If there was one thread that tied together many of performances that I caught at Stagecoach last weekend, it was the spirit of Merle Haggard.
While a slew of the performances acknowledged Hag, who passed away April 6, 2016, there was ultimately an even deeper theme of honoring a range of musical heroes and acknowledging the large part that great music plays in the lives of those who journeyed to take in the sights and sounds at California largest country music festival.
Here is an overview of the noteworthy performances I caught at the three-day festival, held April 29, 30 and May 1, 2016 at the Empire Polo Club in Indio.
Friday, April 29
While early Friday performances from Leroy Powell and Aubrie Sellers were entertaining, the first top-tier performance came courtesy of the Malpass Brothers‘ 45-minute play in the Palomino tent. The five-member troupe (headed by Christopher and Taylor Malpass) honored musical greats ranging from Hank Williams (a Western Swing-flavored “Move It On Over”) and Johnny Cash (a buoyant “Folsom Prison Blues”) to Jimmie Rogers (“California Blues”) to Haggard (an emotive “Sing Me Back Home”). The Malpass Brothers closed their set with several songs rooted celebrating their heroes, including “Man in Black is Wearing White” (a fitting tribute to Johnny Cash).
Just as strong was the appearance by Austin-based singer-songwriter Dale Watson. Backed by a tight trio known as “His Lone Stars,” Watson paid tribute to honky tonk and authentic country music with every note, including the uptempo George Jones-honoring “Jonesin for Jones.” Armed with a rich baritone voice and sharp guitar licks, his 14-song set also featured the retro-styled original “Whiskey or God” and Haggard’s timeless country ballad “Here In Frisco.”
Memphis country-punk outfit Lucero was a good fit to perform in the Palomino. Sandwiched in the middle of the previous traditional sets from the Malpass Brothers and Watson, and subsequent sets from legends Robert Earl Keen and Emmylou Harris, the band’s rollicking style was a welcome change of pace. The piercing “Nights Like These” and hard rocking “The Last Song” thrilled the enthusiastic crowd.
Speaking of Keen, the 60-year-old Houston, Texas native delivered one of the long weekend’s most compelling sets. Hitting the stage a few minutes early (nice!), Keen and his six-member backing band performed one amazing selection after another, fusing country with folk, rock and bluegrass to create an Americana tapestry that worked on every level. The fact that Keen’s lyrical insights are as expansive as the tunes he writes was another plus. Highlights included the uptempo tap-along “I Gotta Go,” the cliche-free romantic sing-along “I’m Comin’ Home” and his set-ending hit “The Road Goes On Forever.”
Equally memorable was groundbreaking songstress Emmylou Harris‘ amazing hour-long performance in the Palomino. Backed by an acoustic trio, she opened with the tender “Here I Am,” her evocative soprano conveying emotion and beauty that actually silenced the normally-chatty Stagecoach audience. Other similarly-potent songs included the confessional “Orhan Girl,” a reworked and lovingly-delivered take of Simon and Garfunkel‘s “The Boxer” and stunning recasting of Neil Young‘s “After the Gold Rush,” which brought this writer to tears.
Saturday, April 30
Charleston, South Carolina-based Susto provided a big excuse to get to the Empire Polo Club on time Saturday. Kicking things off in the Mustang tent, the Americana quintet reminded this writer a bit of Southern California great Dawes. The band’s country folk nugget “Friends / Lovers / Ex-Lovers / Whatever” and introspective piano-adorned “Cosmic Cowboy” were among the band’s wonderful originals.
Another of Saturday’s standouts came from Magnolia, Texas collective Jamestown Revival, featuring the dual talents of singer-guitarist Jonathan Clay and singer-pianist Zachary Chance. Mixing up Texas rock, country-western and Americana in spades, the group rocked their original Gram Parsons-styled “Done Me Wrong” and a moving version of Haggard’s “Silver Wings.”
Young traditionalist Mo Pitney impressed throughout his 45-minute set on the Mane Stage, including with his infectious “Boy & A Girl Thing” and his aptly-titled “I Met Merle Haggard Today,” a latter based on a true story where the singer briefly met his hero in 2013.
Former Creedence Clearwater Revival singer-guitarist John Fogerty packed the Palomino tent with his generous set filled with almost two dozen classics. After a fitting video tribute was shown focusing on the year 1969, including Fogerty’s band CCR and major events of the time, it was time for Fogerty to perform 75 minutes or so of classics (with a handful of new material). What isn’t to love about Fogerty and an amazing band (featuring drummer Kenny Aronoff) charging through some of the greatest rock songs of all time; “Travelin’ Band,” “Green River,” “Lodi” and “Down on the Corner” for starters. And his folk rockers hold up nicely too (“Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” in particular). A tremendous set to be sure.
Sunday offered a continuing parade of eclectic choices, leading up to the entertaining festival-ending performance from the solidly-performing rock legends the Doobie Brothers on the Palomino Stage and Luke Bryan on the Mane Stage.
That day kicked off with a memorable 45-minute turn from songstress Ruthie Collins on the Mane stage. A highlight in her set was a cover of John Denver‘s hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and her own breezy country-pop song “Ready to Roll.”
Singer-songwriter William Elliott Whitmore performed a solo set accompanied by his banjo, bringing plenty of wry lyrics to the Mustang Stage. “Old Beer Jones” provided plenty of laughter, as did my favorite track, the poignant “Civilizations” off his “Radium Death” disc.
Other highlights that welcomed concertgoers on day 3 included a set of ’80s hit singles and bona fide humor from American country singer Johnny Lee. The crowd that mostly filled the Palomino was singing along at full force for his 1983 hit “Hey Bartender” and most-beloved track, the 1980 crossover hit “Lookin’ for Love.”
Several fantastic performances closed out the Mustang tent, including an inspired set from New Orleans’ the Deslondes, a group able to expertly blend blues, country, gospel and roots music together during a winning 45-minute set. The infectious song titled “Less Honkin’ More Tonkin’,” tuneful “Louise” and propulsive “One of These Lonesome Mornings” were among the songs showcasing the group’s distinctive harmonies and original song craft.
Stagecoach wouldn’t be the same without the inclusion of great bluegrass. The Earls of Leicester fully delivered the authentic sounds of bluegrass, genuinely putting new life into the genre via strong performances of “Big Black Train,” “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” and the incredible “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke.” Headed by Dobro master Jerry Douglas, it was criminal more folks attending Stagecoach didn’t get over to catch the group before checking out the Doobie Brothers or Luke Bryan – artists whose roots ultimately extend back to the style celebrated (at least, in part) by the Earls of Leicester.