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Coachella with a twang underscores Stagecoach festival

Empire Polo Grounds, Indio, Cal., May 6, 2007

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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It is easy to give Stagecoach the blanket description of the country Coachella. Granted, it's held on the same polo grounds as Coachella and put together by the same promoter. The shows even use the same stages. But the difference - and it's a big one - is the music IQ of the two audiences.

Coachella is a large event, expanded from two to three days this year. But its success has always been predicated upon the promoter's ability to draw large audiences to watch acclaimed artists. At Coachella, even the most obscure British flavor-of-the-week band packs one of the ground's three tents. But such commercial eclecticism never took place at this first Stagecoach.

Coachella loves to mix current favorites, such as Radiohead, along with blasts from the past, like Depeche Mode. But Stagecoach stacked the deck with huge names (George Strait, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn) to nearly guarantee massive crowds for this inaugural two-day festival.

By the looks of it, some fans planted their chairs on the ground in front of the main stage, which wasn't too fair from the main entrance and only moved away from their chosen spots to eat or pee.

The only clear exception to this rule occurred when Willie Nelson appeared on the adventurous Palomino Stage. He's household name enough to attract mainstream fans and hipsters alike. Nelson sounded darn good, as well. Some may complain that he talk-sings his songs, rather than truly sing them, but his conversational approach is a large part of his charm. Nelson, who was also the only artist to appear at both the 2007 Coachella Valley Music Festival and Stagecoach, put a little extra vocal gusto in his set, which included the alcohol-fueled "Whiskey River" and the more spiritual "The Still Is Still Moving."

In some instances, this audience inequity bordered on the criminal, as was the case of the John Cowan Band. Cowan's group played the Appaloosa Stage, which focused primarily on bluegrass, right at the same time Nelson and Alan Jackson were doing their things, on their respective stages. Cowan's audience was so small, it could only be measured in the hundreds, not the thousands.

But those thousands missed a wonderful set. Cowan went from playing Dave Alvin's "King Of California" from an upcoming release to a Robbie Fulks tune. Such song selection openness is lot like what Del McCoury Band has also been doing for many years.

John Doe (of X, The Knitters) is an L.A. musical legend, yet his Palomino Stage show drew an extremely sparse gathering. As with Cowan, stick-in-the-muds missed out on Doe's blisteringly rocking set. Doe played electric guitar, rather than his standard bass, and let his backing band through X's "The New World," a political song that is, sadly, still appropriate. This version was especially good as it also included rollicking piano - hardly a normal X element - on it.

Another problem with this first festival was the proximity between the Main Stage and the Palomino Stage. The volume was at 11 and beyond on the Main Stage, which made it hell for the sometimes acoustic-based Palomino Stage artists. Kris Kristofferson, armed just with an acoustic guitar and a few harmonicas, noted that it sounded like a roller coaster "over there." He also complained about the natural spotlight, the blaring sun, but there was nothing organizers could do about that.

Lucinda Williams couldn't quite comprehend the sounds she was hearing from across the field, but her amplified set more than covered it. Patterson Hood of Drive By Truckers put it best. "We're the antidote," he called his band just before they set sail. Their electric guitar-driven sound - sometimes numbering three wailing axes - quickly made you forget there was another big stage not far away, or even that a whole other festival going on.

Although the Palomino Stage was tailor made for alt.-country fans, it was not the only place where cooler-than-mainstream music was being played. For instance, Cowboy Nation (brothers Chip and Tony Kinman) came out of semi-retirement to perform a familiar batch of cowboy favorites on the cowboy-themed Mustang Stage. Tony's lower-than-low voice was especially welcome again.

Don Edwards also did much of the same the next day in that very spot. But the best Mustang Stage guest of all was one from humorist Garrison Keillor. Dressed in a suit and tie, Keillor began with an impromptu cowboy song, in keeping with the tent's overall theme. In it, he hilariously touched upon everything from the sort of folks that populate nearby Palm Springs, to a few lines about a young man the bows down in front of him to take a picture. Oh yeah, he also gave a Lake Wobegon update. His take on how these reserved residents hug each other had the audience laughing long and hard. `

In addition to the woefully neglected John Cowan Band, the Appaloosa Stage threw down some mind boggling bluegrass and other acoustic-oriented sounds. Del McCoury never ceases to amaze as his combo found room for both The Lovin' Spoonful's "Nashville Cats" and Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightening."

Although not bluegrass, The Flatlanders also took this same stage on Sunday. When they dedicated "Julia" to a soldier just back from Iraq, it was hard to hold back the tears; especially when he slow danced to it with his mother, near the front of the stage.

Because it was so full of wonderful back-to-back talent, one could have easily stuck by the Palomino Stage for two straight days, just as the mainstream folks did. On day one, David Serby gave his country sound a distinct blues touch; Old 97's revved it up nicely; and Raul Malo, with his own twangy guitar and acoustic piano accompaniment, provided a classic pop approach. Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen's low key bluegrass tunes were the surprise highlight of the Palomino Stage's music for this first day. With Hillman mainly on mandolin, The Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn" took on fresh life, and it was more than appropriate to do "Sin City," as this festival was not far from Gram Parsons' old stomping grounds.

But as good as the Palomino Stage music was on the first day, it was even better the second. In addition to Doe, Alejandro Escovedo, aided by strings, performed powerfully. Kristofferson mixed new protest songs with old favorites, like "Help Me Make It Through The Night" and "Me And Bobbie McGee."

Emmylou Harris, backed these days by a couple female musicians that also sing back-up, used these harmonies to fine advantage on such songs as "Orphan Girl." Drive By Truckers were the best Palomino Stage entry, hands down. Along with "Carl Perkins' Cadillac" and "Gravity's Gone" the group also road-tested new tunes for a soon-to-be-recorded CD. They were also ably assisted by Spooner Oldham on piano and joined for one song by Kelly Hogan.

Nobody truly stood out on the main stage, as most of these acts simply transferred their regular tour shows to this festival stage. It was great, however, to see Gary Allan lead the audience in singing. "Nothing On But The Radio." And the usually mum Alan Jackson was verbally amazed about this desert venue's scenic view.

All artists on the main stage were treated to massive crowds, whether their commercial track record warranted it or not. Pat Green, a recent breakthrough, received the rock star treatment for "Wave On Wave," for example, while relative newcomers - like Eric Church, Jason Michael Carroll and Jason Aldean - benefited from acting as unintentional openers for George Strait, Brooks & Dunn and the like.

Had they been on any of the other three stages, they would have flown far below the radar like the criminally ignored Alejandro Escovedo performance on the Palomino Stage. With this in mind, the promoters ought to consider throwing someone like Neko Case onto the main stage next year.

Mainstream country fans will love her, although they haven't ever heard of her. The big names will once again guarantee big crowds, so why not experiment with the formula just a tad?

One could long for the day that Stagecoach puts someone like Drive By Truckers on its main stage. But that probably won't happen right away. For now, it's the tale of one festival with two distinct audiences. And if you were up for it, this was Coachella with a twang.