INDIO, Calif. — What did Rascal Flatts know about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, and when did they know it?
The band announced during their headlining set Sunday night (May 1) that they’d come to the Stagecoach festival to celebrate the demise of the terrorist leader, which would demonstrate an amazing amount of prescience and/or top-security clearance, given how long ago the lineup was booked. Well, they said it in a roundabout way, anyway.
“We came here to celebrate for two reasons tonight,” Jay DeMarcus told the crowd. “One, Rascal Flatts is celebrating 10 years this year, and it’s been an incredible ride. … And two, that S.O.B. Osama bin Laden …”
The audience drowned him out.
“I think I speak for all of us when I say, sincerely from the bottom of my heart, Osama bin Laden, we hope you rest in pieces,” he added.
DeMarcus had the honor of making the first statement about bin Laden’s death from the Stagecoach main stage. Most of the audience in Indio, Calif., had learned about it earlier, during Carrie Underwood’s preceding set — albeit by smartphone or shouted word-of-mouth since Underwood never mentioned it during her performance, probably passing up the chance to precipitate the loudest cheer in the history of country music. Maybe the producers chose not to inform Underwood of the development during her set, given the chance of a gleefully patriotic riot ensuing if 55,000 country fans learned of the military triumph all at once.
Venerable rocker Leon Russell was actually the first Stagecoach performer to announce bin Laden’s death. Rather than stir up the crowd while headlining one of the side stages given over to “cred” acts, Russell simply sang “Amazing Grace.”
The Palm Springs-adjacent two-day confab was once again a smash, even with — or maybe especially with — a main stage lineup that echoed the bills of past years. Kenny Chesney declared during his Saturday night headlining set that he wasn’t sure if this was his third or fourth time playing the festival (it was the former), but he sure was glad to be back. Underwood, Rascal Flatts and Darius Rucker were also Stagecoach returnees. Second-tier-billed Josh Turner was making his debut appearance in the desert, though, saying, “It took me 10 years to get here” — another prescience-suggesting remark since Stagecoach is only in its fifth year.
This gathering is unique among country festivals for its mixture of mainstream superstars with little-heralded indie and alternative artists. The “Mane Stage” rounded out its lineup with the highly recognizable likes of Chris Young, Easton Corbin and Steel Magnolia. Meanwhile, the Mustang Stage offered bluegrass-oriented, string-band acts like Ricky Skaggs, the very jazzy Jerry Douglas Trio (complete with a mind-bending Chick Corea cover song), Rhonda Vincent and the Punch Brothers. A third stage, the Palomino Stage, offered veterans such as Kris Kristofferson, the Gatlin Brothers, Wanda Jackson and Mel Tillis, in addition to alt-country favorites like Rodney Crowell, k.d. lang, Junior Brown, the Secret Sisters and Phosphorescent (the only band to play both Stagecoach and Coachella, the rock festival held on the same grounds two weekends prior).
In most years past, there always seemed to be a few hundred L.A. roots hipsters who came out to the desert and stuck strictly to the side stages to see alternative acts like Lucinda Williams, Drive-By Truckers, the Knitters and Mike Ness. This year, judging from the T-shirts, those folks stayed home. But the Stagecoach producers redesigned the layout of the field in intelligent ways that diverted more of the mainstream fans over to that alternative area — like, to put it crassly, by putting one of the beer gardens back in that vicinity. They also stopped having performances in the bluegrass tent after dusk, which was a smart move. In years past, greats like Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs have played to embarrassingly near-empty tents in the nighttime slots. But in the afternoon, the promise of some precious shade draws even the bluegrass-indifferent to see relatively unknown acts like the Coal Porters and Triple Chicken Foot. In other words, fear of sun overexposure can lead to good exposure for the left-of-center acts.
No matter which area of the festival you tended toward, the acts were reinforcing their own particular brand of authenticity.
“True story!” Chesney shouted Saturday night, between the first chorus and second verse of “Beer in Mexico.” He also emphasized the autobiographical aspects of “Out Last Night,” saying, “I know y’all been out there a long time today. Tomorrow morning you’re gonna feel it — and I hope you do because that’s the way I was when I wrote this, and I hope you can relate to every single word of this song.” If you were looking for his more intimate “Blue Chair”-type songs, those were hard to come by in this typically-celebratory set which was content to make partying into something deeply personal.
Ironically, just barely overlapping Chesney’s set, Kristofferson was using the same phrase to emphasize that certain songs came from first-hand experience. “This is a true story,” he said twice, before and during “Best of All Possible Worlds,” a vintage song about going to jail for making a wisecrack about racial injustice to an already-suspicious police officer.
Kristofferson also made comments during some of the songs indicating how they were no longer autobiographical. “I don’t care what’s right or wrong,” he sang during “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” quickly adding, “Yes I do.” In “Best of All Possible Worlds,” after the line “’Cause there’s still a lot of wine and lonely girls,” he said, “I wrote this a long time ago.” His voice was in admittedly weak form, and Kristofferson cleared his throat a lot, leading him to end his most famous song with the amended line, “Help me make it through tonight!” He was also brave enough to make an anti-Bush/Cheney aside during “Nobody Wins,” surely knowing that much of the crowd here was not on his side of the political divide.
The comic highlight of the festival was Saturday’s opening set by the Cleverlys, a satirical bluegrass band that quickly had the crowd eating out of their hand. Not everyone was in on the joke at first. When the singer made a Woodstock-spoofing announcement about not eating the brown acid, one girl asked out loud, “What are they talking about?” It didn’t take long for most viewers to figure out how far their tongues were into their cheeks, as they announced, “We like to do bluegrass the way the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, did it. With that, here’s a Black Eyed Peas song” (“I Gotta Feeling”). The Cleverlys’ cleverest move may have been a cover of the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” — changed, of course, to “She Ain’t There” — though they also hilariously tackled Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You,” complete with somber, bluegrass-style mid-song recitatives. They also did a rap/reggae/bluegrass version of Shaggy’s “Girl You’re My Angel,” which might have seemed ridiculous if it didn’t actually sound a little like the break in Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue.”
Acts on the main stage were naturally a little less ironic about their rock covers, from Underwood’s medley of “Walk This Way” and “Paradise City” to Rascal Flatts’ medley of “Long Time,” “Carry on Wayward Son” and “Slow Ride” to Stealing Angels’ version of “I Want You to Want Me” to Rucker’s “Purple Rain” to the two — count ’em, two acts — that covered “Honky Tonk Women.” The Stagecoach name may suggest the old-time West, but given the preponderance of classic rock singalongs every year, maybe the festival should really be named after a 1980s muscle car.See photos from the 2011 Stagecoach festival.