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STAGECOACH MUSIC FESTIVAL | REVIEW

A powerful chord

The reunited Judds spread harmony in the desert.

May 05, 2008|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer
  • NEW FACE WITH A CROWD: Taylor Swift was popular with the tween set during a festival that had more of a family feel than that other Indio event
NEW FACE WITH A CROWD: Taylor Swift was popular with the tween set during… (Kevin Winter / Getty Images )

One of those golden moments you hope for at gargantuan music gatherings like the weekend Stagecoach Festival in Indio came Saturday night, when the Judds, Naomi and daughter Wynonna, resuscitated their monstrously successful '80s act in what was billed as a "one-night-only reunion."

It felt far too sweet to go unrepeated, and we'll see whether they can resist the urge to tour again -- not to mention the money awaiting them if they did, as the word "reunion" is pretty much synonymous with "remuneration" in today's concert world.

As it was, the chemistry was magic, their voices meshing on such overtly inspirational hits as "Love Can Build a Bridge" and "Grandpa (Tell Me 'Bout the Good Old Days)," the harmonies radiating across the sprawling grounds of the Empire Polo Field. Even hundreds of yards from the stage, which is where the majority of the tens of thousands of fans took in their performance, their mutual love and respect wordlessly communicated the heart and soul of country music.

It's more than familial love, though that crucial element of country tradition was evident in numerous performances Friday and Saturday, including 84-year-old bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs playing alongside sons Gary and Randy and sibling-heavy outfits such as Nashville's Jypsi and L.A.'s Cherryholmes. And it was more than the rewarding interaction among generations, both onstage and among the attendees.

At the core, the Judds' relationship spoke to the power of knowledge and passion, and the ineffable value generated by the transmission of that knowledge from one who possesses it (in this case, Mom) to one who first senses, then yearns for it (Wy).

Less convincing

To the extent that was strikingly obvious during the Judds' set, that depth of commitment was absent from Rascal Flatts' curiously scattershot headlining show Saturday. There were moments when the mega-selling trio tried with feel-good anthems such as "My Wish," but the group hasn't discovered the difference between what it can do, as one of pop music's most commercially successful acts, and what it should.

Working in an abbreviated one-hour slot, Rascal Flatts squandered time away from its breezy pop-country hits on the least funky version ever of James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)," not to mention random screeching solo guitar demonstrations and the inevitable drum solo. Most surprisingly, the trio's biggest asset -- lead singer Gary Le Vox's mellifluous boy-band voice -- was remarkably off pitch in several spots.

Of course, pitch, contrary to what the "American Idol" judges would have us believe, isn't everything in music. Case in point: punk rocker Mike Ness' supercharged Friday set on the Palomino Stage, the one physically and spiritually farthest across the polo field grounds from the Tundra Mane Stage where Rascal Flatts and most of the biggest names held forth.

The leader of the veteran O.C. punk band Social Distortion sings in a buzz-saw voice with all the beauty and subtlety of a bloody fist, but there's never a moment when he's anything less than 100% committed to the emotions he's hammering home. Yet his unbridled punk passion doesn't mean he's without a sense of humor. Under a sharp black Stetson, Ness drew heavily from his roots-leaning solo albums before turning Social D's anthem "Ball and Chain" into a honky-tonk slow dance.

Ness' presence on the bill was one of many examples of the admirable eclecticism of Stagecoach organizers, who took the broadest possible definition of country music in assembling this year's lineup.

Given the generally homogeneous nature of the country music community, it's exciting for bookers to reach out to Tex-Mex singer Star de Azlan, African American vocalist Rissi Palmer and Canadian Ojibwa tribe singer-songwriter Crystal Shawanda. Shawanda cited Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn as girlhood influences, but her tastes were broad enough to include recent hits from Pink and Fergie during her set -- the melting pot in action.

Texan Hayes Carll was even more gripping live than on his outstanding new major-label debut album, "Trouble in Mind." The lanky singer-songwriter is as witty between songs as during them, and he brings a welcome dose of the smarts to his narratives about often-hapless characters and situations.

The other major find of Stagecoach so far was Jypsi, a riveting family act that simply sizzled in the midday sun Friday. Sisters Lillie Mae, Scarlett and Amber-Dawn Rische and their guitarist brother Frank have charisma and instrumental and vocal chops to burn.

Lillie Mae especially is a country star waiting to happen, a singer with the twisting, turning style of Iris Dement grafted onto the punky attitude of Natalie Maines. Their elastic bluegrass-inflected harmonies are a wonder to hear.

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