “Send Me Down to Tucson,” “Southern Rains,” “Coca-Cola Cowboy” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” complete with crowd singalong (much to Tillis’ delight). Although he struggles to hit the notes nowadays, his solid performance marked a strong celebration of his enduring legacy as a master songwriter and traditional hit-maker.

Less than 10 minutes after leaving the stage, Tillis came back out, this time to introduce longtime friend Kris Kristofferson, a last-minute replacement for the ailing Loretta Lynn. The two hugged, and then the 74-year-old Kristofferson was suddenly on the stark stage alone. For more than an hour, he huffed and puffed and sung in a sparse, freewheeling approach that delighted the audience crowded in front of the Palomino Stage. Few high-profile performances are as loose as Kristofferson’s, filled with stories, staples, even a few incomplete works.

Between jabs at the Bush/Cheney administration, a dedication to members of the military now standing up against war and other politically-charged comments, he delighted the crowd with acoustic versions of some of his masterworks. “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night” continue to resonate; they took on extra weight given how leather-faced Kristofferson seemingly struggled to scrape each note out of his weary baritone while plucking his guitar. At one point he even apologized to the crowd, admitting “I wish my voice sounded better.”

As he finished his set, ending with the aptly titled “Why Me” and its exploration of faith, I turned and saw a woman with tears in her eyes. For many fans of the legendary country music outlaw, Kristofferson sounded just fine

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