"I understand we've broken the record with 55,000 people here tonight," Rascal Flatts' Jay DeMarcus told the audience on the second night of the Stagecoach Festival in Indio, California. To which you might have said: Only 55,000? It looked like a human sea of Woodstockian proportions, at least if you arrived late enough to find yourself plopping your lawn chair or blanket down at the very back of the field, which was supposedly nine football fields away from the stage.
If you had some peculiar desire for intimacy in your concert-going, however, you could part of the very small percentage of that 55,000 that visited the side tents, where it rarely required much effort to squeeze up to the lip of the stage and stand yards away from legends like Wanda Jackson, Kris Kristofferson, and Mel Tillis or alt-country heroes like k.d. lang and Rodney Crowell. To be almost close enough to touch k.d. lang... or to watch Carrie Underwood on a big-screen TV, taking it on faith that the image you saw really correlated to something happening in the distance, like the moon landing? This is the choice at Stagecoach, and at any given time, about 54,000 people were choosing "lifestyle experience" with big-screen TV accompaniment over actually being in the same county as the performer.
But what a lifestyle experience, if you are in your 20s, ripped, and tore up. There were more bare-chested young men here than anywhere this side of a Florida spring break, and it was maybe hard to begrudge them a bit (or 20 gallons) of alcohol after all that gym time. The girls were on the toned side, too. All you ever hear in the country music industry is that the audience is primarily housewives in their late 30s and up, but from this largely collegiate crowd, you would never guess that country is anything but the party soundtrack for the young and impossibly buff. Not even Josh Turner's Jesus songs could put a crimp in the country grinding going on.
Which may explain why nobody told Carrie Underwood during her Sunday night set that Obama Bin Laden had been killed. The news spread like wildfire as Underwood sang, via lit-up screens and barely audible shouts, but Carrie carried on as normal. It's hard to know what might have happened to the already skyrocketing testosterone level if Underwood had broken the news.
By the time DeMarcus was the first to mention Bin Laden from the stage, the chants of "USA! USA!" had been going on and off sporadically for over an hour. "From the bottom of my heart, Osama Bin Laden, we hope that you rest in pieces," he said, giving the "son of a bitch" a sendoff that Underwood probably wouldn't have risen to.
Not that Underwood doesn't fancy getting a little rowdy, in her not-quite-blood-lustful fashion. She may be one of the few performers ever to cover George Beverly Shea and Steven Tyler in the same performance. Not long after appending the hymn "How Great Thou Art" onto the end of "Jesus Take the Wheel," as is her concert custom, she took things in a less spiritual direction. "I never grew up around anything like this (festival)," she said. "I was thinking, what would I want to see somebody do that's not one of their songs?... It's a little different for me." She then launched into Aerosmith's "Walk This Way"—which was really not all that different for her, given how often she's performed GNR's "Paradise City," and sure enough, the number soon became a medley of those two perennials.
Rascal Flatts also got in their own oldies, performing a tender medley of Hank Williams' "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" and the Carter Family's "Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow." We are totally kidding, of course. Country covers? At a country festival? Don't be silly. The Flatts boys actually did a medley of Kansas' "Carry On Wayward Son," Boston's "Long Time," and Foghat's "Slow Ride."
Over in the Palomino tent, Leon Russell relied even more heavily on familiar rock covers—but he put his own stamp on them, transforming the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" into something more rollicking than mournful and similarly turning Beatles and Dylan tunes into forceful stompers.
Rounding out the Palomino bill, k.d. lang—arguably the most skilled of all the singers on any stage during the weekend—mostly stuck to songs from her new Sing It Loud album, which, like most of her post-cowgirl output, is in a languorous mode. But her band sounded more like Abbey Road-era Beatles on stage than they did on the album, and her resurrection of "Constant Craving" as a borderline hard-rocker prompted a kind of rapture that had rarely been felt anywhere on the grounds previously in the weekend, at least sans alcohol.
Even without her producer Jack Black's custom-built band to accompany her, Wanda Jackson can still rip it up. "Here's another one you might remember, from 1961," she said at one point, perhaps giving the crowd a little too much credit. She wasn't above reminding everyone—or, given the median age, letting them know for the first time—that she was Elvis' foremost confidante and protege at the very beginning of his career. "We did date," she said, to whoops and hollers. "My dad traveled with us. But he trusted Elvis. Can you believe that?"
We're not sure how much Elvis' dad should have trusted Wanda, actually, if her cover of Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good" is any indication. And we know it isn't—Wanda is notoriously a fine Christian lady—but all the same, here's an excerpt from her cover of the wicked ballad: