Zac Brown, beating the heat (?) with a beanie at Stagecoach [Kevin Winter/Getty]Florida Georgia Line began the Stagecoach Festival's final day by covering Nelly's "Hot in Herre," and the Zac Brown Band ended it with their usual rendition of Charlie Daniels'"The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Common thread, possibly: the fires of hell.
Granted, these toasty songs would probably have been included in their respective artists' sets even if the thermometer hadn't topped out at 107 degrees (a record for any gathering held at the Indio, California, polo grounds, which also host rock's Coachella Festival). But few acts were able to resist commenting on the fieriness, either in or out of song.
"Apparently, we're playing on the sun today," tweeted Zac Brown Band member Clay Cook.
John C. Reilly, picking and grinning at Stagecoach [Photo by Chris Willman]"I tell you what, I wish I was wearing cutoffs and a bikini top right now," admitted actor/musician John C. Reilly, fronting a bluegrass-oriented band. "But you wear it better than I do," he added, surveying the impressively young and fleshy crowd. "Stay hydrated; stay nasty."
"The heat does wonderful things not just to our instruments, but to our internal organs," said Gary Burr, of the Blue Sky Riders, attempting to re-tune his guitar. "Can a pancreas sweat? Because I feel my pancreas sweating." His co-frontman in the group, '70s hitmaker Kenny Loggins, assured him that pancreases do perspire.
Veteran Don Williams commented in his own laconic style. "For y'all to be out in this weather is what I call above and beyond the call of duty," he said, by way of congratulating the audience for risking heat stroke to hear the 1981 chart-topper "Lord, I Hope This Day is Good."
The day was good for most of the 45,000 attendees, as fans of traditional country, alt-country, and shade flocked to the side tents, while most preferred to roast all day in the unforgiving sun at the Mane Stage, which also featured Darius Rucker, Thompson Square, and Jana Kramer.
There might have been no cloud cover, but there were plenty of covers. Florida Georgia Line, who recently collaborated with Nelly, did a hip-hop medley that included not just "Hot in Herre" but songs by Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, and 50 Cent--a mixing of genres the predominantly twentysomething crowd didn't seem to mind. It would hardly be Stagecoach without several Tom Petty covers a day, and Thompson Square obliged with "I Won't Back Down" while Katey Sagal almost simultaneously sang "Free Fallin'" on another stage. Kramer also sang "Free Fallin'" earlier in the day, along with a bit of Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream."
Darius Rucker during the magic hour at Stagecoach [Getty Images]Rucker sang the same two covers he's been doing in concert for years, Hank Jr.'s "Family Reunion" and a set-closer of Prince's "Purple Rain," along with his current hit version of Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel." The Blue Sky Riders ended their set with the Beatles' "Help!" Zac Brown, besides wrapping things up with "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," also found room in his band's set for that beloved old mountain-music favorite, Metallica's "Enter Sandman."
If just about everybody seemed to want to get in on the genre-expanding covers game, not every act on the bill approved of everyone else's choices.
Tweeted the Brown Band's Clay Cook, "Two of the guys from Florida Georgia Line collapsed here at Stagecoach moments ago. Unsure if it was from heat exhaustion or shame." (When an upset fan of both bands called Cook out on the diss, the musician responded, "You're right...but I think it was more funny than mean.")
Didn't anyone want to cover an actual country song? There were a few of those, too, thanks--or, to be wistful for a moment, no thanks--to the death of George Jones on Friday, which still had reverberations by Stagecoach's closing day on Sunday, even though a lot of brain cells may have been destroyed by the heat and beer in the interim.
"Given the recent news, no set is complete without a song by George Jones," said John C. Reilly, speaking for fewer acts than he could have imagined. "So this one is dedicated to Possum," he said, bringing out Old Crow Medicine Show's Willie Watson to join him on "Blue Must Be the Color of the Blues."
Reilly's performance was actually an almost all-covers set, as the actor played familiar country standards like "Together Again," "The Wayward Wind," and "Heartaches by the Number." He resisted calls from the audience to do comedic musical material from his movies, although he did point out that "Dewey Cox" was emblazoned on his guitar, adding, a la Walk Hard, "I see you like Cox." He finally gave in to audience chants by reciting a few lines from a Taladega Nights song, but that was as far as he was willing to take it amid his otherwise earnest string-band set.
Katey Sagal at Stagecoach [Chris Willman]Katey Sagal sang with her band the Forest Rangers, although it took about five songs into their set for her to come onstage, which made the crowd grow restless. Fortunately, one of the singers preceding her was Frankie Perez, who yelled, "Wanna hear some outlaw music?"--and then proceeded to cover the Who's 1975 "Slip Kid" as a Southern rock song, quite soulfully. One of the band members explained that they're the ones who do the music for Sagal's show "Sons Of Anarchy." "All these years we've been doing these songs, so we thought, 'We oughta go to Stagecoach and play 'em'," he said. When Sagal finally came out, she was ecstatically received. Even if her versions of tunes like Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" didn't strictly fit a narrow definition of country, they were probably closer than Florida Georgia Line's Snoop Dogg impression.
Charley Pride at Stagecoach [Photo by Chris Willman]Another L.A. interloper on all this twang was "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson, who showed up to first thank country fans for their support of his show, and then to introduce Charley Pride. Although Jackson described how much Pride's music meant to him growing up, there was no overt mention made of Pride of as the genre's first black star...or of the irony that the festival had somehow booked country's only other African-American hitmaker, Rucker, simultaneously. (What are the odds?)
The presence of a Hollywood contingent was good for at least one gag. Too Slim, the bass player for retro cowboy band Riders In The Sky, mentioned that they'd be signing autographs at the side of the tent after their set. "We won't be like some of them, running back to jump in the hot tub with John C. Reilly."
If there was a hot tub somewhere, Ashton Kutcher was not in it, but rather back for a second day of watching performances...and, this time, avoiding any TMZ-baiting alleged shoving matches with guards.
There were a lot more than two and a half arrests during the festival. Indio police said that 121 people were booked over the course of the three days, almost all of them related to alcohol, and nearly all of those related to underage drinking.
Don Williams sings "Good Old Boys Like Me" at Stagecoach [Chris Willman]In spite of those numbers, and despite the vast quantities of alcohol served, the atmosphere seemed slightly less rowdy this year, which may have meant Stagecoach quietly met one of its goals. There were complaints in 2012 about the levels of inebriation, not just on the concert grounds but the campgrounds just outside into the wee hours. So this year, to help curtail that, Stagecoach not only banned tent and car camping on the premises, but required anyone wanting to pay to camp in an RV to submit an essay saying why they wanted to come. Presumably few entrants marked down "Want to stay toasted all night!" in their essays, but several attendees told the assembled press that their essays had been inexplicably rejected anyway.
That led to some controversy, as room rates in the area are considerably jacked up during both Stagecoach and the two weekends of Coachella that precede it. And attendance was pegged by the local paper the Desert Sun as 45,000, short of the capacity crowd of 55,000 that attended in 2012. But Stagecoach organizers may be betting that the slightly more relaxed and less intoxicated atmosphere may be worth it in the long run, as they try to keep the family crowd in tow as well as collegiate partyers.
Opening night headliner Toby Keith certainly made it clear that he wasn't angling for the family values crowd, though, as he repeatedly asked the crowd if he was the only one drinking (he wasn't, as it turns out), and brought out anthems like "Get Drunk and Be Somebody." That could also explain why he was the first guy in the history of the festival to address the audience as "Palm Springs," which is a half-hour of driving and a world of philosophical differences away.