Toby Keith, Sugarland, Keith Urban Lead a Diverse Lineup at Sold-Out Stagecoach

Jason Aldean, Brooks & Dunn, Billy Currington Also at California Country Festival

INDIO, Calif. — Toby Keith told the Stagecoach Festival audience on Sunday night (April 25) that he didn’t even know about the massive musical event before he booked his headlining appearance there. But judging from the huge crowd — around 50,000 fans each day — he may have been the only one.

Keith’s rambunctious concert at the outdoor Empire Polo Club capped an intriguing two-day lineup that also featured fellow first-timer Keith Urban, as well as Jason Aldean, Brooks & Dunn, Billy Currington and Sugarland, along with numerous classic country artists and newer bands with an independent spirit. With record-breaking attendance figures (up from last year’s 40,000 fans daily), festival organizers declared the fourth annual event a sell-out.

Keith’s concert started with a satirical 10-minute truck commercial and about a half-dozen explosions. Once he tackled the set list, the hits flowed like a beer tap — “American Ride,” “High Maintenance Woman,” “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight” and so on. He slowed the tempo occasionally (for “Cryin’ for Me (Wayman’s Song)” and “You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This” ), but mostly he was content yelling into the microphone and delivering drinking songs such as “Whiskey Girl,” “Get Drunk and Be Somebody,” “I Love This Bar” and “Beer for My Horses.” He also told the audience he was leaving early the next morning for a USO Tour and sent them on their way with a one-two punch of “American Soldier” and “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).”

Prior to Keith’s closing set, Brooks & Dunn condensed their two decades of hits into a neat package that balanced rowdy material such as “Play Something Country” with heartfelt ballads like “Believe.” As always, Ronnie Dunn directed his attention to the audience while Kix Brooks bounced around the stage, bantering with the crowd and jamming with three beautiful backup singers. But finally, on the last word of the last song (“Boot Scootin’ Boogie” ), they stood side by side.

Aldean, the opening act on Brooks & Dunn’s Last Rodeo tour, populated most of his impassioned hour-long show to an ever-growing list of hits, from “Crazy Town” to “Hicktown.” At the end of his set, he decided to “have a little fun” with a cover of Kid Rock’s country rock-rap hit, “Cowboy,” telling the crowd that if they didn’t know that song, they needed to get out more.

On Saturday night (April 24), Urban couldn’t quit smiling as he summed up the festival’s stunning surroundings of swaying palm trees and snow-capped mountains: “What an absolutely perfect night to have a concert. It’s beautiful!” He couldn’t resist going into the crowd or rubbing shoulders with the sign-language interpreter. (She even translated “elephant in a tutu” at Urban’s lighthearted request.) After that, he teased the enormous crowd by trying to figure out precisely which section was the most enthusiastic. His set was heavy on hits, and he did not offer any new material.

Throughout Sugarland’s set on Saturday, they offered outside material by the likes of Beyoncé, Blondie, Miley Cyrus, Neil Diamond and the Jackson 5. They played their own up-tempo hits, too, yet the new material for their upcoming Incredible Machine tour will be most welcome. Amid their energetic set, the very slow “Stay” didn’t drag down the momentum of the show at all. Indeed, it might have brought the loudest applause during their set.

Billy Currington also proved to be a wise choice to join the Stagecoach lineup. So many of his songs could have been the event’s official anthem — “People Are Crazy” (painted on numerous T-shirts and tailgates), “Swimming in Sunshine” (lots of bathing suits but no pool in sight) and “Don’t” (as in, “Honey, should I keep doing drunken handstands even though that guy behind me is trying to watch the show?”). Currington’s new single fits the bill, too — an easygoing tune called “Pretty Good at Drinking Beer.”

Joey & Rory led the lineup for Saturday’s main stage, mixing up a few familiar tunes (“Cheater, Cheater” ) with material from a new album due this summer. They’re also working with a backing band now, which will surely help them amplify their traditional country bent. Many fans recognized them from CMT’s Can You Duet. As Rory succinctly put it, “In my opinion we got robbed on that TV show, but it turned out all right.”

Meanwhile, on the smaller stages, it was easy to get lost in nostalgia. Merle Haggard brought out a sizable crowd in the far reaches of the field, satisfying classic country fans with “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “Silver Wings,” “Swinging Doors,” “The Fugitive” and many others. Just before that set, Ray Price remembered the good times with strong renditions of “San Antonio Rose,” “Crazy Arms,” “Heartaches by the Number,” “Please Release Me” and “City Lights.” Bobby Bare was the first performer on Saturday afternoon and he noted that he used to live in Southern California before making it big in Nashville in the 1960s. He said he rarely performs anymore, and when he does, it’s just for the applause — which he easily earned with favorites like “Detroit City,” “Drop Kick Me Jesus” and “Marie Laveau.”

On Sunday afternoon, the Grand Ole Opry was represented with individual sets by Bill Anderson and Little Jimmy Dickens, who brought a big round of applause just by mentioning the fact that he’s 89 years old. Bluegrass stars Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver just happened to be playing my favorite song, “Julie Ann,” right when I walked in — and the band’s new singer, Corey Hensley, is a standout. Other personal side-stage highlights included a very chatty Carlene Carter and the honky-tonk showman Chuck Mead.

For alt-country fans who already know about the Avett Brothers (always a festival favorite), allow me to recommend these other side-stage discoveries. Trampled by Turtles is an aggressive bluegrass-influenced band from Duluth, Minn., while Truth and Salvage Co. blend appealing harmonies with smart original material and a ’70s country vibe. Formerly the frontman for the punk band, Tiger Army, Nick 13 also played his first-ever solo show at Stagecoach. Drenched in hillbilly electric guitar and awash in coolness, I’d definitely like to hear more. Obviously, Stagecoach brings in the big dogs, too, but it’s worth wandering across the grounds to fully appreciate why this festival is outstanding in its field.

View photos from the Stagecoach music festival.