For the second year, the intrepid promoters of Coachella have leveraged their existing infrastructure for a follow-up weekend of country, western and Americana music. What was last year a two day event blossomed into a three day gathering when The Eagles signed on.
After 3 days last weekend at Coachella, I was only able to sign on for the first night of Stagecoach. Of the several differences, the most notable component of Stagecoach is a more family-centric gathering. Kids under a certain age are admitted free, folding chairs can be brought in and reserved seating is available. Given the demographic, Stagecoach also caters to the RV crowd. What last week was a huge parking lot this week now looked like a sales lot for every size and shape of RV. In all respects, it looks like a NASCAR gathering. One guy next to me was heard to exclaim that Stagecoach was “better than my first rodeo.” The girls were dressed in their finest summer clothes, which often meant the somewhat incongruous but appealing look of cowboy boots, cowboy hats and short shorts.
The set times at Stagecoach seem to be a bit looser, I was unable to scoot over and see Glen Campbell do “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
Don Edwards, one of the early performers on the first day, told me that Stagecoach was by far the best-run festival he has ever attended. That is not faint praise, coming from a guy who has made the rounds of cowboy and western music for several decades.
Shelby Lynne probably had the least distance to travel of any performer, and was probably the only one to sleep in her own bed after the show. The Palm Springs resident seemed a bit out of her element in the late afternoon on the Mane [giddit?] Stage; her best music is her most recent excursion into a more intimate texture. Nonetheless, she was well-received by the folks streaming into the Empire Polo Fields.
Trisha Yearwood had the enviable slot at sunset, when the desert lighting changes through a rainbow prism of colors. She handled the inevitable questions about her husband’s whereabouts with aplomb. (Garth Brooks proposed to Yearwood in front of a concert crowd in Bakersfield in 2005, it was a merger and marriage of country music’s two biggest stars from the prior decade). Brooks would have actually been a logical addition to the Stagecoach weekend if he is indeed ready to come back out of semi-retirement. Indeed, the prospect of a duet with either Brooks or Don Henley lingered in the air, Yearwood has recorded with both. Yearwood’s band was in fine form, with her drummer Greg Marrow being the most hirsute among the bald guys in the group. Yearwood closed her set with “How Do I Live;” the oddly juxtaposed song accompanying the Vegas casino plane crash scene in Con Air.
John Fogerty has my vote for the rocker most likely to have an aging portrait in his attic. He looks unchanged from the last several decades, and still prowls the stage with vigor. Throughout his set he plucked songs from his sturdy and timeless songbook, switching mostly among Gibson guitars: gold, blue, red, black and often back to gold. He introduced “Green River” as a place he visited as a kid with his family, where he learned fishin’ and swimmin’. His two precipitation songs are among his best, and appeared at either end of his set. Early in the evening he spoke of performing at Woodtsock in 1969 and after seeing the torrential downpour turn the field and audience into mud, he wrote “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” which soon became an anti-war anthem. Later in the evening he tore through “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” after a somewhat tepid “Keep on Chooglin’.” I would have gladly traded the latter for any number of his far better songs. In fact, Credence Clearwater Revival’s Chronicle remains easily the best 20 song career collection of any American band. Fogerty moved easily back and forth between his Credence songs and his solo efforts. Notably absent was his comeback hit “Centerfield,” which would have been a nice link to “Boys of Summer” heard later from the headliners.
The Eagles wound up the first day at Stagecoach with a professional polish. As with their most recent shows, they opened with a quartet of tunes from their recent sprawling double disc Long Road Out of Eden. Invariably, however, it was their hits that the crowd wanted to hear. The band delivered solidly over the ensuing 2 plus hours. “Busy Being Fabulous” was one the evening’s better new songs. “Peaceful Easy Feeling” had the evening’s most relevant lyric in “I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight.” The band’s harmonies are fully intact, and yes they still soar. “One of These Nights” proved that Henley can still hit the falsetto highs. His “Boys of Summer” was given a robust, muscular and excellent workout. During the evening he moved back and forth from his original role as the band’s drummer. Compared to his first solo tour when he looked uncomfortable at the front of the stage, Henley now stands with the rest of his guitar army band front and center.
The inevitable challenge for an artist is how far to stray from the familiar studio recordings when performing them onstage. The song that best struck the balance of mixing the new and the familiar was “Hotel California.” The song opened with an alternately melancholy and soaring trumpet solo, giving no clue about the song’s title until the album cover’s famous Beverly Hills Hotel at sunset motif was projected as the familiar opening notes were plucked. The song reached its climax with the dueling twin lead guitar workout between Joe Walsh and Steuart Smith.
Walsh’s career-long goofiness teeters on the edge of humorous and grating. Undoubtedly the band figures he is a counterbalance to the consistent earnestness of Henley. Walsh dipped into his pre-Eagles fame with the pseudo-psychedelic “Funk 49.” Glenn Frey (who with Henley are the longest-lasting members of The Eagles) works somewhere in between Henley and Walsh, handling many of the lead vocals and guitar work. Bassist Timothy B. Schmit got his start with Poco, to which The Eagles owe more of their success than they usually let on. (Likewise, The Eagles owe more to The Byrds than their common ornithological nomenclature, but that is a story for another day.) Schmitt had replaced Randy Meisner in Poco, and then Schmitt replaced Meisner in The Eagles. Schmit had the crowd swaying to his delicately addictive “I Can’t Tell You Why.”
“Desperado” closed the evening. Henley’s evocative vocals echoed across the desert sky, the lyrics still cryptically swaying between an errant cowboy and a forlorn rock star.
A new Eagles album is in the works, despite earlier promises from Henley about hell freezing over and no more albums after the current double disc on offer. Closing the first night at Stagecoach with Fogerty and The Eagles was noteworthy in that Fogerty’s CCR was once America’s best-selling band, a position later eclipsed by The Eagles. Although The Eagles made their biggest mark on the rock charts, their indebtedness to the influences of country made them a logical addition to the Stagecoach Festival.