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Stagecoach: with acts like the Hag, you can't go wrong

Empire Polo Club, Indio, Cal., April 24, 2010

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

The latest edition of Stagecoach featured some of country music's heavy hitters. Keith Urban and Sugarland headlined Saturday night, while Sunday night put the spotlight on Toby Keith and Brooks & Dunn. And while all four of these acts brought big hits to the big stage (called Mane Stage), the best music came - as usual - from the Palomino Stage.

On Saturday, Merle Haggard was given the hero's welcome when he stepped up to perform. Although Haggard's repeated announcements that this show was going out live over Sirius XM Radio (We got it the first time, Hag!), these little annoyances did nothing to spoil the overall experience.

There was the sense that many of these (mostly) young people in the audience had never seen Haggard live before and wanted to give him a little love in person. In fact, it may have been the loudest crowd in the Palomino Stage tent all weekend. In return, Haggard gave them just what they were asking for - iconic songs, from an iconic performer. There were a few drinking songs early on (I Think I'll Just Stay Here And Drink and Swinging Doors), as well as crime songs (Lonesome Fugitive) and state of the union songs, for lack of a better term, Big City. The Hag sounded great and seemed a little overwhelmed by all the attention. But he's earned it.

It was difficult to know what to expect from Carlene Carter. After all, the last time she was in the news was because of boyfriend/collaborator Howie Epstein's criminal issues, which involved a stolen vehicle and drugs. Epstein, who had produced Carter's highly successful "I Fell in Love" album, was both a musical partner and a beau. Tragically, drugs eventually took Epstein's life, and one had to wonder if Carter would ever rebound from such devastation. Carter first responded with the CD "Stronger," where its title song's lyrics assured, "What don't kill you makes you stronger." That promise needed to be true for Carter, who had lost Epstein, step-father Johnny Cash, and sister Rosey Carter within just a few months. The good news is Carter looked healthy and sounded great.

Playing acoustic guitar (and a little autoharp), she drew from this CD - which she still jokingly considers new because it hasn't sold enough yet - as well as family standards, like Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Although she spoke about her sister Rosey, her grandmother Maybelle Carter (who taught her how to bowl and play poker, she informed us) and her father, Carl Smith, she did not mention her mom, June Carter. And that's a little odd because she's grown into a near doppelganger of her mother. She's got that June vocal growl in her voice when she sings sometimes, as well as a zany sense of humor. Yet even without a nod to mom, Carter did the family name proud with this performance.

It was hit or miss with the four headliners at Stagecoach 2010. Urban rose to the occasion with a high-energy set on Saturday night. After a long day wandering around the desert - which is precisely what attending Stagecoach entails - bodies get weary and need a little pick me up at the end of the day. Songs like Days Go By showed off Urban's guitar and vocal skills, and the funny patter he had with the sign language interpreter stage left nicely highlighted his sense of humor.

On Sunday night, Brooks & Dunn gave perhaps their final Southern California performance as a duo. All the hits where there, but it was Ronnie Dunn's impassioned vocals on the spiritually-themed Believe that stood out most; he really showed what a fine singer he is on that one.

Both Sugarland (Saturday) and Toby Keith (Sunday) were disappointments. Sugarland sounded great on Baby Girl, but also wasted far too much valuable stage time, first giving away an autographed guitar, and then performing Blondie's Heart Of Glass. This act is just too good to throw away prime time on such nonsense.

Speaking of nonsense, Keith opened his show with an unnecessary video that pitted Keith against other musical contenders - including a faux boy band and a fictitious hard rock act - in order to prove which one was the toughest headliner.

But as with Sugarland, Keith should have simply stuck with the music. Songs like I Love This Bar won't ever change the world, but they're sure better than watching Keith act all macho.

If you were in shape to walk a bit, day one also offered plenty of variety at the Mustang Stage, which is loosely a bluegrass venue. However, Victoria Wiliams, in her white tunic-like outfit doesn't fit the bluegrass label. But then again, there's probably no suitable genre label for what the ever-delightful Williams does. It was a troubling sign to see Williams, who has MS, propping her guitar on a stool because it's too heavy for her to lift. Yet when she sang You Are Loved and a jam-y take on You Are My Sunshine, it was simply impossible not to feel good.

The hard 'n fast bluegrass act, Trampled By Turtles, also excelled at the Mustang Stage. Over on the Palomino Stage on Saturday, Ray Price - who just stands up and sings - sounded wonderful. Maybe it's all his energy conversation that's given him such longevity. Nick 13 (of Tiger Army) preceded Price with a fine rockabilly-influenced country music set. Along the way, he gave props to Haggard and other California country giants, and shows great promise as a country act.

Day two's side stage activity was just as rewarding. Bill Anderson and Little Jimmy Dickens (dressed in a flashy blue rhinestone suit, no less) brought a little old time Nashville to the Mustang Stage. Doyle Lawson showed how great gospel bluegrass is done with his set, while over at the Palomino, both Mary Gauthier and Avett Brothers left positive impressions. Gauthier had to wait for an oblivious cell phone talker (it works better if she does all the talking, she only half-kidded) before singing many highly personal songs from her upcoming "The Foundling" CD. The Avett Brothers performed an energetic set, which included a nearly punk take on Rollin' In My Sweet Baby's Arms and a great version of the equally great Roger Miller song, Where Have All The Average People Gone. When a young band has the knowledge to cover Roger Miller, it has to fill one with hope for country music.

You can quibble with the music quality on any given stage, but it's hard to argue that anybody went away completely disappointed this year. Some of the music, such as that done by Jason Aldean, didn't even sound country - even by the loosest definition. She's Country, for instance, with its heavy guitar riff, owed more to AC/DC than anything remotely country. But if songs like that left you with a brief bitter taste, there were plenty of others to satisfy your country cravings.