Stagecoach Festival: Scorching Heat and Lots of George Jones Songs

Zac Brown Band, Toby Keith, Dierks Bentley Among the Headliners

INDIO, Calif. -- When the Zac Brown Band performed Metallica's "Enter Sandman" as part of their climactic set Sunday night (April 28) at the Stagecoach Festival, it may have had a special significance for the crowd. Surely many of the tens of thousands on hand were eager for a date with Mr. Sandman after three days roasting in the desert sun. When temperatures at the festival grounds reached 107 degrees earlier in the day, "Enter Dr. Kevorkian" might have seemed just about right.

When the Zac Brown Band finished their set a little after 10 p.m., remarkably, there was no mad rush to the exits, the way fest-goers have scrambled to get out in past years, even though it was a school night. Two explanations: (1.) Brown's sets leave fans with a natural high they're loathe to immediately shed via a stressful exit. (2.) Heat stroke.

Perhaps the fact that Stagecoach was just a little less congested than it has been in recent years was a contributing factor in the relaxed feel at the end. Only a fool would have considered the festival grounds uncrowded, yet there was a little more breathing room at the edges of the main field which are typically jam-packed from one flank of concession stands to the other. The Desert Sun newspaper in nearby Palm Springs estimated Friday's opening-day crowd at 45,000, well short of the 55,000 capacity. Part of that had to do with severe restrictions on camping this year as a result of too much perceived debauchery in the campgrounds in 2012.

Slightly diminished attendance might also have had something to do with the bill, too, since last year's lineup featured five of the hottest solo acts in country in the form of Jason Aldean, Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert and Luke Bryan. This year's roster was hardly light on star power, with Lady Antebellum, Toby Keith, Dierks Bentley and Darius Rucker joining the Zac Brown Band as headliners. But without an Aldean or Kenny Chesney in the mix and camping options severely curtailed, there was perhaps slightly less motivation for some fans to negotiate room rates in the Palm Springs area.

Complaints were few among the 45,000, anyway, as Stagecoach once again did a superior job of offering a little bit of everything under the country sun, even if most attendees planted themselves at the Mane Stage. Over in the two side tents, music fans could find some life-saving shade and experience the traditional and alternative sides of country with a roster that included Dwight Yoakam, Charley Pride, Roger McGuinn, Don Williams, the Charlie Daniels, the Little Willies (featuring Norah Jones), Riders in the Sky and Old Crow Medicine Show.

These side stages also saw a plethora of moonlighting actors. Jeff Bridges stopped by the Palomino tent as part of his first post-Crazy Heart tour as a country-rocker. John C. Reilly brought his acoustic string band but, to the disappointment of some, stayed earnest and eschewed any comedic Walk Hard material. Katey Sagal fronted the group that turns out the music for her Sons of Anarchy TV show.

The actor who generated the most headlines, though, was not a headliner -- or even on the bill at all. That would be Ashton Kutcher, who drew the attention of gossip site TMZ when he reportedly got into a shoving match with a security guard while trying to greet fans in the Palomino tent on Saturday afternoon. Whatever "violent altercation" transpired that day -- and some people backstage were murmuring that the whole thing was wildly overblown -- Kutcher was back on Sunday. His favorite act seemed to be the Lone Bellow, the Brooklyn band he described to his 14 million Twitter followers as "the next thing in country music." Though he mainly patronized the alt-country acts, Kutcher also tweeted stageside photos of Charlie Daniels and Zac Brown.

Kutcher and country music have seemed to have a star-crossed relationship ever since he was a presenter at the 2012 Academy of Country Music Awards and showed up in exaggerated Western garb doing a George Strait impression, which led Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton to question his sincerity and Justin Moore to call him "a douche." In response, Kutcher tweeted at the time, "I Am One Of The biggest country Music fans you've ever met" (sic). He put his money where his mouth was by being the only major Hollywood celebrity to show up at Stagecoach -- still wearing the cowboy hat (like half the guys in the festival crowd) but wisely ditching his ACM rhinestone jacket.

Lindsay Lohan, meanwhile, who had delayed her entry into rehab so she could attend the Coachella Festival earlier this month on the same grounds, needed no such postponement so she could attend Stagecoach. But if she had made it, she might have found more common musical ground than she would have imagined -- as the typical plethora of rock and rap cover songs would indicate.

Usually Tom Petty is the most-covered act at Stagecoach, making it clear where contemporary country's most direct influences really lie. Petty was certainly in the running for that title this year, too, with Thompson Square performing "I Won't Back Down" and Joe Nichols doing "Runnin' Down a Dream." "Free Fallin'" is one of the most common modern country covers, and while neither The Band Perry nor Keith Urban were here to perform it this year, the slack was taken up by both Jana Kramer and Katey Sagal tackling the tune.

Perhaps someday there'll be more rap than rock covers at Stagecoach. Florida Georgia Line -- who recently collaborated with Nelly on one of their songs -- fired up the Sunday afternoon crowd with a hip-hop medley that included 50 Cent's "In Da Club," Lil Troy's "Wanna Be a Baller" and Snoop's "Young, Wild and Free." Even as unlikely a homey as Hank Williams Jr. got in the act by reviving "Walk This Way" complete with the Run-D.M.C. rap.

There were also at least three incidents of a song being covered by the originator as well as a loving copycat: Jeff Bridges did the Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" right after Roger McGuinn did it on the same stage. Darius Rucker sang his current hit version of "Wagon Wheel" a little more than 48 hours after Old Crow Medicine Show did theirs. (Interestingly, Old Crow's version was even more ecstatically received in one of the best-attended side stage shows). The Zac Brown Band had the chutzpah to close the festival down with "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" just a couple of hours after Charlie Daniels showed the crowd how it's really done.

But this year, George Jones beat out both Petty and Nelly as the most-covered act at Stagecoach, no thanks to his death coinciding with the fest's opening day. The tributes mostly took place among the acts on the side stages, although Toby Keith and Dierks Bentley both brought their memories of Jones to the Mane Stage.

Yoakam interrupted his otherwise rocking set to revive Jones' forlorn prison ballad "Life to Go." John C. Reilly brought out "Blue Must Be the Color of the Blues." Joe Nichols' choice was "I'm a One Woman Man." Trace Adkins led "The Grand Tour."

While most of the Jones covers were on the mournful side, Keith wasn't about to interrupt the celebrative and alcohol-fueled mode of his Friday night headlining set. He saluted Jones for living "81 party-ass, no-show years" on the way to giving a nod to "how important he was to our industry because none of us would be here today if we didn't have four or five cats like George Jones starting it for us." In keeping with a theme that had been established with "Get Drunk and Be Somebody," Keith changed some lines of Jones' "She Thinks I Still Care" to "She thinks I got drunk and I went to California/Where did she get such an idea?" Then, before cranking it up with "White Lightning": "Let's do one more Possum song! It's about drinking!"

Chris Shiflett, guitarist for the Foo Fighters, did double duty when it came to Jones covers. With his own country side project, the Dead Weathers, he covered "You're Still on My Mind." Later that night, Shiflett joined pal Bentley on the Mane Stage for "Walk Through This World With Me." Bentley's homage might have been the most plaintive, as he didn't even mention Jones' name and just let the youngish crowd gradually catch on as he projected a vintage black-and-white image of the Possum behind the stage. At ballad's end, Jones' name and his birth and death years appeared on the screen.

"Says it all," said Bentley.

View photos from the Stagecoach Festival.

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