Stagecoach Retrospectacular: L.A.’s Newest Music Festival, Part Two

This is the second of two posts about the first annual Stagecoach Festival in Indio last weekend. The first part can be found here. After the jump: Cowboy Celtic, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Abigail Washburn with the Sparrow Quartet featuring Ben Sollee, Casey Driessen and Bela Fleck, John Doe, Kris Kristofferson and Emmylou Harris. Yippee kay yay!

Early Sunday afternoon I got started with Cowboy Celtic on the Mustang Stage. As a sucker for all things Cowboy and all things Celtic, this was a no-brainer for me. The band is composed of founder David Wilkie on mandolin, Denise Withnell on guitar and vocals, Keri Lynn Zwicker on harp and vocals, and Joe Hertz on fiddle. Cowboy Celtic’s sound is more Celtic than cowboy, even when singing classic cowboy songs like “Whoopie Ti Yi Yo, Git Along Little Dogies.” They seek to unearth and demonstrate the Celtic origins of traditional cowboy music. If you geek out like I do for harps, mandolins and fiddles, this is a group you’ll want to check out.

Next stop was the Appaloosa Stage, for fifty mind-blowing minutes with Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, composed of Ben Sollee, Casey Driessen, and the one and only Bela Fleck. Fleck co-produced Abigail Washburn’s debut album, ‘Song of the Traveling Daughter,’ and has performed as part of the Sparrow Quartet since 2005. The group has toured China, playing theaters and universities in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing and Guangzhou. In 2006 The Sparrow Quartet returned to tour China and this time Tibet. The tour of Tibet was sponsored by the U.S. State Department, making The Sparrow Quartet the first U.S. band to officially tour the country. So, why all of this time in China and Tibet? Because although her music sounds distinctly American, Abigail Washburn often sings in Chinese. Check out the title track from her debut album, Song of the Traveling Daughter. Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet gave the strongest performance I saw at the Stagecoach. The sheer magnitude of talent and eclecticism on that stage left me slack-jawed with amazement.

From there I hightailed it over to the Palomino Stage for some QT with John Doe. Having moved on from punk rock, Doe describes his current musical endeavors as “the Muddy Waters record he always wanted to make. This is a record I think Bob Dylan would like. This is a record of songs that have the style of the blues and country w/out the self-conscious modernisms, show-off solos or purist traps.” Doe played a lot of great new material that integrated Americana, folk rock and country.

After Doe, it was back to the Mustang Stage for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who didn’t appreciate my taking this photo, despite the pretty smile he offered. I was lucky I got there early–a few snapshots later and he was chasing a professional photographer out of the tent. After all, Ramblin’ Jack is known for his hatred of flash photography, which he says makes him psychotic. Being in the same tent with Ramblin’ Jack, listening to him sing, listening to his fragmented, older-than-dirt stories, watching him shoo pesky photographers–it was humbling and scary and, in a way, it was sad. He’s only a couple of years older than Willie Nelson (which is, to be fair, old : Ramblin’ Jack is going on 77), but he seems like some ancient relic of a history so old it’s practically myth, a time when Woody Guthrie was singing about this land, and Jack Kerouac was on the road. Not that long ago in years, but ages, somehow. Here’s a man who traveled the country, playing with Woody Guthrie; a man who was creatively and personally involved with Alan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Helen Parker. There’s more true, raw history in his little finger than in all of my textbooks from junior high. Maybe I was personalizing, maybe I totally misinterpreted, but I felt like his performing at the Stagecoach was beneath him. The crowd milling about, walking in and out, with little or no appreciation for the great history embodied by the man before them. Aw well, now I’m just rambling, and that’s Jack Elliot’s job. If you ever want a little dose of RJE, check out his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, it’s All Right,” which he was kind enough to play for us that day.

I made a run for the Palomino stage to see Kris Kristofferson, and it really wasn’t any great surprise that the he drew one of the biggest crowds at the festival (outside of the chart toppers on the Mane Stage, that is). His set was a crowd-pleaser, including classic Kristofferson tunes like “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Kris was followed on the Palomino Stage by another big crowd draw: the simultaneously earthy and ethereal Emmylou Harris. See her there, afloat upon a sea of cowboy hats? Emmylou’s set coincided with Mane Stage sets from both Sugarland and Brooks & Dunn, which meant that many of those cowboy hats migrated partway through her show. This was one of the major kinks in the Stagecoach plan: a lot of venerable artists (Willie Nelson, Neko Case, Kris Kristofferson, and Emmylou Harris, to name a few) had their Palomino Stage sets disrupted by the extraordinarily loud Mane Stage next door. Poor Neko Case cracked jokes and offered commentary about going up against George Strait between her songs, when his rip-roaring set made itself known. In any case, Emmylou played a breathtaking set which included covers of Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush” and Dolly Parton’s “To Daddy.”

When it comes down to it, there was a profound dichotomy at the Stagecoach. A majority of attendees were there for the sole purpose of seeing the huge acts playing the huge stage. The minority was there not to party and hear live versions of what’s on heavy radio rotation, but rather to bask in American music history and exploration. Not a whole lot of crossover occurred, but I’d like to believe that there’s room for the festival (and its attendees) to grow in coming years. Stagecoach has tons of potential, and I’d encourage anyone with an open mind, a love of music, and a tub of sunscreen to go. I look forward to returning next year, and to listening as the walls between various “Country” genres come down.