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Wind, a threat of late rain and cooler-than-normal temps didn’t dissuade the cowboy-boot-and-cowboy-hat crowd from reveling at the Empire Polo Club in Indio on Friday, April 25, during Day 1 of Stagecoach 2014.

Attendees were let into the merchandise-booth and lobby areas a bit early, but access to the stages was blocked off until noon sharp—when the gates opened, and the theme to The Benny Hill Show, “Yakety Sax,” played as everyone ran toward the Mane Stage to set up chairs and blankets.

At 1 p.m., The Wild Feathers had the honor of kicking it all off, on the Palomino Stage. The small crowd was blown away—and perhaps a bit uncomfortable—during the blasting Southern-rock sound of the first two numbers. However, when the band moved on to its honky-tonk-style material and California-inspired country sound, its became a crowd hit.

“It was beautiful,” The Wild Feathers’ Joel King said. “We toured all throughout the winter in the bad weather, so it was nice to get out here in the desert, and Stagecoach is cool, because it’s going back to the roots, and the whole vibe of the festival is real nice. The people are great here.”

It wasn’t long after that JD McPherson took the Palomino Stage. When he spoke to the Independent before Stagecoach, he discussed his ’50s rock ’n’ roll sound—with a hint of country—and how it had worked at various country festivals he had played in the past. Well, it definitely worked at Stagecoach. While some in the sizable crowd didn’t know what to make of his music, which sounded tailor-made for a ’50s sock hop, many of the older attendees were dancing happily.

As late afternoon approached, Shakey Graves appeared on the Palomino Stage. He first took the stage as a one-man act, with a setup that involved a kick drum he used to keep the beat as he sang. Eventually, he was joined by a drummer and a backing guitarist. His performance was unique in the sense that it bordered on folk music combined with the blues. His songs came off as deep, and he attracted a bigger crowd than previous acts; he held the crowd for his entire 40-minute performance.

When Shelby Lynne stepped onto the Palomino Stage in the early evening, some seasoned Stagecoach attendees thought back to 2008, when she broke down while performing and walked off the stage. Thankfully, she was in a much better place on Friday: She came out happy and ready to perform. Her band was tight, and the bass player had some nice grooves going on. It was a pleasure to see her at Stagecoach again; her voice was top-notch.

In the nearby Mustang tent, it was all about the harmonies when The Wailin’ Jennys walked onto the stage and sang a beautiful number a cappella. “If anyone came in here to catch Waylon Jennings, we apologize,” frontwoman Ruth Moody told the audience. Their harmonies and folk sound were captivating and perfect.

Katey Sagal and the Forest Rangers showed up on the Palomino Stage as the sun was setting. They performed a much-anticipated set at Stagecoach last year, and this year’s set was similarly anticipated—and similarly performed. The Forest Rangers played the Sons of Anarchy theme song, and when Sagal came out, she was given a loud ovation. Her performances included Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Free Fallin’,” Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” and lead vocals on The Band’s “The Weight.” The best performance by the Forest Rangers was a cover of Ziggy Marley’s “Love Is My Religion.”

Following Katey Sagal and the Forest Rangers, Lynyrd Skynyrd closed out the Palomino Stage for the night. The crowd size—both inside and outside—was equal to the crowd sizes that Skrillex and Fatboy Slim had in the same tent last week at Coachella. Opening up with “Workin’ for MCA,” Skynyrd was all about the classics, following with “I Ain’t the One” and “Call Me the Breeze.” The late Billy Powell and the late Leon Wilkeson—two of the three founding members who were in the band after it reunited—were missed, but their spirits seemed to be present. Lead singer Johnny Van Zant commented that the band was now made up of three Southerners (one of whom is the only remaining founding member, Gary Rossington), three Yankees and one American Indian (guitarist Rickey Medlocke). After an amazing performance of ballads “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Simple Man,” Johnny Van Zant announced that he didn’t believe in set times, which is why the band decided to extend the set for “Gimmie Three Steps,” and an encore that included “Sweet Home Alabama” and, of course, “Free Bird.”

Eric Church closed out Friday on the Mane Stage. Throughout the day, I noticed some people wearing shirts that said “ERIC FU*KING CHURCH” on them; it turns out they were being sold in the merchandise booth and were a huge hit among festival-goers. Church has been known for his anti-establishment ways, which hasn’t pleased a lot of mainstream Nashville music execs. Despite the wind and the chilly temperature, fans stuck around. When Church opened up with “That’s Damn Rock and Roll,” he was giving the audience the bird. The band members who back Eric Church look like they could be metal musicians, and his amps were decorated in skulls. It was definitely a wild show for a mainstream Nashville star—and it appears Eric Church won’t be toning down his act any time soon.

Scroll down to see a photo gallery.

Published in Reviews

At Stagecoach, attendees never quite know what to expect. Big Nashville stars mix with folk singers, alt-country rebels, old-time country acts and rock stars performing solo sets.

Of course, many of the most-intriguing acts won’t be gracing, as it’s called at Stagecoach, the “Mane Stage.” Here are some bands and musicians we think attendees should consider checking out.

Friday, April 25

The Howlin’ Brothers: If you like old-time, traditional country, The Howlin’ Brothers have you covered. Their old-time sound is quite an experience, as demonstrated on their debut album, Howl; check out songs “Hermitage Hotstep” and “Tennessee Blues.” They’ll definitely offer an enjoyable experience.

The Wailin’ Jennys: The all-female trio from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, is known for beautiful harmonies that leave listeners wanting more. Listen to their tracks “Swing Low Sail High” and “The Parting Glass,” and you’ll definitely want to add this group to your list of acts to see. Does the name sound familiar? Perhaps you’ve heard one of their appearances on A Prairie Home Companion.

Katey Sagal and the Forest Rangers: Sagal—best known as the actress who played Peg on Married With Children, and who now plays Gemma on Sons of Anarchy—is back at Stagecoach with the Forest Rangers for the second year in a row. I mentioned them in last year’s list of Stagecoach acts not to miss, and I was not disappointed. When the Forest Rangers took the stage last year, they played a few songs without Sagal—leaving those in the crowd wondering if she would even appear. However, appear, she did—and it was unbelievable how beautifully she sang Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire.” When Curtis Stigers showed up to sing “John the Revelator,” it was equally spectacular. Hopefully, the group will have a longer set than they did last year.

Eric Paslay: Eric Paslay is an up-and-coming star with a big Nashville sound. The native Texan has had a lot of success in the last couple of years. After performing on Amy Grant’s How Mercy Looks From Here—with Grant and Sheryl Crow on the track “Deep as It Is Wide”—he released his self-titled debut album in February, and it shot to No. 4 on the Billboard country chart. Country fans love his track “Friday Night.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Lynyrd Skynyrd? At Stagecoach?! Why not? The renowned Southern-rock band was one of the biggest bands of ’70s, sharing stages with the Rolling Stones and The Who. However, tragedy struck in 1977, when the band’s plane crashed, killing original frontman Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, as well as several others. The surviving members, all of whom were injured, decided to dissolve the group afterward. In the late ’80s, the band resurfaced, with Van Zant’s brother Johnny taking the lead. Since then, the band has lost original members Allen Collins, Leon Wilkeson and Billy Powell after each of them passed away. The band is best known for rocking out tunes such as “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Gimmie Three Steps,” “Simple Man” and, of course, “Freebird,” but in recent years, the band has alienated many fans by recording anti-left songs and performing with the likes of Ted Nugent, Kid Rock and Hank Williams Jr. Still, their classics are worth sitting through the new material; just flick your Bic and scream “FREEBIRD!!!” when you find yourself annoyed.

Saturday, April 26

Whiskey Shivers: Whiskey Shivers is a bluegrass style band from Austin, Texas, with all of the traditional instruments represented—yes, even the washboard. Some of their bluegrass tunes are funny; others have punk-rock-style lyrics; yet others may leave you wanting to square dance (or whatever it is you do to bluegrass music). In any case, they’re an entertaining addition to the Stagecoach lineup.

Seldom Scene: On the other hand, if you like your bluegrass more on the sentimental side, the Seldom Scene is worth checking out. Since forming in 1971, the band has paid its dues—although the members received some criticism for adding an electric bass at one point. Ben Eldridge is apparently the only original member of the band left, but the band’s credentials are nonetheless impressive: The Seldom Scene was invited to a White House dinner in 2008 and was nominated for a Grammy Award not too long ago.

Trampled by Turtles: If you’re a fan of Old Crow Medicine Show, you’ll love Trampled by Turtles (right). This alt-country/bluegrass band from Duluth, Minn., played Coachella in 2012; they played Stagecoach once before, too, in 2010. While they haven’t achieved the popularity that some other alt-country bands have, take it from me: They are still one of the best live acts in America.

Don McLean: While many people think “American Pie” is about the death of American values, it’s really about the day the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly’s plane crashed in Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959. Don McLean, a folk icon of the late ’60s/early ’70s, has written other great tunes, but is unfortunately most remembered for “American Pie.” If you get tired of country and bluegrass, McLean’s act should offer a nice retreat.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band formed in the 1960s group and developed a great combination of rock and country music—and they’re not from Texas or Tennessee, but Long Beach! They started as a traditional country band, playing the acoustic instruments you’d hear in folk music, but eventually transitioned to electric instruments. They’ve done everything from opening for Bill Cosby to jamming with Dizzy Gillespie, and they recently re-recorded their hit “Mr. Bojangles” with Keith Urban and Dierks Bentley. They’re a great live band—and three of their original members are still part of the group.

Sunday, April 27

I See Hawks in L.A.: I See Hawks in L.A. is a great alternative-country band from—you guessed it—Los Angeles that has been around since 2000. The band has a bit of that Bakersfield sound combined with cosmic country, with great songs such as “Stop Driving Like an Asshole,” “The Beauty of the Better States” and “Hallowed Ground.” While they’d sound fantastic up at Pappy’s and Harriet’s, they’re sure to sound fantastic at Stagecoach, too.

Shovels and Rope: I had never heard of this group until I saw them on the Stagecoach lineup; the name alone made me want to learn more. The info I gathered on this band is that they’re a folk duo—and they rock. There are some gospel influences in there with some old-time folk, but there are also electric guitars and some old-time percussion instruments in the background. This is one performance I’m personally looking forward to.

Michael Nesmith: The Monkees frontman seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth for a while after a 1990s Monkees reunion. While Nesmith is primarily known for the Monkees, he has written country music in the past, and has even released some country songs; you can find some recordings on YouTube, including some recent live performances. This was definitely one of the more surprising names to appear on the Stagecoach lineup; in any case, it should be interesting when Nesmith takes the stage.

John Prine: Not even cancer in the neck could stop this prolific folk songwriter (below). While he doesn’t sing like he once did, he’s still writing great songs about love, life and humor. He also hasn’t been afraid to write songs with social commentary. Many of today’s biggest songwriters, such as Conor Oberst and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, have been influenced by Prine; they even appeared on an album made in tribute to Prine. In late 2013, he was diagnosed with cancer again—this time, in the lungs—and underwent successful surgery. Despite the recent illness, he remains on the lineup and plans to make the show.

Published in Previews

There were two rules for Stagecoach 2013’s third day, spelled out on video monitors and texted to attendees who downloaded the Stagecoach app: Drink water, and find shade for your health and safety.

While water was supplied by vendors and free refill stations, shade is limited at the Empire Polo Club.

The official sponsor of Stagecoach—Toyota—offered a bit of shade inside their exclusive tent on the right hand side of the “Mane Stage.” The Toyota tent became the “Toyota World of Wonders” this year, featuring an interactive vintage carnival theme, with a milk-jug throw, a ring toss and even a professional palm-reader—seated, of course, in a 2013 Rav4.

Over the weekend, Toyota revealed the brand new 4Runner model, which featured an acoustic performance in the Toyota World of Wonders from Dierks Bentley.

Around 1 p.m. on Sunday, the Budweiser Clydesdales—who made an appearance on El Paseo in Palm Desert earlier in the week—trekked through the lobby area of the festival, making their third appearance at Stagecoach.

“We enjoy a big crowd,” said Budweiser representative Dennis Knepp.

As far as finding shade was concerned, fans were finding it in the Mustang and Palomino tents.

Waddie Mitchell, a “cowboy poet,” offered a reading to a large group of attendees—some of whom sat with their backs turned, uninterested and conversing among themselves. I spotted one woman sleeping on one of the bales of hay. When he ended his 70-minute act, he said, “I think I’ll go start some supper now. Thanks for the ride.”

Riders in the Sky followed Mitchell at 3:50 p.m. Riders in the Sky’s performance at Stagecoach was their 6,419th performance over 35 years, as well as their third appearance at Stagecoach. The group’s performance had a diverse, interested audience of all ages, including children.

During the performance, Fred LaBour and the rest of the group performed solos—slapping the sides of their face making “clacking” noises. Paul “Woody” Chrisman dumped cornmeal on the stage and performed a fiddle solo while dancing on it.

The part of their performance that stood out the most was a cover of the theme to Rawhide, which had many of those in the audience singing and clapping along. Children in the audience got to hear “Woody’s Roundup” from the Toy Story 2 soundtrack, along with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”

In a way, the Riders in the Sky are the cowboy Rat Pack. Consider Douglas “Ranger Doug” Green’s vocals slightly echoing Frank Sinatra’s during “Trail Dust,” as well as the group’s comedy, which never stops during their performance.

Fans of John C. Reilly—known for his roles in Boogie Nights and The Aviator—were treated to the actor’s musical performance after Riders in the Sky (who took a few comedic shots at Reilly during their set). During sound check, Reilly addressed the large crowd who packed the front half of the Mustang Tent.

“It’s called a rolling festival sound check,” he said, gaining applause.

“I’m John Reilly, and these are my friends. On this hot day, so are you,” he said, before going into his first number. He played the guitar he used in the movie Walk Hard. People at the rear were slow-dancing, as if the Mustang Tent had been turned into a honky tonk. At times, it felt like a performance suited for A Prairie Home Companion. Nice job, John!

Mustang headliners Katey Sagal and the Forest Rangers took the stage around 10 minutes late. Sagal was yet another Hollywood figure performing at Stagecoach; she was a recording artist before becoming an actress in roles such as Peg on Married With Children and Gemma on Sons of Anarchy. The Forest Rangers have been contributors on the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack throughout its five seasons, with various vocalists.

A few Sons of Anarchy and “SAMCRO” T-shirts were scattered throughout the decent-sized audience, and as the Forest Rangers took the stage, Sagal was missing. The group performed alone with what they called “guest vocalists” at first. Through bluesy/southern rock performances of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” it seemed as if they were trying to shrug off a possible absence.

Sagal finally walked onstage to a deafening ovation. When she began to sing a cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” fans got to experience her magnificent singing ability. She then did a beautiful cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” and a cover of Steve Earle’s “Come Home to Me.”

She turned over the vocals to Curtis Stigers for a performance of “John the Revelator,” which was just as impressive as it was during the Sons of Anarchy season 1 finale.

While Sagal was obviously the major attraction, the Forest Rangers—along with their guest vocalists—were quite a sight to see, and it was a real treat for those who attended.

As Katey Sagal and the Forest Rangers were finishing up, a large crowd in the Palomino Tent was awaiting the Charlie Daniels Band, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Daniels and the band took the stage about 15 minutes late; to be fair, the sound check appeared to be quite extensive. For a man who recently had heart surgery, Daniels appeared to be extremely energetic. The Southern-rock icon was twirling his bow and playing a mean fiddle during their opening song, and seemed to joke with his guitarist by slapping him with it.

“I do believe it’s party time in the desert!” he said after his first song.

While Daniels’ performance was strong throughout, his scaled-back set contained two long instrumentals and left no time for Daniels to play his established hits. Daniels bragged that his current band was the best he’s played with, and while there’s no doubt that’s true, people seemed as if they were ready for the long guitar solos and repetitive bass lines to end. Nevertheless, Daniels’ performance included spectacular lighting, and there was no better way to close out the Palomino Tent for Stagecoach 2013 than with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

The Zac Brown Band closed out the Mane Stage and were the last act to play at Stagecoach for 2013. The band’s first song, “Keep Me in Mind,” was a delightful opener. Hearing some Americana, acoustic-driven country thrown into the mainstream Nashville sound that’s usually featured on the Mane Stage was a unique experience.

The highlight of their show was a cover of Dave Matthews Band’s “Ants Marching,” which was something I didn’t expect, and it sounded wonderful when played with their signature sound. The Zac Brown Band was not as flashy as Toby Keith or Lady Antebellum, and the group had a more-laid-back approach. Instead, it was all about the music. It was another wonderful night for the Mane Stage, and a lovely conclusion to Stagecoach 2013.

Despite blistering temperatures, fans enjoyed the three days of the most unique country music festival in the United States. It’s the only place where you will see Americana, bluegrass and alternative country, as well as groups like the Honky Tonk Angels Band, plus actors and actresses performing country music, and the thundering sound of modern Nashville mainstream—all in one place.

Photos by Erik Goodman

Published in Reviews

Stagecoach always features many of the biggest names in country music on the main stage, but the festival also offers a broad variety of artists within country music’s subgenres: Americana, alt-country, folk music, the “California sound” and some sounds that can’t quite be described.

Here’s a list of performers whose names appear in smaller print on the Stagecoach poster, yet they are great performers in their own right. Whether you’re roaming around the Empire Polo Club trying to find something different, or you’re looking for something in between performances on the main stage, here are some performers for your consideration. (And passes are still available.)

Friday, April 26

The Haunted Windchimes: This five-piece folk group from Pueblo, Colo., has a distinctive sound; they don’t define themselves as Americana, country, blues or bluegrass—but one still manages to hear all of those styles in their music. This is a band that has perfected the art of harmonies, and have written beautiful songs of redemption; I guarantee they will reassure you that the Americana sound is alive and well. They have performed on Prairie Home Companion and have a faithful following within the country-music underground that makes them one of this year’s Stagecoach bands not to miss.

Hayes Carll: Hayes Carll is what you get when you mix the writings of Jack Kerouac, the outlaw anthems of Waylon Jennings, and a bit of the softer sounds of Neil Young. An artist in the Lost Highway stable, he’s recorded some eccentric tunes that have made him popular across the music spectrum. He’s not afraid to sing about the dark places that were once popular in the outlaw-country days, in songs such as “Drunken Poet’s Dream” and “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” He also does a very nice cover of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” He made his first Stagecoach performance in 2008 and has also performed at Bonnaroo and SXSW. He’s a delight for country fans who also appreciate rock music and/or eccentricity in songwriting.

Old Crow Medicine ShowOld Crow Medicine Show: This old-time string band was discovered busking on the streets of Boone, N.C., by Doc Watson’s daughter, and it’s been a hell of a ride ever since. After performing on Coachella’s main stage in 2010, they’re now making their first appearance at Stagecoach. They have also performed at the Grand Ole Opry, been an opening act for both Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, made an appearance at the 2003 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Their song “Wagon Wheel”—co-written with Bob Dylan and later covered by Darius Rucker—will bring a tear to your eye.

Saturday, April 27

Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants: Most country-music fans wouldn’t think that Chris Shiflett, who plays guitar in the Foo Fighters, would be appearing at a country-music festival. On an interesting note, Shiflett has been known to sit in with the Traveling Sinner’s Sermon at Slidebar in Orange County that consists of Charlie Overbey of Custom Made Scare, Steve Soto of The Adolescents, and Jonny “Two Bags” Wickersham of Social Distortion. “Chris writes from the heart and sings his guts out, and I really respect that,” said Overbey via e-mail. “Chris is obviously a great rock guitar player in Foo Fighters and his prior bands, but it takes real versatility to front his country band, and he does it easily with style and grace.”

Honky Tonk Angels Band: According to the band’s MySpace page (who still uses MySpace?), they’re from the Inland Empire, so they’re a semi-local band playing a major country-music festival, which is always a nice surprise. When I scrolled through the band’s general info and saw that they answered their “sounds like” section with, “A drunken, Dixie fried roadhouse knife fight set to music,” I couldn’t help but to give them a listen. Sure enough, that’s exactly what they sound like … and it sounds awesome; they sound like an edgier, non-jam band version of The Black Crowes. I’m curious to see how they perform live, and how they interact with the audience, but I don’t think there’s much to worry about.

Justin Townes EarleJustin Townes Earle: When one hears the names “Townes” and “Earle,” one thinks country legacy. Justin Townes Earle is the son of troubadour Steve Earle; his father gave him the middle name of “Townes” in honor of Townes Van Zandt. Justin Townes Earle doesn’t have the same type of left-wing-themed songs as his father, and instead has his own unique style that melds rockabilly, Americana, ’50s rock ’n’ roll and early folk music. Like his father, Justin has had problems with addiction, but has seemingly put them behind him. His voice has soul, and you can feel the emotion.

Sunday, April 28

Katey Sagal and the Forest Rangers: Jeff Bridges and John C. Reilly aren’t the only well-known actors performing at Stagecoach. Katey Sagal is best known for playing Peg on Married With Children and currently has the role of Gemma on Sons of Anarchy, but she actually started in the music business as a backing vocalist in the ’70s, and sang with people from Bob Dylan to Gene Simmons of KISS. It’s no surprise that she has been singing some of the songs that have appeared in various Sons of Anarchy episodes, including a cover of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” and Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” The Forest Rangers have also played on some of the cover songs on Sons of Anarchy, most notably the cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimmie Shelter” with Irish vocalist Paul Brady.

Riders in the Sky: Riders in the Sky are another group returning to Stagecoach from the 2008 lineup. They formed in the late ’70s and are purists of the early country-Western style similar—but they aren’t afraid to include some comedy routines in their act. Bassist Fred “Too Slim” LaBour is credited by Rolling Stone as being mostly responsible for the “Paul (McCartney) is dead” rumor that turned into an urban legend after publishing a satirical piece while he was attending the University of Michigan. This trio has performed several times at the Grand Ole Opry, once had a children’s television show, and contributed “Woody’s Roundup” to the Toy Story 2 soundtrack. This is one performance that can be enjoyed by the entire family.

Charley Pride: Charley Pride is one of the best-known names in country music—and he’s also one of the few African Americans in country music. He originally intended to become a professional baseball player and even played for the Boise Yankees, once a farm team for the New York Yankees. After a stint in the Army and an arm injury, he abandoned his baseball career and started his music career. Pride struggled during the early years of his career due to Jim Crow laws; his early recordings were never released with pictures of him. In 1967, he became the first African-American performer to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. He is one of country music’s most well-respected and influential performers; this is definitely a great experience for anyone who wants to experience a performance by a legend.

Published in Previews