Stagecoach Music Festival: Day One

stagecoach-poster-2009Live and learn. I did a lot of living and learning during my first day (ever) at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio, California.

First lesson: Don’t rely on MapQuest. I didn’t take the large black freeways on the map to the beautiful but bizarre desert retirement slash resort community that hosts Stagecoach. Or the smaller blue lines, or even the teensy red ones. I took the non-existent purple ones through the backcountry past unusual rock formations and the odd farmhouse. It was just me and the random tanker truck going mach negativo.

Second lesson: Show up early. The tanker truck and purple lines aside, I didn’t plan well. And any plans I did have were shot to h*** as soon as I arrived at the polo fields and, well, circled the fields at a crawl (which is a generous term) for nigh two hours before entering the parking lot. So, as I slowly watched the thermometer inch up towards 100 degrees on my dashboard, I kissed goodbye my plans for The Infamous Stringdusters and Lynn Anderson. I’m sorry, guys.

Third lesson: Don’t presume anything about country music fans. While I was very slowly making my way into the parking lot, I took notice of the cars around me. There was a BMW in front of me, a Porsche on my left and a Mercedes behind me. Hmmm…didn’t they hear that polo was cancelled this weekend? But no, the fancy cars were full of college kids, a large family and an old couple…all dressed in cowboy boots and hats and headed to the festival. I’d say welcome to country music, Southern California style: cowboy boots and Gucci purses, but that would cheapen the genuine spirit of those who attended the festival. While not precisely diverse, I doubt you will find a more overall wholesome group of people anywhere. You can only have organized chaos in a group this large with people like this.

Fourth lesson: Bring a chair. Who knew? As the only person not schlepping a chair around, I might as well have had “Stagecoach virgin” stamped on my forehead. The chair guarantees you a position among the sea of people somewhere in the proximate vicinity of the stage. Proximity to the stage being relevant, of course; as long as you can see the big screens, you’re fine.

Fifth lesson: Sit near a speaker. Darius Rucker and Little Big Town both suffered from poor sound (as compared to Brad Paisley, whom you could hear clearly from the parking lot). They come off as incredibly sweet people, but if they’re not going to sing or talk any louder, you definitely need a large speaker nearby. This was particularly tragic during Little Big Town’s set. While large venues may help this band garner new fans, they are a band made for intimate venues. The intricacies of their harmonies get lost in stadium sound.

Sixth lesson: Try to forget lessons one through five and just enjoy.

Darius Rucker was on stage as I arrived. He has a pleasant voice and a laid-back stage presence that goes down easy, even if neither is particularly spectacular. He comes off as a quasi-country Jack Johnson, although slightly more interesting. Like LBT, he might be worth checking out in a smaller venue. His biggest moment, ironically, came when he sang Hank William Jr.’s “Family Tradition.” He had everyone in line at the hamburger stand about a mile away from the stage singing along. I heard later on that Brad Paisley joined him on stage for that particular number. The crowd ate it up.

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ize-full wp-image-905″ title=”little-big-town-fl” src=”http://www.countryuniverse.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/little-big-town-fl.jpg” alt=”little-big-town-fl” width=”108″ height=”98″ />LBT took the stage singing “Good as Gone.” I was incredibly excited to see this group for the first time. Unfortunately, I feel as if I still haven’t heard them; properly, at least. However, I did hear enough to know that this isn’t the venue to fully appreciate them as a band. Despite having songs in their repertoire that rock, like “Good Lord Willing,” this isn’t a country-rock band built for conquering tens of thousands of people. And despite being beautiful singers, their harmonies don’t stand up well in the face of a brisk wind in an open setting. Still, what I did catch of their set, which included “Fine Line,” “I’m With the Band” and “A Little More You,” left me wanting more, even as I wondered during their closer, “Boondocks,” if they’re ever going to reach those heights again.

Reba McEntire took to the stage as the sun set over the desert, and as if rising for a queen, the sea of people took to their feet. Suddenly, it felt like I was at a concert, and a country one at that. With a killer band, vocals and stage presence, I have to admit that by the time Reba launched into “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” I had forgiven Mapquest and forgotten the parking situation. The best and worst part about a Reba show, is that she has so many hits, that you are inevitably going to hear some of your favorites, and miss out on others. Perhaps recognizing this, part way through her set McEntire launched into a medley of hits, including “Somebody” and “Love Revival.”  Reba also played her new single, “Strange,” which didn’t sound out of place among her older material, including “Ring On Her Finger,” “I’m a Survivor” and “Fancy,” but didn’t rise to the same level either.

The thing about Reba, and to a certain extent Brad Paisley, the evening’s final performer, is that even if you knew nothing about country music, you would know they were among the genre’s stars. They both have that intangible “it” factor. What Reba has, that Paisley doesn’t have quite yet, however, is an extensive catalog. Therefore, if you’ve been to a Paisley concert in the past couple of years, you had already seen the show he put on at Stagecoach.  A Paisley concert is an extravaganza built for the mainstream radio consumer. With high-tech screens in the background, it’s chalk full of radio friendly sing-a-longs, from the cutesy “Online,” “Alcohol,” “Ticks” and “Celebrity,” to the heartfelt “Letter to Me” and “Waitin’ on a Woman.” With his guitar flung over his shoulder, Paisley throws himself into both styles with equal aplomb, but I came to the realization last night that I much prefer Paisley in heartfelt mode. He’s fun on the ditties, but truly shines when he slows it down.

As it was the last stop on Paisley’s recent “Paisley Party” tour, Paisley promised at the beginning of his set to break all the rules and play until the sun rose. Being not entirely sure if he was going to follow through on that promise, and recalling how long it took to get into the parking area, I left a little early. It truly didn’t matter. I heard the rest of the concert as I spent 45 minutes looking for my car and another hour or so exiting the parking facility. Like I said earlier, Paisley had excellent sound.

Live and learn. At some point near midnight as I was crawling out of the parking lot, tired, a little cranky, wishing I had brought a chair and had one of the RVs parked in the adjoining lot to crash in, I wondered if the entire day had been worth it. My immediate answer: Reba had been worth every second, and Paisley was icing on the cake.

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