Stagecoach Music Festival – Empire Polo Fields (Indio, CA)
The Empire Polo Fields are 78 acres of verdant man-made carpeting bordered by lush groves of date palm groves and the jagged pink-and-blue ridges of the Santa Rosa Mountains. The grounds have barely been cleared of the plastic water bottles and glow sticks from the previous weekend’s Coachella Festival, but there’s a sense of relief in the Stagecoach staff, many of whom faced the maw of 180,000 just five days before. “Coachella was much more stressful,” says one beaming state trooper. “This is a breeze, comparably.”
He’s right. It’s about 80 degrees on the first day — the presence of 25,000 sunscreened bodies pushing the heat up a notch or two and a reinvigorating wind blows in at just the right times. The haunted Paleozoic quality of the surrounding desert is ideal, if somewhat alien and foreboding, as Old 97’s guitarist Ken Bethea observes. “This is like playing on the surface of the moon!” he remarks from the stage. “Or on ‘The Flintstones’!” adds his ageless bandmate Rhett Miller, who throws a kick over his head during a ready-to-rumble version of “Rollerskate Skinny”.
Over at the Appaloosa Stage, Nickel Creek — who, likely because of their upcoming hiatus, draw the biggest crowd of the two smaller stages — jam on fan faves such as “The Fox” and “Smoothie Song”. The audience is rapt and worshipful. That is, before the Big Bam Boom starts.
It’s coming from the “Mane” Stage, which turns out to be a galaxy unto itself. The sea of entrenched lawn chairs, hats, heads, skin, and children on parents’ shoulders looks more like a camping ground, 10,000 strong. Three giant diamond-vision screens have been erected around the sun-god altar of a stage; its top-shelf sound system creates the weird aural bleed that we hear in the other areas. It’s an impressive noise, like a giant redneck Golem shaking itself awake and beginning to bellow and pound its chest. It makes even the natural landscape follow suit: grackles sing from the power lines, a cricket happily chirps from the bottom of a reeking Port-A-Potty.
After escaping the magnetic pull of the Mane, we arrive back at the Palomino Stage to discover that we just missed Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen, who were scheduled to back Richie Furay after their set. (They didn’t.) We hear they played “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Sin City”. It isn’t Furay’s fault that we’re retroactively sullen, even when the Man from Poco plays “Pickin’ Up The Pieces”, his reply to Neil Young and Stephen Stills for nudging him out of Buffalo Springfield.
At 6 p.m., Lucinda Williams struts out in cowboy hat and tight black jeans like a hip-billy biker-mama poetess, emitting her vulnerable snarl on “Come On” and “Real Live Bloody Fingers And Broken Guitar Strings”. She debuts a new song called “Honey Bee”, which features the lyric, “I got your honey inside me/I got it all over my tummy.”
We mosey over to see Earl Scruggs, professor emeritus of bluegrass. Surrounded by younger players that include his son Randy, the black-suited 83-year-old stands commandingly with a warm grin and an immovable gait, spinning out tremendous micro-solos and getting a roar from the crowd every time.
Back at the Palomino, the pot smoke starts when Willie Nelson is just a wizened silhouette ambling out from the back of the stage; it swirls in warm biological clouds over the heads of the audience when the Family kicks into “Whiskey River” into “Still Is Still Movin’ To Me” into “Night Life” into “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”. A Willie set now runs like a quickie medley Chuck Berry would toss off at a State Fair after getting paid with cash stuffed in a paper bag, but the man’s very presence is a comfort; he’s everybody’s favorite stoner granddad.
After grabbing some beer ‘n’ barbecue, we naturally go to catch rambunctious Texas wiseass Robert Earl Keen, who barrels through an anarchic “The Road Goes on Forever”. It baffles us when the crowd leaks away from Neko Case, as they miss one of the festival’s highlights. Sexy yet demure in an all-black outfit that highlights her cascades of fire-orange hair, Case makes her wounded-bird voice soar remarkably on “Maybe Sparrow” and Bob Dylan’s “Buckets Of Rain”.
The second day draws about 5,000 more people than the first — for the most part, it’s all but a countdown to Mane Stage headliner Kenny Chesney. But the roots and distant cousins of bluegrass are on display simultaneously at the Mustang and Appaloosa Stages with the self-explanatory Celtic Cowboy and the willowy Abigail Washburn, who plays banjo with Chinese tunings in a bewitchingly precise clawhammer style. (She is joined by another globetrotting songcatcher, Bela Fleck.)
At 3:35 p.m. — the set times are Swiss-watch precise — John Doe takes the stage in a potentially lethal black suit. “It’s pretty sunny out today, isn’t it?” Doe laughs uneasily before launching into a ragged, mournful rendition of “The Losing Kind”. Alejandro Escovedo, another elder cowpunk, lifts his anti-Bush ban on playing “Castanets”, which reportedly was on the President’s iPod playlist. Escovedo, classy as ever, dedicates it to Joe Strummer.
Over at the Mustang, a grouchy Ramblin’ Jack Elliott tries to ignore the Big Bam Boom. A few spider-black punk rockers sit on a bale of straw, listening intently and respectfully to the old troubadour sing “an ol’ California cowboy song” and getting a kick when Ramblin’ Jack banishes an annoying photographer from the tent. Next door, Marty Stuart obliterates the crowd with crystalline Telecaster licks on “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin'” and “A Great Big Woman And A Little Bottle Of Wine”.
The scene is entirely different at the Palomino, where a lone, black-clad Kris Kristofferson, gray hair falling about his shoulders like a vain Baptist preacher, strums an acoustic guitar and croaks stark versions of “Me And Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”. An opinionated cuss to the bitter end, he dedicates “In The News” to “veterans of the war in Iraq who are against the war in Iraq.” At this, quite a few people turn around and retreat with stiff, offended walks.
We beat it over to see legendary Austin weirdoes the Flatlanders. Butch Hancock starts off with “Baby Do You Love Me Still?”, then Jimmie Dale Gilmore makes “Wheels Of Fortune” glisten with his alien-on-the-prairie warble. Joe Ely sings with a voice that’s every bit as expressive as Jimmie Dale’s, if more rough-hewn and bar-ready, like a revving engine. When those three voices harmonize on “Dallas” and “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown”, we achieve the happy ending that Lucinda started.
Back at the Palomino, Emmylou Harris, ethereal in white cowboy boots and short black dress, shares gorgeous three-part harmonies on a luminous, tribal-sounding “Red Dirt Girl” and George Jones’ “Beneath Still Waters”. In direct contrast, the Drive-By Truckers seem punkishly indignant at the staid country-rock tsunami next door. “Gather round y’all, move up close!” guitarist Mike Cooley calls out. “We’re gonna try to drown out whatever that is over there.” (It’s Brooks & Dunn, flanked by seizure-inducing lights and looming jumbotron faces strapped with headset mikes.) Tit for tat, the Truckers unleash their mean-as-nails triple-guitar attack on “Bulldozers And Dirt” and “Shut Up And Get On The Plane”, even dragging out cadaverous Muscle Shoals legend Spooner Oldham to sit in on piano. A spiffy Junior Brown closes out the Palomino, rumbling through straight-faced novelties such as “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead” and “Long Walk Back To San Antone” in his bass-tuba voice, melting faces like a gentlemen with wild and cocky solos on his chimerical guit-steel.
Next door at the Mane, the anticipation for K-Chez is becoming unhinged. Female voices bloom all around us in the dark, “Kenny Kenny.” This thick tumescent fog of unabashed femme-neck desire is as intoxicating as the $6 beers. Then Chesney swaggers out to AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell” wearing a headset mike and a red muscle shirt. He is a confusing optical illusion: looming large on diamond vision yet appearing so tiny onstage as to be easily trapped in a Mason jar. One can actually crush the former Mr. Zellweger between thumb and forefinger as he warbles “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem” and “Everything Gets Hotter When the Sun Goes Down”. The crowd is sympathetic.