Music Reviews

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Empire Polo Field, Indio, Calif.
Saturday-Sunday, May 5-6


It was craft versus showbiz at the inaugural Stagecoach festival, held Saturday and Sunday in Indio, Calif., and for the audience, the calculated formulas that rule country airwaves won hands down, though the opportunity was there to experience much more than just chart-busting acts.

Sunday headliner Kenny Chesney is on his Flip Flop Summer Tour, which has started the party season early, and the crowd was all for it. Sure, he has some songs where he plays the sensitive guy, but he's not a big thinker. The term no-brainer applies in more ways than one, though the lowest-common-denominator approach has been a thunderous success at the boxoffice.

The beer-drinking, tropical drink-sipping good-time attitude found in such hits as "Living in Fast Forward," and "Summertime" has made Chesney a contemporary Jimmy Buffett of sorts (though the catalog's nowhere near as varied and fun). It's also confounding: His voice is not distinctive and neither is the music -- a bland pop-rock concoction, with the minimal country ingredients.

Brooks & Dunn came off as more dynamic with their rock-the-honky-tonk style, reeling out hit after hit including the swaggering "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl," a bluesy stomp through their line dance "Boot Scootin' Boogie" and the Drifters-styled "Neon Moon," one of their few ballads.

George Strait and Alan Jackson have always been class acts, both now elder statesman of country, respecting tradition while building their own legacies. Strait's Saturday show was perhaps too ballad-heavy for a festival crowd, especially at the end of a long day, but such songs as the wistful "Amarillo by Morning" and sly "The Fireman" endure, along with his country swing nods to Bob Wills.

Jackson's shorter, one-hour set was more effective, leading off with his signature anthem "Gone Country" and featuring spry, upbeat and midtempo two-steppers that included his version of "Summertime Blues" as well as his own "Don't Rock the Jukebox." Although never known as a talker, even he was loose, commenting how the crowd had obviously taken the theme of his happy hour anthem "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" to heart all day.

Sugarland, on tour with Chesney and B&D, were slick but peppy, thanks to singer Jennifer Nettles' exuberant vocals and the hooks found in "Settlin' " and "County Line." While Gary Allan was hit-and-miss, offering new tunes from his upcoming album, his finest moment came with the heartbreaking "Best I Ever Had," written about his wife's suicide three years ago, a song that stands above most of country's starry-eyed love treacle.

It's no secret that country fans of the past 10 to 15 years also are classic rockers, but redneck-proud Jason Aldean's attempt at a Guns N' Roses medley wasn't even up to bar band snuff. Far better was Mellencamp-like (down to the fiddle and scratchy voice) Pat Green who followed him, linking the emotional heartland power of his own "Wave on Wave" to a coda of U2's "With or Without You."

The Mane Stage on Saturday also featured Sara Evans, who vacillated between her processed country-pop sounds and more down-home styling. The day's real charmer was Miranda Lambert, mixing lively songs from her just-released album "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" with renditions of the Band's "Up on Cripple Creek," Creedence's "Travelin' Band," and Steve Earle's "Hillbilly Highway." Another Band cover, "Ophelia," came from Eric Church, whose overall good-ol'-boy posturing was a bit forced.

Some of the richest music at the festival drew much smaller audiences on the secondary Palomino Stage. Those highlights Sunday included the Drive-by Truckers, who have a greater kinship with Merle and Willie than the big names, with their tough yet literate songs that have an eye for detail and ear for everyday language. Emmylou Harris was ever elegant, her angelic voice guiding the decades-old "In My Dreams" and spry for "Red Dirt Girl."

Grizzled Kris Kristofferson played solo, protested war (the crowd knew which one) and shared some of his classics, including "Help Me Make It Through the Night." The eclectic Americana ranged from the twang reverb of Junior Brown to the cello-accented mood pieces of Alejandro Escovedo.

Saturday's Palomino standouts were Willie Nelson, doing a standard transcendental set of his American Zen, and one of the finest voices the entire weekend, Raul Malo. The former Mavericks frontman's vocals were playful for versions of Elvis' "(Now and Then There's) A Fool Such as I" and "Surrender," torchy during "You're Only Lonely" and breezy with a sigh for a gliding take on the Mavericks' "Dance the Night Away."

Lucinda Williams shifted from country blues to Neil Young-like explorations drenched with the searing guitar of Doug Pettibone, while Austin's Robert Earl Keen offered many a shaggy-dog tale, embellished by dazzling guitarist Rich Brotherton.

The bluegrass contingent picked and shined both days on the Appaloosa Stage with a Sunday teaming of Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury, who had performed individually. Nickel Creek and the legendary Earl Scruggs turned in lively Saturday sets. Marty Stuart scored the tent's biggest crowd in his amped-up mode for the saloon sing-along "The Whisky Ain't Workin' " and the Buddy Holly-styled gallop of "Tempted." Also playing were the three Lubbock-to-Austin storytelling sages of Texas music: Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock as the Flatlanders.

Other performers during the two days included Carolyn Dawn John, Jamie O'Neal, plaintive X man John Doe, Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen, Old '97s, Riders in the Sky, Yonder Mountain String Band and Grascals.

The first day brought in 25,000, mostly in the 30s to 40s age range, including families with children, who were free. Day 2 saw attendance up to 30,000 and skewing younger for Chesney and his party-time mentality.

For children, there were carnival rides and a Half-Pint Hootenanny of music, dance and crafts. There also were hayrides, cowboy poetry, roping and shooting lessons, while vendors sold country wear, saddles and sloganeering redneck T-shirts. Plus, the desert weather was kind and often breezy, all making it likely there will be a second annual Stagecoach in 2008.
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