INDIO, Calif. — The party ended early Sunday night (May 6) for a good percentage of the 30,000 people who attended the second day of the Stagecoach country music festival in the desert near Palm Springs, Calif.
Brooks & Dunn, the last act before Kenny Chesney closed the festival at the Empire Polo Field, delivered a one-hour set that featured good-time anthem after good-time anthem, bringing the sweaty masses to a peak in which they sang along with nearly every song. After two days of relentless country music, it was apparently as much as the audience could take as a steady stream of fans began heading for the exits just 30 minutes into Chesney’s set.
To be clear, the defectors did not represent the majority of the crowd, but it was a significant enough block of people that Chesney felt the need to ask the audience to stay just a little while longer.
Looking at the faces of the people on their way out, however, they weren’t scowling about Chesney or his performance. They seemed genuinely exhausted, and many of them were families carting out kids who were sleeping or, at the least, depleted. In addition, Southern Californians have a reputation for leaving events early to beat the traffic, and it made a lot of sense Sunday night: It’s a good two and a-half hour drive back to Los Angeles — a major consideration for anyone who still had to work on Monday morning.
It’s not like concert-goers hadn’t had their fill of music. After a first-day lineup of more than 25 acts — including George Strait, Alan Jackson and Willie Nelson — day two piled on another dollop of current hitmakers (Sugarland, Gary Allan, Jason Aldean) and legendary figures (Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson).
At the three secondary stages, most acts were able to connect with their audiences without making drastic changes to their shows. But the scope of the audience for the Mane Stage, which commanded 20,000 fans for much of the night, presented a specific challenge: The size eliminated any sense of intimacy, and the artists who succeeded the most were best able to emphasize the party element of their music.
That worked particularly well for Brooks & Dunn, who were given only one hour to play. That meant condensing their usual set list, and the duo eliminated all but two ballads, “Neon Moon” and “Believe.” The vast majority of the remaining songs at least bordered on anthemic quality — rowdy titles such as “Play Something Country” and “You Can’t Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl,” singalongs such as “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You” and “My Maria” and the flag-waving closer “Only in America.” Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn have become so prolific at creating a party atmosphere that even a song that rings of reflection and spirituality, “Red Dirt Road,” possesses a solid thump.
Chesney always has it in his mind to create a party spirit, and that was certainly the aim at Stagecoach. The first two songs, the escapist “Beer in Mexico” and frat-boy recollection “Keg in the Closet,” had guzzling at their core, as did the “glass with no bottom” celebration “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems.” Chesney is able to bend entire stadiums with his repertoire, which features such driving efforts as “Living in Fast Forward,” “Young” and “Summertime,” but once Brooks & Dunn zapped the last ounces of energy from many in attendance, the East Tennessee native was never quite able to amp the weary crowd to his usual levels.
The crowd, in fact, beat the music as the center topic in coverage by several local newspapers after the first day. Stagecoach came one week after the similarly named Coachella Music Festival, an annual rock gathering that carries a hip reputation. Rage Against the Machine had caused an uproar the prior week with an on-stage monologue that called for the death of Bush administration members, and this weekend’s stories focused on the orderly, family makeup of the Stagecoach core.
In contrast to the rowdiness and tension reported at Coachella, very little anger was displayed over the weekend at Stagecoach. The event’s set-up included a Half-Pint Hootenanny that aimed to occupy children, and a fair amount of senior citizens also made their way through the gates, giving the crowd a more even-keeled texture.
Young adults were far less occupied with fighting than with attracting other young adults. There were plenty of young singles and couples in evidence, including twenty-something women wearing Daisy Dukes and shirtless guys showing off chiseled bodies with 12 percent body fat. (For the record, not every half-naked body was ideal. More than a few bareback men appeared to be displaying 30 percent body fat.)
In that setting, the music that usually succeeded was also the music that inspired revelry. Among the non-headline acts, no one understood that better than Jason Aldean, whose afternoon performance leaned less on country than on a muscular Skynyrd-era rock sound. Tellingly, Aldean mashed a couple of Guns ‘N Roses songs into a medley, but where GNR made its mark with a defiant, rebellious attitude, Aldean has grafted the sound to lyrics about blue-collar lifestyles — most notably in “Hicktown” and “Amarillo Sky.” That combination worked well in energizing the audience when the sun still stood high above the palm tree-rimmed venue.
Pat Green, Sugarland and Gary Allan netted mixed responses. Green’s heartland rock wasn’t quite as commanding as Aldean’s prior set, though the familiar “Wave on Wave” did get hands clapping in the air at the close of his show. Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles certainly grabbed attention with her gutsy, unapologetic twang, though the duo perhaps relied a little too much on ballads and mid-tempo numbers.
Allan parlayed the most effective ballad of the day with his performance of “Best I Ever Had.” He wrapped both hands tightly around the microphone stand as he delivered it with his trademark gritty voice, hitting the high notes with a fragility that befits its history. Allan recorded the song after his wife’s suicide in 2004, and his vulnerability during Sunday’s rendition — presented just a couple hours from the home they once shared in Huntington Beach — suggests the emotions are still with him. They certainly were communicated to the listener.
Worthwhile performances could also be found in the other areas of the grounds. As always, Harris infused a huge amount of dignity into her material, which included her bristling 1984 hit “In My Dreams,” the plaintive “Red Dirt Girl” and “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” a song from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
Harris ably embodied both sturdiness and sensitivity, elements that also informed Kristofferson, who was likely the only performer to consciously make any political statements. He played some of his classics, including “For the Good Times” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” but he also has made a habit of commenting on war policies in his material since the 1980s. He played several of those songs, which bear an unmistakable anti-Bush stamp, but where Rage Against The Machine’s Coachella comments were explosive, Kristofferson came across as stately and wisened, and his observations — tucked deftly into the material — drew applause from a sympathetic following.
Ricky Skaggs played bristling bluegrass, bringing a manic ferocity when the material scampered along in hyper-drive tempos. Del McCoury, who had played earlier, joined in for a duet on Flatt & Scruggs’ “Little Girl of Mine in Tennessee,” and Skaggs’ six-piece band, Kentucky Thunder, was simply masterful in navigating the genre’s propulsive rhythms and in wringing complicated solos from its instruments with deceptive ease.
Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives impressively balanced flash with tasteful restraint. Mixing honkabilly with flashes of blues and bluegrass in the first part of his set, Stuart remains a sort of evangelist for the music, and for at least a portion of his show, he led something of a tent revival.
Which is, in a weird way, another form of a party. With more than 50 artists playing across four stages for two days, country music fans proved over the weekend that they do indeed know how to party. And when to stop.