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25 Apr 2015

Stagecoach 2015, Day 1: The Lone Bellow Reflects; Sturgill Simpson Wows; Merle Haggard Sounds Polished

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Merle Haggard was masterful at Stagecoach—even if his horn section may have added a little too much polish to his sound. Merle Haggard was masterful at Stagecoach—even if his horn section may have added a little too much polish to his sound. Kevin Fitzgerald

Stagecoach 2015 started on Friday, April 24, with high winds, cooler temperatures—and a lot of great music.

If you’ve never been to Stagecoach, I highly recommend arriving for the opening of the grounds on the first day of the festival. Right at noon, the Monday Night Football theme blasted throughout the grounds, and people took off running toward the Mane Stage. The music also changed to things such as the Benny Hill theme or “Reveille.” Many festival employees stopped what they were doing to film the spectacle with their cell phones. It’s quite a contrast to what happens at Coachella—where they simply snip the caution tape, and people slowly walk onto the grounds without a scene.

The Haden Triplets kicked things off on the Mustang Stage. The daughters of the late jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who are signed to Jack White’s Third Man Records, have a neotraditional country sound—with some Carter Family-style folk thrown in. Their harmonies were impressive, and Petra Haden’s violin playing was quite beautiful.

Pegi Young and the Survivors performed on the Palomino Stage around 2 p.m.—and the sound was similar to what you’d hear in a classic honky-tonk. It was a little bit of country, and a little bit of rock ’n’ roll. Young dedicated her tune “Better Livin’ Through Chemicals” to the pharmaceutical companies; she spoofed the TV-commercial disclaimers that reveal all the nasty side effects—and said that after that, you’d still be “skippin’ through a flower patch” just like on the commercials.

In 2013, The Lone Bellow played Stagecoach for the first time; the band was back this year, and frontman Zach Williams mentioned how special that first appearance was for them, because it was the first festival at which this Americana group from Brooklyn ever played. The Lone Bellow’s performance sounded like country should sound in the modern age: There were folk elements, bluegrass elements and rock elements. The audience in the Palomino Tent was a mix of shirtless cowboys, ladies who wanted to dance, and some old-timers—and all who watched were impressed.

Last week at Coachella, I mentioned being blown away by a gentleman who performed named Sturgill Simpson: He was magnificent, he managed to woo the Coachella audience with his country sound. At Stagecoach, in the Palomino tent following The Lone Bellow, he put on just as awesome of a performance—and while some boot scootin’ went on, the Stagecoach crowd was nowhere near as generous to Simpson as the Coachella crowd was. Simpson has denied sounding like Waylon Jennings—but he definitely does sound like Jennings, albeit with Simpson’s own originality and creativity.

The Time Jumpers, featuring Vince Gill and Kenny Sears, followed Simpson—and even one of their collaborators, Riders in the Sky frontman Ranger Doug, was in Oregon and didn’t perform with them, the old-time country band, with all its jazzy and country roots elements, was magnificent. It was a feel-good, throwback country show.

Steve Earle took the Mustang Stage at 7 p.m. and started with some of the blues material from his most recent album—but he still performed the classics. Stagecoach was a long time coming for Earle, and his hour-long set was a delight. During his biggest hit, “Copperhead Road,” a group of line dancers cleared a space and put on an impressive routine that got a lot of attention. Unfortunately, after “Copperhead Road,” many people wandered off to other stages, and Earle finished with a smaller crowd than he started with.

Closing out the Palomino Tent was a true icon of the Bakersfield sound: Merle Haggard. Haggard was about 10 minutes late for his 7:45 p.m. set, but considering Earle was closing out the Mustang Stage, and many people who had spent all day in front of the Mane Stage were walking over to hear Haggard, it was wise to give attendees some extra time. While Haggard was magnificent, a polished horn section removed some of the edge and twang from his songs. Still, it was fantastic to hear the legend in top form toward the end of the first day of Stagecoach 2015.

Scroll down to see photos from Stagecoach 2015's first day.

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