Thursday, April 30, 2015

2015 Stagecoach Festival roundup

Review by Robert Kinsler

Since the first Stagecoach was staged in Indio in 2007, the country music event has grown in popularity attracting fans from around the globe who come to soak in the sun, fun, and plenty of country, Americana and rock 'n' roll music featured on a number of stages positioned around the Empire Polo Club in Indio, CA.

This year the sold-out event once again offered an outstanding mix of up-and-comers, modern-day hit makers and legendary veteran artists. Here is a rundown of my favorite and not-so-favorite performances that played out at Stagecoach Friday-Sunday, April 24-26.

Lindi Ortega performing at the Palomino Stage.
Photo: Robert Kinsler
Lindi Ortega was the first performer to take the stage at Stagecoach, hitting the Palomino Stage at 1 p.m. on Friday. No worries. The Nashville-based singer performed a number of wonderful songs including the haunting opener "Heaven Has No Vacancy," the memorable country ballad "Cigarettes & Truckstops" and a convincing cover of the Johnny Cash staple "Ring of Fire." 

Pegi Young & the Survivors Although Pegi Young is best-known as the long-time wife of Neil Young (Neil filed for divorce in July 2014 after 36 years of marriage), the singer-guitarist has quietly gone about establishing a burgeoning artistic career via a series of well-received albums dating back to her 2007 self-titled debut. Performing early Friday afternoon, Pegi Young & the Survivors brought their solid mix of roots rock, blues and folk to the Palomino Stage for an animated 50-minute set. Highpoints included "Better Livin' Through Chemicals" (a great swipe at the medical establishment's obsession with providing prescriptions drugs for everything) with its jazzy-blues intro, an artful cover of JJ Cale's "Blue Sunday," and the straightforward roots rock of "Walking on the Tightrope."

Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys brought an energy-filled bluegrass sound to the Mustang Stage. The Michigan quartet impressed late in its set with a shining reworking of The Beatles' "Rain" complete with exceptional three-part harmonies. 

The Lone Bellow performed the single most artistically-arresting set I caught all weekend at Stagecoach. The trio mixed up country, folk, bluegrass and indie rock in a 50-minute powerhouse performance including the soaring "Then Came The Morning" and the anthemic "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold."

Sturgill Simpson impressed a big crowd at Coachella the previous weekend, so it's no surprise he attracted a similarly-large throng to see him perform at the Palomino for a 45-minute set featuring his modern-edged take on traditional country music highlighted by versions of "Long White Line" and "Living the Dream" off his latest album "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music." 

Kacey Musgraves on the Toyota Mane Stage.
Photo: Kelly A. Swift
Because of a myriad of performances playing out around the same time, I only got to catch Kacey Musgraves for about 15 minutes. I had been interested in seeing the young star since she exploded with the release of 2013's “Same Trailer Different Park,” and I was not disappointed. The personable 26-year-old kicked things off with the infectious single "Silver Lining" and continued to turn heads with the bouncy "Stupid." She also performed the new song "Biscuits," set to be included off her summer 2015 release.  

The Time Jumpers are no ordinary group. The nine players who shared the Palomino Stage have collectively played a major role on the country music scene over the past 30 years. With Vince Gill and Kenny Sears among the troupe's best-known musicians, the line-up performed selections that never failed to shine. Among the highlights I caught was a western swing-styled "Sugar Blues," and Gill singing "Together Again," the latter featuring some amazing pedal steel guitar work from Paul Franklin

Steve Earle & The Dukes kicked off their set featuring blues-flavored material from the their 2014 album "Terraplane," including the catchy "Baby Baby Baby (Baby)" and authentic "You're the Best Lover That I Ever Had." However, the crowd packed in front of the Mustang Stage went nuts when Earle and company launched into the driving "Guitar Town" from his 1986 debut. And the energy quotient was increased even higher when Earle and his Dukes rocked through his masterwork "Copperhead Road."

Steve Earle at Stagecoach.
Photo: Kelly A. Swift
Merle Haggard, now 78, is one of country music's most beloved living legends. His performance inside a packed Palomino Tent was highlighted by emotional takes on timeless classics including "Mama Tried," "Silver Wings," "If I Could Only Fly" and the big sing-along "Okie From Muskogee." Haggard's voice continues to be a thing of wonder, conveying a lifetime of emotion with every note.

Few country music superstars are as smooth and polished as Tim McGraw  who closed out day one of Stagecoach with a set that delivered a mix of hits and his easy-going personality. Opening with the high-octane "Truck Yeah," the night also featured the Louisiana native singing the melodic "Something Like That," the ballad "Southern Girl" and one of his most beloved songs, "Live Like You Were Dying."

Traditionalist Daniel Romano took the stage early on Saturday, and those who caught his impressive 35-minute set will long remember his ability to mine the sonic territory first explored by the late Gram Parsons and celebrated here with a set of strong original songs.

Nikki Lane on the Toyota TRD Pro
Stage. Photo: Kelly A. Swift
Nikki Lane was one of a number of young artists who impressed throughout the 3-day event. I caught her second performance of the day, which was staged on the Toyota TRD Pro Stage. Her authentic soprano was used in the service of striking outlaw country music gems including "Man Up," and "Sleep With a Stranger." Blessed with a genuine swagger, authority and presence rare in the genre, Lane seemed surprised when a large group started line dancing during her performance. One of those magic Stagecoach moments to be sure.

Nashville-based duo John & Jacob (Birmingham, Alabama natives John Davidson and Jacob Bryant) impressed from the moment that started performing on the big Mane Stage. With harmonies recalling the Everly Brothers and Dave Clark Five, the newcomer's 35-minute set was highlighted by "Ride With Me" and a cover of the aforementioned Everly Brothers' "Wake Up Little Susie." 

Cassadee Pope might have tore things up when she won the third season of NBC's "The Voice," but this writer found her Stagecoach set mostly a dud. Performing on the Mane Stage, the 25-year-old Florida native's set included karaoke-worthy renditions of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" and a watered-down take on The Eagles' "Hotel California."

Singer-actor Charles Esten –  best known for his lead role playing Deacon Claybourne on the ABC-TV series "Nashville"  was a popular name able to draw a good share of concertgoers from the Mane Stage to come check him out in the Palomino. I found his set a mixed bag; I enjoyed some of the songs and others I didn't. However, he was never less than engaging and pleased the faithful with "Whiskey Lips," "Hot One" and "He Ain't Me."

Capping off an especially strong day of performances, both the legendary Gregg Allman and ZZ Top.  Both artists delivered sets that extended beyond their greatest hits (although the audience got all of those), and the performances each served to celebrate the unique careers of both groundbreaking artists.

Allman's set was particularly amazing to me. I caught the 67-year-old legend a few years ago and was less than impressed with his low-key performance. His hour-long showcase inside the Palomino was the complete opposite. From the get-go Allman seemed thrilled and the capacity crowd couldn't have been more reverent. Highlights included a sweeping "I'm No Angel," an uptempo blues cover of Dickey Betts' "Southbound" and wistful "Melissa." However, I thought Allman's scorching version of the rock 'n' blues burner "Whipping Post" was my favorite offering (notable for guitarist Scott Sharrard's slide guitar playing).

ZZ Top rocking the Palomino Stage at Stagecoach.
Photo: Kelly A. Swift
Rock and Roll Hall of Famers ZZ Top packed (and I mean packed) the Palomino Stage. Beyond performing all of their radio hits ("Got Me Under Pressure," "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Sharp Dressed Man," "Cheap Sunglasses" "La Grange" and more), the Texas trio dug deep to perform early nuggets as well as material off their most recent studio album (2012's "La Futura"). I was particularly blown away by the group's performance of the new song "Flying High," with its melodic chorus, and how that sterling performance segued into a potent tribute to Jimi Hendrix via a rocking cover of "Foxey Lady." The band ended its memorable 75-minute set with a sing-along version of their hit "Tush."

Nashville provided more than its share of artists at this year's Stagecoach, which amounted to a good thing. Singer-songwriter Andrew Combs performed a style of Americana roots rock that blended Jayhawks-styled tunefulness with Neil Young country folk. Highlights included the infectious "Foolin'" complete with three-part harmonies, and the beautiful "Please, Please, Please."

Logan Brill at Stagecoach Fest. Photo: Robert Kinsler
Logan Brill could well be one of the next big things in country music. The young singer  already a master at performing contemporary country  was especially expert when singing a potent version of the aforementioned Combs' "World Still Round" and the Dolly Parton-penned classic "Jolene."

Even though he performed a mere 25 minutes, Chris Janson delivered my least favorite outing of the long weekend. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter was simply too imitative of a slew of other modern-day performers during his six-song set. His songs proved to have plenty of hooks, but didn't extend beyond a party-minded approach. His single "Buy Me a Boat" was creatively able to incorporate a bit of the Joe Cocker hit "Feelin' Alright" into the mix making for the one bright spot in the set.

Classic six-man Southern rock outfit Outlaws unleashed rousing versions of the band's best-known songs, including a breezy "There Goes Another Love Song" and a 12-minute blistering version of "Green Grass & High Tides." The band also thrilled with the fiery closer, "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky."

Eric Burdon delivering rock 'n' blues at Stagecoach.
Photo: Robert Kinsler
Eric Burdon and the Animals brought their unique and enduring style of classic rock blending blues, psychedelic rock and R&B to the Palomino Stage, offering up one classic after another to the delight of an enthusiastic crowd. The opener "Don't Bring Me Down," a reworked (and reggae-tinged) "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," hard rocking "It's My Life" and blues-styled take on "The House of the Rising Sun" made for a magical late afternoon set.

What would the final day of Stagecoach be without a little bluegrass? Thanks to the sterling talents of Hot Rize, genre enthusiasts got a heaping dose of bluegrass to close out the Mustang Stage. I only got to watch the group for a few minutes, but was very impressed by their virtuoso musicianship and how they got a small crowd moving and cheering to their top-tier musicianship.

While George Thorogood and the Destroyers definitely helped fuel the party inside the Palomino, the band's boogie rock grew tedious over the course of 75 minutes. Thorogood's slide guitar and limited range as songwriter and singer didn't offer enough artistry to live up to many of the weekend's best performances. The highlight of his set was likely the performance of his hits "I Drink Alone" and "Bad to the Bone," but even those songs sailed to soar.

You can read writer George A. Paul's overview of 2015 Stagecoach posted on the Music News Nashville site here.

No comments: