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Blending country music with jazz and pop is not easy—but for Robert Ellis, it seemingly comes naturally; just check out his latest (self-titled) album.

Ellis will be making his second appearance at Stagecoach on Saturday, April 29.

During a recent phone interview, Ellis said he did not use a specific formula while recording his latest album, which was his fourth.

“As much as I’d like to take credit for every decision and say that it’s all premeditated and conscious, a lot of what happens in making music is pretty accidental,” Ellis said. “You just chase down a vibe, and you go in a direction of things that excites you. At the end of the process, you can turn around and say, ‘I intended to make it this way,’ but in reality, it’s not always like that. It’s more about what your boundaries are and what your parameters are. If you have decided that you want to make a very Americana album, and the only instruments you want on it are acoustic guitar, stock electric guitar and harmonica, you sort of (have) a narrow window as to what can happen. But we didn’t have any of those boundaries when we started recording. We ended up with this weird thing.”

As far as the Americana genre goes, Ellis isn’t really a fan, and doesn’t consider his music to be a fit.

“I find most Americana music to be pretty boring,” he said. “It doesn’t interest me. I understand the reason why what I do is grouped into that genre; I get it. I think people tend to have superficial reasons as to why they group things together. I am from the South, and I write songs that are sort of story-based. At least in the past, there were some country and folk elements to what I was doing. So I can see why I was thrown into that category, and it makes perfect sense. But I don’t listen to that music. I like a lot of music that is described as folk music, like Joni Mitchell, but I think what she does is weird and progressive. If you look at the players on her records, like Jaco Pastorius and Michael Brecker, these are not big names in folk music; they’re jazz players. Everyone remembers Joni Mitchell as this flower-power folk artist.”

Ellis talked about a specific artist on his current playlist.

“I just bought the Joanna Newsom record. I was listening to that this morning,” Ellis said. “I really love that she’s not on Spotify, because you just can’t fucking go listen to her music for free. I thought, ‘I really want to hear that new record.’ I had to go on iTunes and buy it for $11. It’s not like I have a ton of spendable income, but her album is worth the money. I felt really good about spending money on her album. I think there are very few artists who do that, and it felt rewarding, because I don’t know the last time I bought a record.”

Ellis explained how he approaches songwriting, and what he thinks makes a good song.

“It could be anything. I like a lot of different music for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “What I try to do in my songs is communicate a story and choose the music to go along in telling that story. We listen to a lot of jazz, and a lot of rock ’n’ roll, and we just improvise.”

Ellis spends a lot of time each year on tour.

“Three hundred days,” he said. “I have good days and bad days. Generally, the time onstage is the best thing in the world. It feels right, and I feel time passing effortlessly while I’m getting to play music. It’s all the other shit that gets old. It’s all the driving and the other bullshit you have to do to make this work—like figure out how to sell music. It feels pretty tacky and time-consuming. But the actual performing and improvising never gets old, especially after you’ve been driving for 8 or 9 hours. All I want to do is be in the moment, improvise and play music.”

Ellis said he’s consistently writing, too.

“I have a lot of records in me that I really want to do,” he said. “I guess if I get enough coffee in me, I have 10 albums I wish I could do in the next five minutes. I’d love to do a record of jazz standards. But I have no idea what the next record will be like—but it definitely won’t sound like the last one.”

Stagecoach’s lineup is usually weirdly diverse. Ellis said that he finds Stagecoach to be inexplicable—but in a good way.

“A lot of the artists at Stagecoach are these weird left-of-center artists,” Ellis said. “I know Phosphorescent played Stagecoach a few years ago. The last time, I played Stagecoach, Toby Keith was the headliner. Nora Jones’ country band was there, and so was Old Crow Medicine Show. There’s a wide variety of artists that play that thing. I definitely don’t think Toby Keith and Old Crow Medicine Show play the same genre of music. I don’t feel out of place at all, because I don’t know the identifying quality all of the bands have. I haven’t been able to wrap my head around that. Last time I played, people seemed to really dig it, and I had a good crowd. It’s California, so it’s all kinds of different people.”

Published in Previews

The name Justin Townes Earle tells several stories. The middle name pays homage to Townes Van Zandt, and his last name … well, yes, he’s Steve Earle’s son.

But Justin Townes Earle has made a name for himself; his music is truly his own. Like his father, he’s a country musician who frequently strays from the Nashville mainstream. Like both his father and his father’s mentor, Townes Van Zandt, he’s battled drug addiction.

He’ll be returning to Stagecoach on Friday, April 28.

His most recent albums, released in 2014 and 2015 respectively, were titled Single Mothers and Absent Fathers. During a recent phone interview, Earle talked about the differences between the similar albums.

“I ended up getting frustrated with the first record, Single Mothers,” Earle said. “I ended up writing Absent Fathers during (a) second year. They ended up coming together, because they were written really close to each other. I wouldn’t haven’t written Absent Fathers if I didn’t have that second year of frustrations I had with Single Mothers.

“I think, as an artist, I listen to a lot of different types of music. I think my records definitely have more of an Americana sound or whatever it is. … I paid more attention to my Replacements records and things like that. The new record I’ve made is more of a blues record, more along the lines of the Harlem River Blues album. Nobody should ever expect me to make the same record twice, or (for the records to) even to be in line with each other. I’m a whimsical motherfucker.”

As for that new record, just a couple of days after our interview, it was announced that Kids in the Street would be released May 26.

“During my early career, I would take a year between records,” Earle said. “Then I started taking two. It’s definitely time (for a new record).”

I asked whether taking more time between records helps or hinders his creative process.

“Really, I found it more frustrating to wait more than a year,” he replied. “I get a group of songs done, and I have time to second-guess them. I end up doing rewrites, edits and all kinds of things that maybe needed to be done, and maybe didn’t. But that’s up to the individual song. I do prefer the faster pace of work, but life doesn’t allow for that too much anymore.”

While he respects his father’s political music, Earle said he’s not a big fan of mixing politics and music.

“It’s not that I’m not interested in it; it’s something I think for me, personally, I would approach it very carefully,” he said. “I’m not happy about either political party. It’s been, ‘I’d rather vote for Jeffrey Giraffe instead of this person.’ It’s been like that my whole lifetime. I’ve always seen music as the Grand Ole Opry, the Louisiana Hayride, and this thing where everyone can go, which is a high for society. I want my music to be where you don’t have to believe what I believe to feel comfortable at one of my shows. I think we have very few bonds between Americans today.

“I don’t disagree with my father’s music, because that’s what he does. He’s really good at it. But it’s just not what I do. I feel like it works its way into my songs, but I tend to use more social ideas, and it tends to be buried. I write about people issues, everyday life issues and local issues.”

Earle said his father pays a price for his politics.

“I think that after years, you can’t go to a Steve Earle concert expecting anything different. But recently, it doesn’t go over very good for him in the South,” he said. “People will get up and leave one of his shows pissed off. It does happen, and that’s only because they didn’t do their homework, and they only remember ‘Copperhead Road’ and nothing else. But I wonder how big his crowds would be had he not gone that direction. Those people don’t come to the shows anymore.”

Justin Townes Earle now lives on the West Coast, after living in New York City. However, Earle said he misses the South.

“I’ve always missed things about the South, no matter where I’ve lived. It’s what I grew up with,” Earle said. “People aren’t as communal anywhere else as I’ve seen growing up in the South. I don’t know what it is, but there’s a certain niceness to Southern people that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and it’s a certain kind of nice. It’s just familiar to me.

“I miss Nashville—and that’s not anything you can see anymore. It’s gone. It’s buried, and the rate at which Nashville gentrified is just astounding. It’s not that it was a better place when I grew up. It was rough, and it was a dangerous city in the ’80s and ’90s. There was no industry; most of the inner city was poor and rough. … But my mom always got to take me back to the place where she got a burger when she was a little girl and the toy store where her dad bought her toys. I got to do all that stuff with my mom when I was growing up, and I can’t do that with my kid.”

As for his addiction days, Earle said they are behind him.

“I was 24 years old when my first EP came out, and I’m 35 now. There’s a drastic difference,” he said. “I’m also a married man now, and definitely a lot more stable of a human being than I used to be. I guess the self-destructive bomb found its way out of me. I do believe it has a lot to do with my wife, and if we’re happy with life, we’re not going to try to alter it. But I’m also not going to start writing songs about walking on sunshine and things like that.”

The last time Earle played Stagecoach, in 2013, his tour bus was parked right next to the Palomino stage. He said he enjoyed the diversity of the festival.

“For as big of a festival as it is, it’s laid out very well,” he said. “I’ve never played a large festival like that where I could put my bus right by the stage. I love that about it. It’s set up very well, and it’s very easy to get around. It’s really interesting how that festival is evolving in a big way. There’s definitely been this new look in the past several years of looking at the popular country vibe and doing that because people love that, but also bringing in some obscure acts that sound different. I think that it’s become a very progressive festival; a lot of other festivals get stuck in their ways.”

Published in Previews

Indio is the Coachella Valley’s largest city—and faces complex challenges due to the fact that it’s the home of Coachella, Stagecoach and Desert Trip.

In this year’s city election, seven people are running for two seats on the Indio City Council: Incumbents Glenn Miller and Lupe Ramos Watson, and challengers Joan Dzuro, Gina Chapa, Sam Torres, Jackie Lopez and Noe Gutierrez.

Joan Dzuro (right), a retired human resources consultant, cited a lack of both redevelopment funds and a concise plan for redevelopment as problems in Indio, due in large part to the state of California dissolving all redevelopment agencies back in 2012.

“One of the challenges that we have is the loss of the redevelopment funds,” Dzuro said. “… When those funds were removed by Sacramento, it became harder to find funding for that. I’m very encouraged by the hiring of (the city’s new director of economic development), Carl Morgan, because he’s able to come up with plans to talk to investors and businesses, and to try to work on options for some of that funding. You always need more funds when you have a fast-growing city. Public safety needs to be able to keep up with that, and it costs money.”

Dzuro said that her 35 years in corporate human resources give her much-needed experience.

“I’ve dealt with corporations from the business side and the employee side,” she said. “I think that’s the strength I can bring to the council, and bring in jobs and create businesses for the city, and have those businesses contribute new marketable skills to our unemployed and to the younger people graduating from college.”

Gina Chapa, a community organizer who worked for Congressman Raul Ruiz, said the lack of diverse commerce is a big issue.

“We’re struggling a lot with bringing in new businesses, supporting businesses, and actually having a thriving commercial area,” she said. “Also, I see that there’s a huge disparity between different populations in Indio. In order to feel like a complete city, we need to find a way to build bridges between the different communities in Indio. I feel that there’s a lack of ownership or participation. There’s a large population of disaffected or apathetic residents who feel disconnected to their local government.”

Chapa (right) said her roots are in Indio. “I’m a longtime community organizer and community resident. I was born in Indio and went to school in Indio. I’m raising my son in Indio, and I’m connected to various communities in Indio.”

Sam Torres, a former city councilman, said Indio’s slow economic recovery has caused problems.

“We’re starting to see some signs of (recovery in) the last few years, but we haven’t seen the robust economy we thought we were going to have,” he said. “I think that there’s another issue, and that’s the fact we’re starting to see two Indios. One is the north side and the far south side along the polo fields. The south side gets a lot of attention and is a new and dynamic community. But we’ve been leaving out the communities that have always been here. The residents in these communities are the ones who were building this economy. If you look in those neighborhoods, you can see the decay.”

Why should Indio voters put Torres back on the City Council, two years after he lost a re-election bid?

“I know the job. Now I really know this city,” he said. “I tell the truth and tell it like it is: ‘This is the problem, and this is what it takes to fix it.’ I do not bow to special interests, because the city residents elect me, and I don’t have a scheme to make money off this city.”

Jackie Lopez (right), who works as the district director for Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, said Indio’s largest challenge involves commerce.

“The No. 1 issue is places to shop,” Lopez said. “People spend their money outside of Indio. One of my main goals is better economic development. There are a lot of business owners struggling to make it. On the north side of Indio, we have a village market that could be a grocery store that’s sitting there. There are people who live across the street looking for places to shop that are walkable, and they’re getting to the point where they’re relying on their children and public transportation. Even though there are places to shop on the other side of the overpass, it’s too far for them. … I also feel that hotels are another concern with these festivals in our city; a lot of our tourists are staying outside of the area.”

Lopez said her work experience makes her a good fit for the City Council.

“I’m a lifelong resident here and have eight years working for the state Legislature,” she said. “I know how to get our money back from the state. I have worked on numerous pieces of legislation at the state level, (and worked) with our congressman to leverage funds for victims of the Salton Sea.” 

Noe Gutierrez—a behavioral health specialist, writer for CV Weekly and musician—said the city has not focused enough on small business.

“Downtown Indio hasn’t flourished like it should have,” he said. “I think smart growth is what we need—focusing on small-business owners and helping people get set up and started, as well as following them through. We all know the numbers of small businesses and when they open. Generally, they close within three years. We need to develop a plan we can follow.”

Gutierrez (right) said his experience in understanding people will serve him on the City Council.

“I grew up in Indio, and went to school in Indio, and I understand the backstreets, the different neighborhoods, the different types of people who live in those neighborhoods, and I understand their perception of things,” he said. “I have a huge amount of empathy given my background working as a social worker. My job is to put myself in other people’s shoes, so I feel I do a pretty good job doing that. … One thing I’m known for is gathering people together, getting them connected and establishing long-term relationships that are beneficial.”

The incumbents have had front-line experience dealing with Indio’s economic challenges in recent years. Glenn Miller said that while some newer areas of Indio—closer to Interstate 10—are fairly prosperous, the city’s downtown is suffering.

“Some of our older parts are taking a toll from the economic downturn,” he said. “It’s getting the actual funding availability, not only from the city of Indio, but also from our business community to invest into some of the areas that have been hit hardest due to the economic downturn, such as our downtown area.”

Miller, who has been on the council since 2008, has seen the city deal with hard financial times.

“When I first came on to the council, we had a structural $13 million deficit,” he said. “We burned through $35 million in reserves. Now we have a structurally balanced budget with over a half-million dollars in reserves, so financially, it is economically sound. But when you start talking about where you want the city to go when listening to our residents, one of the things they ask for is different kinds of shopping and business opportunities, education and investing in infrastructure.”

Miller said he should be re-elected because of his dedication to the city and the fact that he spends most of his free time working for a better Indio.

“I’m the most active and involved council member out of all the council members,” he said. “I’m very much engaged and spend all my free time working with our businesses, nonprofits and residents on what’s important to them.

“Indio will grow not only locally, but regionally. Not everyone who lives in Indio works in Indio. So the stronger the Coachella Valley is as a whole, and the more relationships we can build with College of the Desert and with our school district, it will be an advantage to the city of Indio, and I’m able to engage in those relationships.”

Councilmember Lupe Ramos Watson (right) said she’s concerned that Indio is losing out on sales-tax revenue.

“Our first and biggest challenge is to recapture some of the sales tax that is leaking out to other cities,” Watson said. “Several years ago, we conducted an economic-strategy analysis to figure out how much of our disposable income is being spent within the city boundaries to produce sales tax revenue, and how much was leaking out to other cities. We figured out that more than 50 percent of our potential sales tax revenue is leaking to other cities.”

Watson said she deserves to remain on the council due to the steps that she and her colleagues have taken regarding economic development.

“We just hired an economic development director a couple of months ago,” she said. “Because of the strategy we put together a couple of months ago, we have a plan for the downtown area that we’re completing to make sure the businesses that come into that area not only revitalize the downtown area, but add sales tax to our revenue and augment the opportunities as the ‘City of Festivals.’ With my background in planning in addition to development, I believe I’m a great asset to the city of Indio to help unfold these projects.”

We asked each of the candidates: What is the real identity of Indio?

“I believe Indio’s biggest attraction is that we’re a family-oriented city,” Dzuro said. “We emphasize our parks, the teen center and the Boys and Girls Club of America. We work together as a community with our festivals. The Tamale Festival and the Date Festival are family events. We really try to bring in the families to our community, and I think that’s what we emphasize more than anything.”

Chapa said that she feels the city government is not properly engaging with the older parts of the city.

“We know what it’s all called: ‘The City of Festivals,’” Chapa said. “That’s what it’s marketed as. It … doesn’t have just one identity. We know people understand Indio from the outside because of Coachella and the large snowbird community. As for the identity that it once had, there are many 40-plus-year residents living here who aren’t being included in the new face of Indio and the ‘City of Festivals.’ The identity is something we need to work on as a city, and (we need to) reach out to the community to build an identity so the people can feel like they’re part of the city, and that we can build our city together.”

Torres said Indio is not reaping the economic benefits it should be.

“The city of Indio is the ‘City of Festivals,’ but we used to be the second seat of the county, and we’re now in the backseat to Palm Springs,” Torres (right) said. “Any of the big events they have here, even at the casinos, they call it ‘Greater Palm Springs.’ We provide the neighbors and facilities, but the cash registers are ringing in the west valley. The local leaders have allowed that to happen and don’t have a plan to bring that identity back to Indio, and that’s where we made a huge mistake. It’s called the ‘’City of Festivals,’ but we’re really the ‘Greater Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce Backseaters.’”

Lopez said she wants Indio to once again be considered the hub of the Coachella Valley.

“We have so much potential, and we’re still growing,” she said. “On the other side of the freeway, I just found out we’re getting a Sonic and some other new places to shop and eat. The hope is to make sure we have a council member who will reinvest back into our community. We do pay taxes, and we’d like to see some of that money come back in infrastructure or attracting new places to shop and eat in downtown Indio—becoming the hub of the valley again.”

Gutierrez also said the city does not capitalize enough on the ‘City of Festivals’ label.

“There are some blinders on us,” he said. “We’re known for Coachella, but we don’t really expand on that. We’re just the site for Coachella. … We can’t rely on one-time events where people come, hang out and then leave, and probably never come back. We need a continuous inclusion of all age groups, ethnicities and everything.”

As for the identity of Indio, Miller (right) feels it has a lot to offer culturally.

“It’s the ‘City of Festivals’ and the city of culture. The city also has a bright future,” he said. “I think people see that in our rich history and being the largest city, but … multiple art developments and art pieces are going up throughout the city by world renowned artists who want to be part of the city of Indio and its culture.”

Watson said that she feels the city’s identity as the “City of Festivals” ties everything together.

“We’ve always celebrated our culture through the festivals,” she said. “It’s a community of celebration; Indio is full of hard-working individuals who work through our seasons to fulfill every need of their families, and when it’s time to celebrate, it’s done through our festivals. That is … a hard working community that understands that we need to work hard and work together to build a community that meets our needs.”

Published in Politics

Stagecoach celebrated its 10th year in 2016. Since its 2007 debut, it’s become one of the most successful country-music festivals in the world, popular with locals and visitors alike.

But that’s not to say it doesn’t have room to improve.

Stagecoach has had some truly epic moments. I first attended Stagecoach in 2008 as an employee of Borders Books and Music, which was an onsite vendor. The festival was only in its second year—and having The Eagles play was a solidifying moment for the festival. It was to Stagecoach what Daft Punk’s performance in 2006 was to Coachella.

This year’s festival was a definite success. On Sunday afternoon, as EmiSunshine played in the Mustang Tent—moving into the crowd to keep playing for a couple of songs while the power went out across the festival—the Marshall Tucker Band played to a large crowd in the Palomino Tent, while many faithful country-music fans gathered at the Mane Stage for A Thousand Horses and Dustin Lynch. The vibe was palpable as thousands of people walked around and gathered in various places.

But let’s face it: Stagecoach, in many ways, lives in the shadow of its music-festival sibling, Coachella. Coachella has become one of the most talked-about music events in the world, drawing celebrities and attention from every corner of the planet. It has become a preview of/kickoff for the music-festival circuit each year, and bands have come through Coachella and built their careers in large part on a great performance here.

But at Stagecoach? That has not happened yet.

From a local standpoint, Stagecoach stands a step or three behind Coachella as well. Every year, local bands get the honor of taking the Coachella stage, as happened with brightener and The Flusters this year. That’s not the case with Stagecoach. R Buckle Road, a local country band, would be great to hear at Stagecoach. The closest thing I can remember to a local band playing at Stagecoach was the Honky Tonk Angels Band, from the Inland Empire.

Stagecoach also suffers from a lot of repetition. The headliners for the Mane Stage this year included Eric Church and Luke Bryan, who both headlined in 2014—just two years ago. Carrie Underwood, Saturday’s headliner, has now performed at Stagecoach three times.

Meanwhile, many great performers have never taken the stage at Stagecoach. Off the top of my head, Hank Williams III has never played the festival. Ryan Adams has not brought his country sound to Stagecoach, even though he’s played at Coachella, The Dixie Chicks have been performing off and on—but never at Stagecoach. The Lumineers would be great to include at Stagecoach as well as Coachella. Where’s Neil Young? Personally, I’d love to see some of the remaining folk legends such as Joan Baez or Gordon Lightfoot, given folk performers have been included in the past. There many alternative country and indie-folk bands playing at festivals such as the Austin City Limits Festival and SXSW who would do well on the Stagecoach stage.

Still, I have to tip my (cowboy) hat to Goldenvoice for getting legends to Stagecoach. Shows by the late Merle Haggard and the late George Jones are truly worth remembering, and performers such as Wanda Jackson, Ray Price, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Charlie Pride and Billie Joe Shaver have shined. Southern rock bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Charlie Daniels Band and ZZ Top have played to overflowing crowds, as did John Fogerty did this past Saturday.

Still, it’d be nice if Goldenvoice could branch out to attract more indie-country and alternative-country followers to fill the added capacity that has just been approved for Stagecoach.

Stagecoach has had a great 10-year run so far. Here’s hoping that in the years to come, the festival will grow and become even more successful—with more variety.

Scroll down for photos from the final day of Stagecoach 2016, by Kevin Fitzgerald.

Alexa and Avery Roemer are two kids from Orange County with a passion: rescue dogs. They shared that passion with Stagecoach attendees through their band, A. Rae and the Rescue Dogs.

Alexa, 10, and Avery, 9, were born into a musical family. Their mother, Kelly Rae, leads the Kelly Rae Band, which also performed this weekend in the Honky Tonk Tent. Their father, Jack Roemer, plays bass in Rae and the Rescue Dogs and is the songwriter. The two girls began performing last summer—but they’ve been singing for quite a while, thanks to their musical family.

When the A. Rae and the Rescue Dogs performed in the Half-Pint Hootenanny on Saturday, Alexa explained their mission: “We hope our show inspires you to get a dog,” she said.

All of the songs are about dogs, and the girls have even recorded a CD to benefit rescue dogs. They make appearances at animal-related fundraisers and occasionally make an appearance onstage with their mom’s band. During Stagecoach, half of the proceeds from CD sales onsite were earmarked for Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that provides service animals to people with disabilities.

“I’m passionate about rescue dogs, because our dog is a rescue dog,” Alexa Roemer said during an interview in the press tent. “Our Aunt Lisa rescued him, and we were trying to find him a home. He came from an abandoned home. We thought, ‘Wow, there are so many dogs out there that are like that.’ So to think are a lot of dogs put down every week—I think every dog should have a home instead.”

Avery Roemer echoed her sister’s sentiments: “I think every dog should have a home and should be loved and cared for.”

With their parents close by during the interview, Alexa said she’s happy her father is the songwriter for the band.

“I think it’s cool that he writes our songs,” Alexa said. “He’s really good at it, and I’m glad he’s doing it instead of us.”

Both Alexa and Avery said they do feel a bit nervous at times while performing in front of audiences, but they do it out of passion for the cause of rescue dogs.

“I don’t really get nervous except when I mess up the words,” Avery said. “But I like going onstage and singing to the crowd. I also like selling our CDs.”

As for Stagecoach, both were excited to be seeing Carrie Underwood, given they love American Idol, although they were also looking forward to seeing other performers as well.

“I think we can see some people perform and take some influence from them. I think that would be very cool, and I think it’s going to be very fun to perform here,” Alexa said. “I’ve always liked Carrie Underwood’s music.”

Avery agreed.

“Carrie Underwood is one of my favorite singers—along with my mom,” Avery Roemer said. “I’m really excited to see her.”

For more information, visit www.songsaboutdogs.net.

In 2013, I covered Coachella and Stagecoach for the first time for the Coachella Valley Independent—but I had concerns about doing so. In the fall of 2011, I suffered a serious back injury. As a result, I am unable to stand or sit for long periods of time.

Thankfully, while on site during Coachella in 2013, I discovered the services of Goldenvoice’s ADA department, which is in charge of accommodating guests with various disabilities. Three years later, the department is doing an ever-better job of doing so.

If you’ve attended either Coachella or Stagecoach, you may have seen Austin Whitney, of Accessible Festivals. Austin, in his wheel chair, is seemingly everywhere, and always with his service dog, Ophelia.

When I went to meet Whitney at one of the ADA platforms near the Mane Stage on Saturday evening during Stagecoach, he was handling an issue with an ADA wristband holder—with a smile on his face. As we went to find a place to chat, he talked to me about being from Berkeley, Calif., and about how seeing Rancid perform at Coachella was a highlight for him. As we made our way through the grounds, many people screamed his name—and a whole lot of people asked if they could pet Ophelia.

“I was in a car accident when I was 18,” Whitney said. “It severed my spinal cord and paralyzed me from the waist down. That really changed my life dramatically. At the time, my world was turned upside down. I had been very active in sports before that, and all my friends went off to college. My whole college plan was messed up. I was going to go to the University of Michigan, and there was no way after an injury like that.”

Despite the injury, he was determined to attend Coachella in 2008, because Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd, was performing.

“It was the greatest show I ever saw in my life,” Whitney said. “At that show, it was one of the first places I found myself smiling. I was consumed by self-pity and hopelessness, and I felt that my life was over. Sitting in that crowd, enjoying that show, I didn’t think about my disability, and I didn’t think about this anxiety that consumed me about my future. I was living in the moment and being happy.

“I started going to a decent amount of music festivals after that. Having that to look forward to every two months throughout the season gave me something to look forward to when I needed something to look forward to during the first one to two years that were the roughest.”

His experiences led him to start working with festival promoters. He wanted to see them go above and beyond the legal requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act and focus on creating a truly enjoyable experience for those who had disabilities. He worked with Goldenvoice in 2011 and 2012, and he returned in 2016.

“(The year) 2011 was my first year at Coachella, and I started working for different promoters, and it kind of dawned on me: There’s a lot that could be done in terms of accommodations and people with disabilities. Other people I had been working with, they weren’t taking them into mind. I started law school at UC Berkeley at that time, and I was the only kind of person who had a legal background with that. The legal stuff doesn’t really matter: What I aim to do is really welcome people with disabilities and go beyond what’s considered ADA-compliant. It’s a very low bar with restrooms, parking and all of that stuff. I wanted to help promoters build events that people with disabilities could enjoy, and not have anxiety when they purchase a ticket.”

The department has to handle some complex and sensitive issues.

“We help everything between a 15-year-old with a broken foot to a 90-year-old with every conceivable health condition and an oxygen tank. We help folks who are hard of hearing, those who are deaf, those who are blind, those who are in wheelchairs, and (those with) various ailments and diseases. We deal with cancer and complications that come from illness, including skin conditions. Pregnancy isn’t a disability, but our services are helpful to a lot of folks, including those with late-term pregnancy; we put that under our umbrella and have a lot of patrons who are pregnant and offer our platforms to them—especially to those who go to Coachella because there are no chairs allowed.”

Whitney said Coachella and Stagecoach attendees noticed that the ADA team was a lot larger this year.

“It’s almost twice the size of the team we had last year,” he said. “These are people who love their job. One of the core elements of how we operate is to connect with people on a very human to human level—and that’s how you diffuse situations when they do arise. We also gave twice the amount of shuttle rides each weekend than were done last year. We have more carts going; I have eight or nine carts going right now. I have more people here to dedicate to what needs to get done.”

Whitney also added LED signs at each platform, making it easier for patrons to spot them. Doppler Labs was onsite offering patrons who are hard of hearing a pair of earplugs that can take in audio and be controlled with smartphones. Whitney said his team was offering guided tours to those with visual disabilities to help them make a mental map of the festival. A dietician was onsite to help those with dietary disabilities navigate among the food vendors. Finally, the department had a hotline phone number set up for the first time, which rang directly to Whitney or members of his staff—which took 160 calls a day.

At one point during Coachella, I watched as Whitney helped deal with chaos just before Ice Cube’s second-weekend performance. Both ADA platforms at the Coachella Stage were full—yet there was a huge line of attendees with ADA wristbands

“That was pretty crazy!” Whitney recalled. “We had 35 people who wanted to get on that platform before Ice Cube when Disclosure was performing. It was already pretty full—and then I had 35 people in line. If we didn’t help people get up there, they weren’t going to see the show.

“I know what it’s like if you can’t stand. If we can help, we will. If that means companions having to give up their seats and stand up, so be it. We got everyone on there, and that was a highlight for me and a personal accomplishment. I got awarded for that too, so it was great.”

Whitney said Goldenvoice has been supportive regarding those with disabilities, and he thinks things will improve even more during future festivals. He conceded there’s a lot of work left to do.

“Right now, we still have capacity issues on the platforms, and it’s crazy out there,” he said. “We have to work on viewing areas. We have the screens with the monitors with American Sign Language, but it has to be dialed in a lot more. I put a lot of attention during weekend 1 and 2 of Coachella doing disability-etiquette-training for security guards, and a huge amount of time is spent fixing mistakes out there with the security staff. They don’t need to be disability experts, but they need to understand when to reach out to us. Those are probably the big (changes) that we’re going to see. Also, (we’re working on) locking down our systems a little bit more and figuring out more innovative ways to get information out there for those with disabilities, whether that’s through social media or the packages with the wristbands that get sent out. After this event, I’ll do a full debrief with my staff to see what we can improve on.”

What advice does Whitney offer to those who are disabled and want to come to Coachella or Stagecoach?

Go to a music festival,” Whitney said with enthusiasm. “I’ve seen some folks who have more serious medical conditions than I can comprehend. I can find a solution to almost any accessibility issue if I know in advance. It’s a little more difficult if they just show up onsite. But if somebody has a specific concern, reach out to us. I’m fairly reachable by phone or e-mail, and this is what I do all the time. I can figure out a solution if there is a concern. I wouldn’t let someone’s disability stop them from experiencing something awesome like that Ice Cube show.” 

There are a lot of cool things to see at Stagecoach—and Pokey LaFarge was the coolest thing to see on Saturday afternoon in the Mustang Tent.

The St. Louis-born and -raised performer is a true roots-music enthusiast. He’s not a revival act; he lives and breathes vintage music from the ’30s and ’40s.

On Saturday, he was clad in a vintage button-down shirt, navy jeans cuffed around his cowboy boots, and a vintage black hat. He often wears suits with cuts from the ’30s and ’40s, as well as other vintage clothing. One thing’s for sure: He looked dressed and ready for Stagecoach.

Starting his set with “Something in the Water,” Pokey LaFarge made it clear right away that his live show includes elements you don’t always hear on his records: In person, you can hear hints of big-band jazz, calypso, Latin, Americana and country-Western in his repertoire.

The large crowd that gathered in the smaller-sized Mustang tent loved him, and was clapping and singing along to the choruses to his songs. He led a sing-along during “Central Time,” about being a plain-old Midwestern boy trying to survive in the Central Time Zone. He declared that while he doesn’t have a problem with the East Coast or the West Coast, he wouldn’t live in either.

One interesting moment came late in the set when he performed a country-Western/roots-style cover of Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne’s “Carmelita.” The chorus: “And I’m all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town.” It proved that although much of Pokey LaFarge’s music is upbeat, he’s not afraid to venture into the dark side. There was a lot of variety to be had in Pokey’s 45-minute set—and it was never dull.

Pokey LaFarge is not the only Americana revivalist to come through Stagecoach and put on a fine performance—but nobody that I have seen has ever won over a crowd as well as he did, especially inside the Mustang Tent, a place where Stagecoach attendees often seek shade or even take a nap on one of the bales of hay. With a horn-section, banjo and acoustic guitars, and swing-jazz style drumming, LaFarge won over the audience easily—and proved that he can not only play for a crowd of Americana purists; he can easily entertain the audience of Stagecoach.

See more Stagecoach Day 2 photos below, by Kevin Fitzgerald.

Published in Reviews

Dale Watson is a honky tonk hero and a legend of country music—in part because he wholeheartedly eschews the mainstream.

Originally from Birmingham, Ala., Watson now calls Austin, Texas, home. He owns a saloon there called the Little Longhorn Saloon, which is home to “Chicken Shit Bingo”—a weekly event during which a chicken is placed on a table with numbers on it.

If you have the number on which the chicken does its business, you’re a winner!

I chatted with Watson before his Friday Stagecoach performance, and asked him the question: What do you love about country music?

“I don’t love country music,” Watson replied. “Not today’s country music—not one bit. I love what used to be called country music. I’m a big fan of a genre called Ameripolitan right now, which is what country music used to be: Western swing, rockabilly and honky tonk music. In that regard, what is it about the country music that I love? I love it because it’s honest; it’s real; and it’s something I can relate to. Today’s country music? I can’t relate to it at all. All the stuff that Ray Price and Merle Haggard wrote and played—it definitely speaks to me.”

Watson compared what’s happened to country music to gentrification: “It’s like walking into an old neighborhood you used to go to all the time, and it was fun to be in—and you find out it’s nothing but condos.”

Despite his anti-mainstream ethos, Watson is still in demand. He has a multi-generational audience, and he is consistently releasing records—while touring constantly.

“We play a lot of festivals and mostly honky tonks, or at least what used to be honky tonks,” he said. “I also play a lot of beer joints, and I even own one back in Texas. I recorded the Live at Chicken Shit Bingo album there, which is coming out this summer. Venues vary, but they all have one consistent theme of featuring roots music, whether it’s blues or whatever. We’ll play for the tattooed younger crowd, and the next night, a theater full of old folks.”

Watson has become a legend thanks in part to a lot of nods from younger outlaw and alternative-country musicians; Hank Williams III has mentioned Dale Watson in his songs, for example. But Watson has also garnered younger fans with his social-media savvy: He runs all of his social media himself.

“The Internet has made being more visible possible for people like me, and people who play my kind of music,” Watson said. “We also tour constantly, so when you tour this much, you hit a lot of places where young people discover you—and luckily, they’ve latched on.”

There was a period during which Watson didn’t tour.

“My kids moved to Baltimore one year, and I didn’t want to freak them out by taking them to Texas or make it harder for their mom, so I moved out there,” he said about his 2004 hiatus. “Then after seven months, I realized they were fine, and got back into the grind doing what I needed to do.

“It was tough not to play. I was miserable. That’s when I learned that the best thing for my kids would be to take care of me.”

Watson said he doesn’t get tired out by touring because he constantly mixes things up.

“I don’t do the same set. I’ve never done the same set,” he said. “It doesn’t happen that way, and I may do the same batch of songs in a week’s time, but there’s always something different going on.”

Watson said he’s always writing.

“I’m not writing operas. I’m just writing real songs based on experiences that happened to me,” he explained. “One I recently wrote is called ‘I Keep Doing Things I Shouldn’t Do,’ and it came out of a conversation with somebody who had an operation on her shoulder, and there she was, going out to the shooting range and doing everything she shouldn’t be doing. I told her, ‘You’re just going to keep doing things you shouldn’t do.’ Sounded like a song to me.

“My songs aren’t rocket science, but it means a lot to me, because I identify with it. I know I’m on the right track when I’m doing a song, and when I’m on the second chorus, people are singing along.”

Watson said that he has three (!) albums coming out later this year, including a cover album called Under the Influences, which will feature songs which inspired him. The album will include songs by Merle Haggard and also Ray Price.

As for what he thought about Stagecoach—where he shares the stage with Nashville stars performing that gentrified brand of country—he said he was enjoying himself.

“It’s great, because I saw a friend of mine who plays with Marty Stuart, and that’s what I really like about it: I get to see people I don’t really get to see that often,” he said. “In Southern California with the beautiful weather, it’s kind of a fun hang.”

There are no bells nor whistles to Emmylou Harris does. Her show includes just guitars, bass, percussion—and stunning vocals.

This lesson was learned by those who stopped by her headlining performance in the Palomino Tent on Friday night at Stagecoach. For one hour, she mostly stood in the same place, played guitar and sang.

And it was magnificent.

As Emmylou opened her set with “Here I Am,” any doubts about the strength of the 69-year-old legend’s voice were immediately wiped away. From start to finish, her set was top-notch, and the sound in the Palomino Tent was great. While she didn’t draw a huge crowd like Lynyrd Skynyrd did a couple of years ago, or ZZ Top drew last year, she transfixed most of the attendees who were lucky to find spots close to the stage.

One highlight was a song on which she collaborated with Mark Knopfler called “Love and Happiness.” She delivered a stunning cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” soon after.

Emmylou Harris told a story about The Ballad of Sally Rose, a concept album she released in 1985. She noted that it was an album without a hit single—and she nearly went bankrupt as a result of it. She then played “The Sweetheart of the Rodeo” from the album.

Harris recalled the last time she played Stagecoach, in 2007, noting that Brooks and Dunn stole most of her crowd—and observing how much bigger the Palomino Tent had gotten in the years since. She then turned over the stage to her percussionist and her guitarist, Mary Ann Kennedy and Pam Rose, who performed their 1989 single from their Kennedy Rose days, “Love Like This.”

Toward the end of the set, Emmylou Harris performed a cover of “Spanish Dancer,” written by her friend Patti Scialfa, who she said was “Mrs. Bruce Springsteen”—a title that overshadows her talent as a brilliant songwriter, she noted. She then closed with a cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.”

Considering Emmylou Harris was an essential part of the ’70s country music scene and a key figure in the Bakersfield sound, she’s a true country legend. It was fantastic to see her back at Stagecoach—and still sounding great.

 

Published in Reviews

Stagecoach is known for a diverse lineup which often includes talented unknowns—but Tigerman WHOA takes “unknown” to a whole new level.

I could not find a lineup listing for the band from Lynn, Mass. (beyond a list of first names on Facebook). I sent an interview request … which was returned as undeliverable. The phone number for the band? Disconnected.

However, this wild Americana-meets-punk band is worth a look: With an upright bass, an electric guitar, a mandolin and some punk-style drumming, Tigerman WHOA kicks ass.

As the band took the Mustang stage, the emcee said that what Tigerman WHOA does is unexplainable, so he’d let them come out and explain it for themselves. The first song was a fast number during which the mandolin really came through. The band then changed the gears a bit with a cover of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”—but with a kick in the ass.

Tigerman WHOA was not afraid to include a quick tribute to Prince: In the middle of one of the songs, the group played a line of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” With the mandolin, upright bass and Tom Waits-style raspy vocals, this tribute was certainly more fascinating than most of the tributes I heard last week at Coachella.

That brings us back to the diversity of Stagecoach: Where else in the United States can you see huge stars such as Carrie Underwood and an amazing yet unheralded talent like Tigerman WHOA?

Published in Reviews

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