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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

On Day 2 of Stagecoach 2017, two music legends celebrated their birthdays.

In recent years, Goldenvoice has booked some psychedelic rock bands with 1960s heydays to play the festival. On Friday, the Zombies played to a large crowd in the Palomino Tent; on Saturday, it was Tommy James and the Shondells.

When Tommy James and the Shondells took the stage, they started with their 1971 hit “Draggin’ the Line.” I immediately noticed was how tight the band sounded—and how well James can still sing and play his guitar; it appears he’s taken care of himself over the years. James told the audience that in their time slot, they couldn’t perform their standard repertoire, but he promised everyone a good time with as many songs as possible. The band then launched into “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”

At one point, the band endured some technical difficulties that went on for a few minutes. James told the crowd, “What can I do for the next five minutes?” before telling a joke that intentionally fell flat. It appeared they couldn’t get an acoustic guitar that James intended to use for a song to work. In the midst of this, the man who introduced the band came back out and informed the crowd that it was James’ birthday, and asked the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday.” James was turning 69.

Eventually, they gave up on the guitar and started playing “Crimson and Clover.”

If you grew up during the 1980s, you probably heard Tiffany’s awful cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” at every roller-skating rink, school dance and shopping mall in America. Well, hearing the rock version played live by the band that originally performed it makes you forget all about that horrible cover.

During the last song, “Mony, Mony,” James hopped into the photo pit below the stage and walked the entire line, shaking hands, kissing ladies on the cheek, and posing for some selfies as the band repeated a portion of the song. James then hopped back up onstage and finished the song and the set.

The Palomino Tent was already swelling toward capacity when Jamey Johnson took the stage and opened with “High Cost of Living.” Johnson announced during his set that it was Willie Nelson’s birthday, and led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday.”

Before Willie Nelson—84 as of April 29—performed, Bradley Cooper appeared onstage and informed the crowd that they had seven minutes of time to film a scene for the upcoming movie A Star Is Born, which will star Lady Gaga, and that Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real were going to come out and pretend to play a song that couldn’t actually be played “due to legal issues.” (Lukas is one of Willie’s sons.) He asked the crowd to show enthusiasm and excitement.

Willie Nelson finally took the stage after 8 p.m., well beyond his 7:45 p.m. scheduled start—and the crowd was massive; people were appropriately wondering why Nelson wasn’t appearing on the Mane Stage. The audience quickly learned Willie Nelson didn’t have his full band with him; instead, Lukas backed him with a couple of other musicians.

As was the case with Jerry Lee Lewis’ performance on Friday, the sound was hard to hear at times, especially when the crowd sang along to songs such as “Whiskey River,” “Still Is Still Moving To Me,” and “Good Hearted Woman.”

The end of Nelson’s set had a surprise: Neil Young came out and sang “Happy Birthday,” after Nelson had asked the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” along with him. It seemed sort of odd to have Willie asking the audience to sing to him for his own birthday … but, hey, when you’re the Redheaded Stranger, and it’s your 84th birthday, you can do whatever the hell you want.

Other highlights

• John Doe of the punk band X performed in the early afternoon in the Palomino Tent to some of the edgier—and older—members of the Stagecoach crowd. DJ Bonebrake, the drummer of X, played as part of his band. Things got political for a couple of moments when John Doe told the audience that if they’re eating fruit, it was picked by someone else’s hand—and to try to think about that. While tuning, he told the audience that California was in a drought, and added, “There might be 10 feet of snow on Mammoth Mountain, but it’s still happening.” This enraged a man, wearing a cowboy hat, near me, who screamed: “CLIMATE CHANGE IS A HOAX!”

• Robert Ellis played an afternoon set in the Mustang Tent while decked out in an awesome colorful suit—with planets and other extra-terrestrial objects on it. It was definitely the best outfit I’ve seen at Stagecoach this year so far.

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

It’s definitely another hot weekend at the Empire Polo Club.

The Stagecoach Music Festival kicked off on Friday, April 26, with a mellower, laid-back vibe compared to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival’s two weekends. Beautiful women clad in Daisy Dukes and Western attire and a lot of shirtless men in cowboy hats braved the hot weather.

The sun didn’t bother a couple of fans in attendance, who appeared happy as they exited the beer garden next to the Mane Stage. (That’s not a typo; that’s what the main stage is called.)

“I’m having an awesome time,” said Zack Lindsay of Palm Springs.

When it came to the sun, Lindsay came prepared. “I’m not bothered by the sun. That’s why I have a hat.”

Larry Owen of La Quinta wasn’t bothered, either, going shirtless and displaying good spirits. He shared what excited him the most about the festival.

“It’s definitely the acts, and some of the old country acts playing on some of the other stages. It’s great,” Owen said.

Before the gates even opened, the news of George Jones’ passing set a somber mood among some of the older country-music fans, as well as many of the artists. Robert Ellis, who performed a set in the Palomino Tent in the afternoon, toured with Jones recently.

“I would hope that people would be honoring his memory today,” Ellis said. “I think there’s a chance that the younger folks here at this festival might not know who he is, which is kind of a shame. I mentioned it onstage, and a couple of the older guys “wooed” really loud. But most of these people are probably 18 or 19 years old; they’re going to see Toby Keith, and they don’t have any idea who George Jones is. You would hope at a country festival that it would be earth-shattering news,” he said.

Nonetheless, Ellis said his set.

“My show was cool. It was a lot of rednecks, a lot of people without shirts on. It made me feel right at home—I’m from Texas,” he said with a laugh.

The Haunted Windchimes took the stage at 1:30 p.m. in the Mustang Tent. The Windchimes are known for being perfectionists in the art of harmonies, and their performance started off as an intimate show for just a few people. The bluegrass and folk sound of their opening number “Waiting for a Train” was stunning. Desirae Garcia mentioned the scantily clad ladies and gentlemen, and during the group’s set, they dedicated a heartwarming performance of Leadbelly’s “Old Ship to Zion” to George Jones. The band’s mellow and laid-back set felt like a show by genuine old-time country band in an era that has long since passed.

Hayes Carll was fired up through his sound check in the Palomino Tent, with “Check, check, 1-2, how are you?” leading to a small ovation a few minutes before his scheduled 2:50 p.m. set. Carll, ever the literary troubadour, played his signature songs that resemble the sound of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, combined with a little bit of Southern rock. His all-over-the-place beats had the crowd dancing and laughing. During a long-winded speech addressing his hectic and somewhat unique touring schedule of rodeos and honky-tonks, Carll thanked the crowd for attending. “I know we’re in a recession or a depression, but I want to thank you for spending your hard-earned money to come out and support country music,” he said, to a loud ovation.

Carll decided to take a break from the normal Southern rock sound of “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” by performing it in a Americana style, which made the song stand out and become a little bit more … country. Toward the end of his set, he announced he was going to play a song about the political divide in America. His description: “If Rachel Maddow and Ann Coulter went on a blind date with an open bar tab.” “Another Like You” reflected Carll’s unique and amusing take on a variety of subjects. He also performed a great cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Drunken Poet’s Dream.”

If there’s one thing you can say about Hayes Carll, it’s this: Anyone who despises country music would love him.

For fans of Americana, Old Crow Medicine Show’s headlining performance in the Mustang Tent was a real sight to see. The tent was nearly full, as the group attracted a unique audience of both older and younger attendees. When the band began playing, it looked and sounded like the biggest hoe-down ever seen. Cowboy hats bounced up and down as people danced country-style. Each time one of the members would address the audience, the crowd cheered so loudly that the members’ words were barely audible. Covers of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin” were a perfect fit. Considering other songs in the set such as “Alabama High Test,” “Take It Away” and “Wagon Wheel,” fans of Americana should celebrate the fact that Americana is back on the up and up.

The main stage was graced with the presence of Bocephus himself, right as the sun went down. His intro—a mix of Kid Rock, Gretchen Wilson and other various artists who mention him in songs—received a thunderous applause, as did his opening number, “I Like to Have Women I’ve Never Had.”

One thing is for certain: Hank Jr. is not that great of a singer; his late father and his estranged son Hank III surpass him when it comes to singing. He sounds like Waylon Jennings at times when it’s mellower, but when he tries to sing to a beat, he goes out of rhythm and out of tune. His band, on the other hand, is excellent.

When he started his second song, he stopped and said he instead wanted a little bit of “Keep the Change.” The song—a verbal lashing of the Obama administration featuring lyrics declaring, “I’ll keep my freedom, I’ll keep my guns,” and, “We know who to blame: United Socialist States of America”—had fans cheering and clapping. In a surprising move, his most popular song, “All My Rowdy Friends,” was third on his set list.

While Bocephus’ singing may be weak, he’s a brilliant instrumentalist. He showcased his ability to play guitar solos, teasing the audience with a few covers that he didn’t sing (thank God!), such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Two Steps” and Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See?” One cover he did sing, quite terribly, was Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.”

He later took to the piano and told a story about how he wanted to “boogie woogie” when he was a kid. He played a cover of his late father’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On.” Toward the end of his set, he included “Family Tradition.”

While Hank Jr. might not be able to sing like his father or his son, he knows how to work an audience; his fans love him.

Headliner Toby Keith (the Independent was not among the media outlets authorized to photograph him) had the entire festival’s attention when he showed up on the Mane Stage at 9:30. The intro was AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” until the song stopped, and a video started to play of Keith driving a Ford truck through the desert. In the video, he picks up a mysterious woman who leads him to a ramshackle bar that’s empty; it’s a mirage sequence of some sort.

All I saw was: “Ford truck commercial.”

Toby’s opening of “American Ride” was all-American display of loud country music set to pyrotechnics and an impressive light show. He kept his patriotic vibe going with “Made in America.”

“Let’s get drunk and be somebody tonight!” Keith said, holding up his red plastic cup, before starting “Get Drunk and Be Somebody.” He then asked the crowd, “Anybody drinking here besides me?” before telling the audience that he was trying to remember how long it had been since his last trip to Palm Springs. “1,452 beers ago,” he said, before starting the song with the same title.

Keith, like many performers throughout the day, mentioned George Jones.

“He was the face of country music that everyone wants to be,” said Keith, before covering “She Still Thinks I Care” and “White Lightning.”

During “I Wanna Talk About Me,” Keith’s microphone seemed to suffer from technical issues, but the performance was still solid. “I’ll Never Smoke Weed With Willie Again,” Keith’s story about trying marijuana with Willie Nelson, led to the stench of marijuana going in the night air.

Keith’s patriotic set couldn’t have left out “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” his controversial anthem recorded shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Keith delivered a strong performance and closed out Day 1 on a high note.

Even with George Jones’ death on the minds of many—some performers even choked up while mentioning his passing—Stagecoach went on and paid a warm tribute to the late country legend.

For those who are not able to attend Stagecoach, AXS TV is offering live coverage from 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Photos below by Erik Goodman.

Published in Reviews