Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Stagecoach Day 2: bluegrass, rockabilly and country aplenty

Cornbread Washtub Band members Debbie Lynn McBriety (left) and J.D. McBriety performed on the Front Porch stage on May 1.

Americana music took center-stage in the first moments of Stagecoach on Sunday (May 1, 2011), in large part via a trio of retro-looking performances on the Front Porch stage and inside the cool Mustang tent.

Since I arrived as the gates opened at noon, I was able to catch a good part of the Cornbread Washtub Band‘s set on the intimate Front Porch. The four-member Calico, Calif.-based group showcased off its musical chops with a newly-penned instrumental, the apt “Welcome to Stagecoach,” before showcasing other witty bluegrass material like “Chucky, the Calico Chukar” and “Whoa Mule! Whoa!,” enhanced by fiddle, banjo and actual washtub bass.

Picking up where the CWB left off was L.A. act Triple Chicken Foot, a fantastic trio that impressed equally with superb vocal harmonies and virtuoso musicianship. The old-time string band’s fast-paced set allowed Ben Guzman (fiddle, mandolin), Mike Heinle (banjo) and Kelly Marie Martin (guitar) to solo across a wide range of Americana and roots music.

The Coal Porters, on the other hand, weren’t as standard (or as fluid) in their approach as Triple Chicken Foot, but the first part of the quintet’s raucous set featured amped-up traditionals (“June Apple”) and bluegrass-on-steroids (“Final Wild Son”). The group delighted the crowd inside Mustang, with fiddler Carly Frey getting cheers for her breathtaking work

When you boil it all down, there are really two major reasons fans trek out to Stagecoach: some come to hear the music, the rest simply show up for the party. Undoubtedly a handful of fans went for both reasons, but they seem to be in the minority.

How else to explain why tens of thousands of fans packed in front of the Mane Stage on Sunday for high-energy performances from modern-day hit-makers like Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts but couldn’t be bothered to take the short hike over to catch Wanda Jackson or any other legends performing on the Palomino Stage?

And how else to explain that while Jackson was performing, fans were listening attentively and clearly in tune with her set, while even the day’s biggest draws needed to frequently encourage people to clap or sing along, injecting remarks like “good to see all you drunk people” and “everybody with me?” for fear of being swallowed up by the expansive polo field.

That diatribe aside, how did 73-year-old Wanda Lavonne Jackson stack up against headliners like Underwood and Rascal Flatts? Just fine, thank you.

Since being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, the Oklahoma native and Queen of Rockabilly has enjoyed a well-deserved resurgence. Her Jack White-produced album The Party Ain’t Over from earlier this year has further fueled interest in her career, and throughout an hour-long performance on Sunday, it was clear that appreciation for Jackson has been overdue.

Though noting at the outset that a series of shows last week had left her voice a bit tired, Jackson sounded great throughout most of her set. Whether singing spirited rockabilly hits from the ’50s (“Mean, Mean Man,” “Fujiyama Mama”) or her unique mix of rock and country (“I Gotta Know”) or covers of several Elvis Presley staples (the two toured together and briefly dated in the early days of rock ’n’ roll), Jackson’s performance was a celebration of her life and music.

She seemed even more excited when she spoke of her recent work with White, before playing a series of tracks from the new disc. The inclusion of several horn players really bolstered “Shakin’ All Over” and “Nervous Breakdown,” and that energy filled the last half of her performance, which included a rollicking cover of Jerry Lee Lewis‘ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” during the encore.

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Josh Turner‘s hour-long set was long enough for the South Carolina native to play his upbeat hits, gospel-flavored religious material and melodic ballads. Known for his uncanny ability to sing both low (think Johnny Cash) and in a pleasing high register, Turner stayed strong thanks to the high-octane country-rocker “Firecracker,” the Cash-styled “Long Black Train,” bluegrass-tinged “Everything Is Fine” and a nice take on George Jones‘ “One Woman Man.” When he played his chart-topping smash “Why Don’t We Just Dance,” it prompted several concert-goers around me to do just that.

Carrie Underwood‘s appeal, on the other hand, is obvious: she has incredible vocal range, for starters, and thunderous modern country-rockers like “Cowboy Casanova” were the perfect party tonic as the sky went dark and the atmosphere cooled.

Yet, while the young singer’s blend was an instant hit with Stagecoachers, her most excited response from the crowd came when she covered Aerosmith‘s “Walk This Way” and Guns N’ Roses‘ “Paradise City,” the latter of which she’s included live since before her last Indio appearance in 2008, the only time this festival has been a three-day bash. That one-two punch transformed Stagecoach into a hard-rockin’ show. Naturally, she also fared well with her own hits, like “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” “Temporary Home” and “All-American Girl” — all songs showcasing her dynamic voice and growing ability to headline big gigs like this since winning top honors on American Idol in 2005.

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Finally, to close out the festival, Ohio trio Rascal Flatts unpacked its large crate of hits, delivering a show most memorable for the announcement by singer Gary LeVox that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Chants of “U.S.A.” had broken out several times before and after that announcement in many areas of the sprawling crowd.

The band’s performance made full use of the massive stage, lighting system and rear-projection screens, as videos were used throughout the set. With a commercial sound that has pleased modern-day country music fans since the dawn of the 21st century, the group’s soaring harmonies and slick musicianship were employed on both ballads (“I’m Movin’ On,” “I Won’t Let Go”) and upbeat tunes (“Mayberry,” “Here’s to You”). Later, the band cranked it up, dishing out a crowd-pleasing classic-rock medley that included Boston‘s “Foreplay/Long Time,” Kansas‘ “Carry On Wayward Son” and the Edgar Winter Group‘s “Free Ride.”

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