Travis Tritt rides into the dusty desert and steals the show at the Stagecoach Festival while bluegrass bandits, The Steep Canyon Rangers, set up the heist.
The gorgeous Coachella Valley, in southern California, is bombarded with festivalgoers for three weekends straight in April, ending with one of the largest country music events worldwide, Stagecoach. In its tenth year, locals are adamant there aren’t near as many attendees this time. However, it’s shocking to enter the main gate and see the population of Sugar Land, Texas in the space of an outlet mall, already in full swing. The Mane stage area is like Panem out of the Hunger Games, a community watching enormous screens displaying the face of celebrity pop country star, Jon Pardi, gazing down on them. Because legendary icon, Jerry Lee Lewis, is taking the Palomino stage in less than 20 minutes, no time can be wasted. The challenge is to get through Panem and find him amidst thousands of Daisy Dukes, high-heeled boots and selfie huddles…and those are just the boys.
Once at the Palomino, people of all ages fill the covered space to watch Lewis’ story unfold on the screens hugging the stage in a mini documentary. We watch the tale of Sun Records and how Lewis, creator of the rockabilly sound, shot to stardom with his hit “Whole Lotta Shakin”. The film fades, the light changes, the crowd hushes and then uproar as Lewis appears in a white suit, making his way to the gorgeous Yamaha piano that has been perfectly tuned for him. His fingers float across the ivory keys with lightening speed, while his black suited, bolo-tied band backs him up. “Roll Over Beethoven” has most people dancing and some women crying. With hair still suave in the desert wind, he looks out to take us all in and stays engaged for his remaining three songs, which includes “Great Balls of Fire”. Everyone around agrees that this is the perfect way to kick off a festival weekend.
38 Special takes over the Palomino and rocks hit after hit. Each fan seems to have a favorite as they yell out requests and hold up drinks. Lead singer, Don Barnes, works the stage making sure he sees everyone. Teasing guitar riffs bring back nostalgia for anyone born before 1990. “Hold on Loosely” was the most anticipated, so they saved it for last, which we all rewarded in uproar and vocal assistance.
Mid-morning Saturday, we settle on breakfast at Neil’s, a saloon-style smokehouse located next to our motel. Four men, a generation or two superior, have a head start on their delicious Bloddy Mary’s, and are friendly enough to share some local gossip. One man tells us that he worked construction on Barry Manilow’s house a short distance away. “His chef made us breakfast every morning. Barry is just the nicest person,” he says. After a few other area secrets, they wish us well for the day and invite us back for, what they say, is very competitive karaoke any night of the week.
Back at Stagecoach, the polished and slick Budweiser Clydesdales put on quite a show for our cameras. Their near-by merch tent is making leather koozies with custom initials for free, but it would mean missing Aaron Lee Tasjan, so the koozie collection has to wait. Meeting a friendly couple along the way, we all head over to the Palomino stage, which at 1:00, is unfortunately quite empty. Tasjan gives no fucks about the numbers and opens his set with a killer version of “Ready to Die” from his most recent album, Silver Tears. It’s easy to see why he is so respected amongst his peers. Nashville has sent their best to California with Tasjan, who can best be described as the Beck of Americana music. Backed by a band full of talent, Tasjan uses his body as an additional instrument, and his live performing presence is something to behold. By the time he gets to “Bitch Can’t Sing,” the handful of us present are sold on this cat and trying to find his tour schedule.
Brent Cobb begins his set at the smaller Mustang stage with “South of Atlanta” and there is only silence as by-standers take him in. The harmonies are perfectly tight when they launch into “Diggin’ Holes” and bassist, J Kott, shows off some mad skills. Cobb tells us “It’s alright to dance if ya’ll want,” but he doesn’t realize that Californians don’t hear this kind of thing on their front porch every weekend like they do in Georgia, and we are all just listening close. Drummer, Steve Smith supplies a heavy, yet velvety back beat, perfect for Cobb’s southern sound. Mike Harris on lead guitar comes out of nowhere with shocking riffs that leave everyone wanting to know his name. Cobb and his band are the kind of live musicians that can sell a pop fan on country music for a lifetime. They are sweet enough to give you a cavity, yet hard enough to cut your teeth on.
Margo Price, back on the Pioneer stage, is modern country’s answer to what is going right concerning female artists. Her band, with the addition of spellbinding harmonica player Mickey Rapheal, comes in ready to kick up the dust as they launch into “About to Find Out”. With her throw back voice and bold presence, Price brings a hipster band full of modern talent. Bassist, Kevin Black, who previously played with Sturgill Simpson, adds a layer of sound to Price’s upbeat songs that keeps them groovy and soulful. When her dynamic pedal steel player stands and switches to lap steel, it gives Price a surge of vocal power for “Desperate and Depressed” that bounces all the way through the arched, covered space. She plays one of her older songs, “Paper Cowboy”, before giving us new one, “Don’t Say It”. Price ends her set with “Hurtin’ On The Bottle” and the energy in the tent is a good set up for all the greatness scheduled to appear on the same stage.
Nikki Lane is about to kick off the early evening back at the Mustang stage, just as Price wraps up at the Palomino. Having played at a local venue, Pappy and Harriet’s, the night before, some fans from there followed her over, eager to see her again. With a new album, Highway Queen, out since I last saw her headline at Bandit Town, her act is new and fresh. Though Lane has a tough girl, edgy attitude, her live singing voice is actually clean, making for an interesting combination against her distorted rock instrumentals. She is a non-conforming, non-conventional leader who doesn’t rely on past favorites. Instead she pushes her music forward in her own way. Lane may not be everyone’s cup of tea at first, and she seems to like it that way, but the people who love her do so with grand loyalty.
Tommy James and the Shondell’s are entertaining fans with one hell of a party. They wrap up to a jumping, dancing crowd with their hits “Mony Mony” and “Hold on a Little Bit Longer.” With a heavily carded Saturday schedule, it’s hard to catch everyone and I immediately wish I could have seen more of these guys, along with Jonathan Tyler, The Walcotts and Traveller, all of whom were highly revered by friends who caught them.
Jamey Johnson has the Palomino area filled. By now, word has gotten around that it is Willie Nelson’s 84th birthday, so in addition to an audience pumped to see Johnson, many people had begun setting up their lawn chairs during Price’s set, close to the stage, to insure they would get to see the one of the last of the highwaymen up close.
By the time Johnson takes stage, fans were already chanting his name. Once he gets halfway through his second song, “High Cost of Living,” the entire space is shoulder-to-shoulder and everyone erupts with praise, beer cups in the air. Johnson’s lead guitarist, Chris Hennessee, easily goes from stylized perfection on his Tele to heart soaring harmonica and then back again. Mid-set, Johnson brings out California local, Jeremy Popoff, from the post-grunge-now-country band, Lit, to play with him. Johnson and Popoff wrote “Mowin’ Down the Roses” together from Johnson’s career spinning comeback album, Lonesome Song, and Popoff’s guitar playing is worthy of the space Johnson gives him. The smell of weed fills the tent as people start joking that “Willie has arrived.” When Johnson leads the adoring crowd in “Happy Birthday”, for Nelson, it gets emotional for people who will be seeing him for the first time tonight, including some of the elderly, whom have patiently waited while being bumped around by rowdy drinkers. Johnson takes it in for a bit before wrapping up his set with “In Color,” which most everyone knows, as we sing back to him. We are all completely elated and the crowd begins to close in even tighter in anticipation of Nelson.
When actor, Bradley Cooper, takes the stage and manages to wedge Hollywood elitism into the last place it belongs, it’s a big buzz kill for traditional country music lovers. We are informed that he will be shooting a scene for new his self-directed movie, which he also stars himself, and informs us that he has permission from Nelson to do so. While Cooper is charming about the whole thing, it’s difficult to image who could have possibly thought up this zinger. The idea of watching an A-list actor lip sing, in between two of the most profound country acts of our time, leaves us with the same feeling we generally have about thunderstorms; sometimes they can be cool and sexy, but when they happen in the middle of the World Series, its best to just to go get a hot dog and wait it out. Country folk are usually kind, and they are to Coop. Many even seem excited to be an extra in a crowd shot on their own dime. However, some of us are just annoyed and choose the hot dog.
After a little hydration and a quick phone charge, it’s nearly impossible to see Nelson with the crowd size now, even from the large screens that would otherwise be visible from outside the tent. The music from the Mane stage is blaring, but some of his familiar tunes can be made out, like “On the Road Again”, “Beer For My Horses”, and “Always on My Mind”, which still makes people cry. Neil Young even joins him for an incredible harmonica solo. Though I am now sitting on a haystack with dry sticks poking the back of my bare thighs, I still think it’s pretty awesome.
Since Sunday is supposed to be a wind down day for festival activities, I am not prepared to have my mind blown, especially after Saturday’s line up, but that’s what happens. A supernatural magnet draws ears towards the Mustang stage with a banjo and a kick drum. The Grammy award winning band, The Steep Canyon Rangers, have graced California all the way from North Carolina with a live bluegrass sound that is pure enlightenment. There are no flashy costumes or space between songs. These guys have a lot to say and they use their precision as instrumentalists to do it. Stand up bass by Charles R. Humphrey III, combined with Graham Sharp’s banjo pickin’ and deep vocals, are enough to make an entertaining band, but that’s not even half of the incredulity this Appalachian sextet offers. Fiddle virtuoso, Nicky Sanders, who has also played with rock band, Wide Spread Panic, is a scene-stealer when the Spirit gets ahold of him. These bee charmers had the lucky crowd dancing, laughing and playing together the way people are supposed to at a party, probably the way the band is used to seeing in the Carolinas.
Fellow Angelenos, Tex-Mex influencers and multi Grammy award winning artists, Los Lobos, play back on the Palomino for the only real cultural diversity at the festival. The area is filling up more than expected and with the band’s ability to swing in musical genre, it’s apparent they can entertain any kind of crowd, anytime. Long time devotees and besotted festival survivors, now working on Monday’s hangover, take quite an interest. Someone mentions they are Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame inductees, and it is clear to see why. Perfectly stylized, both musically and fashionably, they have toured with Dylan and the Grateful Dead. A note-worthy jam was their spiced up, soulful version of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl”. A band that teaches a younger crowd about great music is timeless, and Los Lobos has been doing that since before many of us were born. Probably most known for their hit, “La Bamba”, people go crazy when they play it and run in from the concession stands so they don’t miss out. One man in a John Deere hat sloshes beer on his overalls trying to keep up with his escaping girl as she flies towards the sound, cursing and smiling the whole way. The whole thing is a beautiful site.
With a line-up of over 70 acts, it was Travis Tritt in his all black get-up, who rode in and robbed Stagecoach. The veteran performer and certified platinum artist knows how to sell country music with hit after hit of superior, generous, stadium-like showmanship. Tritt isn’t just a country star; he is also a movie star and bonifide rock star. “I Wanna Be Somebody”, “Here’s a Quarter”, “and “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive” are only a small portion of his vast buffet of titles he served up. He never stops smiling and that energy is contagious all the way through the crowd. A girl from Canada holds her heart and dances as she yells out “He’s so awesome!” Tritt has filled the Palomino with euphoric, happy people, including some of the other acts that performed ealier. It’s safe to say, Tritt is nothing less a perfect country music performer.
We take the Canadian girl, Carla, and wrap up our festival activities back at Neil’s, where the locals did not exaggerate about the karaoke. People are in love with performing, life, and music at this place. An intoxicated woman gives our table an entertaining lap dance and even tries to steal my husband, eventually giving up and only managing to leave with my chicken fingers. Carla sings “Jackson” and can’t stop thanking everyone for the wonderful time she is having in California. A Kenny Chesney look alike has a bleach blonde millennial completely convinced he is the real thing, although women in the bathroom are trying to talk sense into her. Most of the crowd stays until their chairs were physically removed and they were pushed out. Music festivals are always a great time but Travis Tritt, the Steep Canyon Rangers and Neil’s were definitely the highlights of Stagecoach.
by Bylle Breaux / photos by Matt Stasi for National Rock Review.