Stagecoach 2012: Some highlights -- Miranda Lambert, Dave Alvin
After a relatively low-key first day of the Stagecoach Country Music Festival on Friday, with just a half-dozen acts on a single stage, the music kicked into high gear Saturday. On the second day, all three stages were up and running with 17 more acts representing country, pop-country, alt-country and every other type of hybrid country music under the desert sun.
That's downright modest compared to the total sensory and schedule overload of the 143 acts that played the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival for the two previous weekends, but still enough to create some hard choices among simultaneously scheduled performers.
For instance, do you catch 85-year-old bluegrass master Ralph Stanley at the expense of a rare chance to hear singer-songwriter J.D. Souther, one of the architects of the Southern California country-rock sound that's been the template for much of what's been coming out of Nashville for the last two decades? And then miss out on rising Texas singer songwriter Sunny Sweeney, who was on the Mane Stage at the same time as Stanley and Souther?
Such are the dilemmas of Stagecoach 2012.
One solution: in a music festival equivalent of culinary grazing, attempt to get a representative, if truncated, sampling of as many bands as possible.
Here are some highlights from the first two days:
-- Miranda Lambert: The sassy Texas singer-songwriter headlined on Saturday with a performance that firmly demonstrated why she’s become a full-blown star. All the elements are clicking for her: fresh and insightful songwriting, commanding stage presence and a wonderfully distinctive voice, all working together in service of celebrating and empowering the predominantly female crowd that makes up country’s core audience.
-- Dave Alvin & the Guilty Ones; You'd be hard-pressed this weekend, or any weekend for that matter, to hear songs that reach deeper or ring truer than Alvin's portraits of people who often struggle without earthly reward for their efforts. Whether on his old Blasters/X classic "Fourth of July" or a more recent song such as "Black Rose of Texas," Alvin unfailingly hits the mark.
-- Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers: Proof once again that it never hurts to have a bona fide movie star in the house. The Mustang Stage, which has hosted most of the tradition-minded acts this weekend and typically has a few hundred people on hand, was jammed beyond overflowing with at least a couple thousand people looking in on Martin's appearance. The good news regarding his foray into a legit bluegrass career is that he's got the chops, both as a banjo player and as a songwriter, to back up his celebrity free pass onto the music circuit. And he may well be the most naturally adept emcee on the planet.
-- J.D. Souther: After a hiatus of a couple decades, Souther returned to music in 2008, interested these days in a more jazz-inflected sound that brought some welcome musical variety to the Stagecoach mix. His sweet tenor is still gossamer-smooth, and he delivered "Heartache Tonight," one of many of his songs the Eagles took up the charts, in an elegant swing arrangement a la Van Morrison circa "Moondance," for which he got impeccable support from pianist Mason Embrey and bassist Alana Rocklin.
-- The Mavericks: The boundary-bending band’s reunion performance was as effervescent as fans of its ‘90s incarnation might have hoped. With plenty of support from five touring members along with the core quartet, singer Raul Malo once again demonstrated his remarkably evocative voice as the band coursed seamlessly through Bakersfield twang, Texas honky-tonk, Austin Tex-Mex and pan-Latin dance textures.
-- Blake Shelton: The lanky singer now best known as a judge on "The Voice" showed off his own pipes and bad-boy persona in an engaging Mane Stage set that preceded Lambert, his wife. He's not truly dangerous, just an engaging loose cannon in an overscripted world who connects with female fans at least in part because he doesn't shy away from public displays of affection, respect and just the right amount of fear for his bride.
-- Jason Aldean: The Macon, Ga., singer who topped the opening-night bill on Friday rocks his country music hard, and he brought a sonic edge and party-ready attitude that flexed more muscle than, say, Kenny Chesney.
-- Sara Watkins: the Former Nickel Creek fiddler and singer out of San Diego was as winsome and charming as they come, infusing her endearingly homegrown bluegrass-folk blend with both youthful spunk and sophisticated musicality.
-- The Jayhawks: The veteran Americana outfit stressed its debt to California sources early in its set Saturday, touching on scintillating Buffalo Springfield/Poco-like vocal harmonies and often surprising chord progressions along with the occasional Grateful Dead-style solo excursion.
-- Brett Eldredge: The relative newcomer from Illinois relied too heavily on name-checking other performers' hits during his early slot in the midday sun Friday. But in a couple of songs, such as his touching Alzheimer's-themed single "Raymond," he channeled a hint of the Midwestern soul that is the hallmark of John Hiatt's music.
-- Sunny Sweeney: The Texas singer-songwriter lived up to her name temperamentally and meteorologically on a bright Saturday afternoon in the desert. Playing the Mane stage, she displayed a kinship with Miranda Lambert’s brashness in her single “If I Could,” a breakneck double shuffle, and the confessional “Amy," and a deliciously catty new sequel she followed it with, “You Don't Know Your Husband Like I Do.”
-- Old Man Markley: This San Fernando Valley-based group applied the brash attitude and visceral energy — sans the anger — of punk rock to old-timey music bashed out on banjo, autoharp, washtub bass and washboard.
Photos, from top: At the Stagecoach Country Music Festival, Miranda Lambert (Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times), Steve Martin (Karl Walter / Getty Images for Stagecoach) and Blake Shelton (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times).