Sunday, May 06, 2007

Stagecoach runs like clockwork

The Stagecoach country music festival is off and running in a strong inaugural showing. It's the baby brother of last week's Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival, a spinoff with the reasonable business proposition that it makes sense to get double mileage from all the infrastructure that goes into holding one of the planet's largest music festivals.

The "coach" in both festivals' names is no coincidence. Working from a template certainly helps. Overall, this is one of the best-managed festivals I've attended, obviously a benefit of having produced seven previous Coachella fests.Of course, it didn't hurt that the crowd was only a half that Coachella packed in last week. With the repurpose economics, Stagecoach doesn't have to attract 100,000 or more. It was comfortably successful, for the audience, artists and management, at a projected 60,000.

The smaller crowd produced a minimum of problems--no security incidents, no serious lines for food or bathrooms. The weather cooperated--in the 90s but not at all uncomfortable. One of the things the festival does right is provide plenty of comfortable, shaded sitting areas.

Overall the grounds are amazing. The Empire Polo Field provides completely flat, grassy fields for the festival grounds, adjacent camping area, parking. As long as you are prepared to walk some considerable distances, it's an ideal site. Everywhere are the desert palms the area is famous for and on all sides the horizon is shaped by towering desert mountains. On the grounds are ample food and shopping pavilions. There's a midway filled with Western games, kinetic steamworks, a sponsor pavilion (Toyota Tundra is the big commercial backer), and more.

About the only thing to complain about the festival setup is the considerable sound spillover from the main stage to the other stage areas. Several of the artists on Palomino, the second stage dedicated to alt-country, were noticably disconcerted about having to compete with the concert next door.

I would say that the festival's musical chemistry is not quite a perfect mix as the production logistics. With AEG's massive tie-ins to the country market, the audience was clearly most into seeing the big country artists. And they had the cream of the crop to pick from: headliners George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, and Brooks & Dunn, plus stars like Sara Evans, Melissa Lambert, Gary Allan, and Sugarland.

As I wrote earlier, the audience was very much of a NASCAR-type audience. Lots and lots of young people. I guess it is not big news that Nashville has tapped an enthusiastic youth market for country music. But this is the first time I've really seen that demonstrated.

With George and Kenny and the others on the Mane Stage, many of the audience never checked out the other three stages, except to wonder over for some Willie or Emmylou on Palomino, or perhaps to check out a favorite bluegrass act at Appaloosa or plug into the cowboy vibe on the Mustang stage. In fact, the lineups at each venue were over the top excellent.

Personally, I spent most of Saturday shuttling between Palomino and Appaloosa. I've have more to write about some of the performances in later posts.

Another factor in the chemistry was the stage management. Sets started and ended on time. Nobody took an encore except for George Strait, who closed the evening with an almost two-hour set. With the clockwork sets, there seemed to be little time for artists to stretch out or do anything off the script.

For example, with the presence of so many artists with intersecting careers, there would have been many opportunities for interesting collaborations and guest shots. When Willie Nelson did a Kristofferson mini-set with Help Me Make It Through the Night and Me and Bobby McGee, how cool would it have been for Kris to have joined him? Or when Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson launched in to If I Could Only Win Your Love, wouldn't it have been great if Emmylou Harris stepped out?

These kinds of spontaneous collaborations are not uncommon at other festivals. At Stagecoach, they have all the right ingredients for musical breakthroughs, but the size and logistical complexity won't allow for it.

My overall music evaluation. There were some really great individual performances, but not a transcending event that makes a festival truly memorable. I have the impression that the Rage Against the Machine show at Coachella a week ago was that kind of moment. Also, the assortment of music types casts a wide net but projects an unfocused identity.

But such questions aside, did Goldenvoice get what it wanted out of the first Stagecoach? There is no doubt they proved the concept. This will only get bigger as more of the music industry coalesces around the idea that Stagecoach can be the premier West Coast country and Americana music festival on the calendar.

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