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Keith, Ellis raise the cup at Stagecoach, Day One

Empire Polo Grounds, Indio, Cal., April 26, 2013

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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Although he may not be the perfect artist, Toby Keith is the perfect performer to headline Stagecoach, where he topped the bill on day one. He sings patriotic songs. Check. He sings Southern lifestyle songs. Check. He sings drinking songs, including one specifically named Red Solo Cup. Double-check.

Fans came to party the first night of Stagecoach, and Keith did not let them down, even suggesting he'd had quite a few adult beverages himself. With songs like I Love This Bar, Keith transformed a polo club field by day into one huge outdoor bar come sundown. And the many drunken fans obviously loved this bar beneath the stars tonight.

For all the hell raised with songs like All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight, it was the moments where Hank Williams Jr. stepped away from his honed party image that shined best during his set this night. His Blues Man, for instance, beautifully showed off his gentler side. And the segment where he sat at the piano and showed the crowd he could boogie like Fats Domino and Jerry Lewis were especially memorable.

The Little Willies were sandwiched between Williams and Keith, and while the Palomino Stage was quite a trek away from the "Mane" stage, it was well worth the walk to hear the lovely Norah Jones sing an un-Elvis-y Love Me, as well as a tragic Delia's Gone.

Watching guys like Trace Adkins performing Chrome and Maggie Rose warning the guys with I Ain't Your Mama on the Mane stage could be a little bit like trying to watch the big game on a big screen TV out in the sun, each of these performers represented themselves. As is usually the case with Stagecoach, though, true intimacy could really only be found in the two tent stages.

As an admitted Byrds fan, one was left with mixed feelings about Roger McGuinn's set. On the one hand, McGuinn, former leader of The Byrds, looked and sounded just fine. As usual, he was solo, singing and explaining his Byrds songs. These included a liberal smattering from "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," the Byrds' breakthrough country-rock album. Yes, it's wonderful to hear that ringing Rickenbacker on Turn, Turn, Turn and others, but it still felt a little bit empty because this incredible songwriter was living in the past. Neil Young once sang that it's better burn out, than it is to rust, and it's just a shame that McGuinn didn't have anything new to offer - particularly at such a high profile event.

Jeff Bridges was the lone Hollywood celeb playing on Friday, and while he and his band mates abided well, he didn't really make anybody forget he was moonlighting.

Commander Cody fared far better on the same Palomino stage by singing all those great old songs with plenty of enthusiasm, including Hot Rod Lincoln and Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette), as the latter featured Ronee Blakely on backing vocals, just as she was featured on the original recording.

These side stages also presented a couple of noteworthy singer/songwriters. Hayes Carll sang of the troubadour's tough life with Hard Out Here, while Robert Ellis revealed how even something as routine as house painting can be turned into a song metaphor with Two Cans of Paint.

Although both Carll and Ellis are both 'technically' singer/songwriters, they are nevertheless quite different from each other. Carll strikes one as a freewheeling, shoot-from-the-hip and just 'tell it like it is' kind of guy. His songs have a loose, spontaneous feel to them, almost as though he were making them up on the spot. Ellis, on the other hand, is far more measured and precise, giving the impression that each word had been labored over intensely.

With their traditional sounds, both Wylie and the Wild West and the Steel Wheels attracted strong crowds. Wylie and the Wild West performed songs that fit their name - primarily western-themed songs. Steel Wheels, on the other hand, sang Southern songs with almost hymn-like qualities. If such a thing as secular gospel music existed, Steel Wheels would fit quite nicely into that category.

There was plenty of fine music on Friday - from the very quiet, to the very loud. Whether you wanted to raise your red solo cup like a drunken sailor while watching Toby Keith, or quietly sipping a beverage as Robert Ellis quietly sang, well, that was your choice. And it was oh so good to have a choice.