Someday, you’ll all have to come to Indio for Coachella, and stay the following weekend for Stagecoach. Even if you’re not a huge country music fan, it’s worth it just to witness the transformation the Empire Polo Fields undergo, something akin to what I guess it would feel like if you had the chance to go back into one of your old apartments and see someone else’s furniture. It’s the same, yet bizarro, and disorienting: The stage where I witnessed magical sets from Fleet Foxes and Antony and the Johnsons, for example, has been dismantled and replaced by a barbecue cookoff. Hay bales now serve as security barricades. Dozens of fences and chutes have been erected elsewhere to corral the herds. Lawn chairs are encouraged, beer is allowed to escape the gardens, no one seems to mind that all the space up front at the mainstage goes to rich people who very rarely sit in their pricey seats. The crazy avant-garde sculpture is still spitting fire, but people tend to think it’s “weird” instead of “far out.” And nearly everyone is wearing a cowboy hat, with zero irony. I don’t know if this is something people put conscious thought into — I must dress up for the country and western music! where is my Stetson? — or if the folks attracted to this weekend would also be wearing them at the grocery store or laundromat back home. Either way, it’s impressive, when it’s not slightly unsettling. P.S. Flying a rebel flag off your RV in 2009? SO classy.
Also impressive/unsettling were the crowds at this, Day One of the two-day fest: There ain’t no recession happening here. Due to a last minute interview in L.A. — fans of Friday Night Lights/Wolverine star Taylor Kitsch should stay tuned to this magazine’s print edition for more — I didn’t roll in until 8 p.m. or thereabouts, and found myself parked in approximately Phoenix, Arizona… and people were still rolling in behind me. Scuttlebutt said I missed an excellent Darius Rucker set earlier in the day and a Kevin Costner performance that was very well-attended (by women intent upon ogling); by the time I made the grounds, Reba McEntire was well into “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” and was working the exceedingly windy stage with customary grace. As the chilly breeze tickled the lighting rig and muddied the sound, she told the crowd of her big break as a “girl singer” (“That’s what we were called back then. I hated that”) and shared how “blessed, fortunate, and lucky” she feels to have enjoyed such a long career. “I have never taken it for granted,” she said. Across the field, in what used to be the dance tent (now sporting a giant chandelier made of antlers), Charlie Daniels was also down in Georgia, fiddling like the devil. Towards the end of his set, he, too, thanked us for everything, then barrelled into his biggest hit; the whistles from the crowd sounded like a 747 taking off.
After the jump, tonight’s headliner, Brad Paisley. Note to future festival toppers: It’s nice to say you’re gonna keep going until curfew, but unless you plan to pull a Cure and play until they cut your power, don’t bother with the empty promises. We’re quite content to listen to your pre-planned list of songs and then take our lawn chairs back to our pickup trucks and sit in traffic for an hour trying to get out of the parking lot. Unless we have to take our “Ditch the Bitch and Let’s Go Muddin’!” t-shirt back to our rebel flag-sporting RV, which is being towed by our jacked-up truck whose license plate informs the world that we raised the vehicle because “fat chicks can’t jump.” Oh, America. You are incorrigible.
It was my first time seeing Paisley, and while I didn’t find his performance as dynamic as a Keith Urban or Sugarland show — or as booze-conducive as Chesney, who’ll headline tomorrow — I was consistently engaged with the everyman energy he exudes, appreciated his casually expert guitar solos, and enjoyed his easy, dry sense of humor throughout. (“I love you too,” he responded to an audience member’s cry. “I do feel the need to see other people, though.”) I even managed to overlook the insane weirdness of his tendency to perform “duets” with people who were not actually present: Hello, disembodied voice of Alison Krauss on “Whiskey Lullaby”! The set was neither extravagant nor rushed, and despite the aforementioned claims that it was the end of his tour so he planned to play until 2 a.m. and incur “hefty fines,” an hour and 45 minutes seemed more than enough time to work through the hits and throw in a nice acoustic cover of Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight” to boot.
Paisley’s oeuvre can be split pretty cleanly between the jokey fun-time songs like “Online” and more thoughtful/pensive tunes like “She’s Everything” or “Waitin’ on a Woman.” I personally favor the latter category — I get it, real men don’t use hand lotion, wocka wocka — and especially liked his intro to “Letter to Me”: “Every time I sing this song, I think back to who I was in high school,” he said. “I was scared most of the time. If I could have seen this, I would have had a heart attack. I am living proof that high school is not the best years of your life.” At this, the crowd — whose lawn chairs stretched, literally, all the way to the front gate — roared its approval. The whole thing came to an end after the rock block of “Alcohol” and “Ticks,” when Paisley did “Let the Good Times Roll” (hello, disembodied voice of B.B. King!), said good night, and that was it. It seemed abrupt.
I found out once I got home that Rucker and Little Big Town were on stage at some point towards the end there, but I didn’t see this with my own eyes thanks to jumbotron cameramen who were pretty intent upon staying with the man whose name is in big font on the poster. I did, however, appreciate one special guest appearance: video of Taylor Swift cranking away on a Guitar Hero guitar during “Celebrity.” I could only see half the screen — I think Dierks Bentley may have been on the other half, but we gotta work out these sightlines better tomorrow, people — and at the end of the song, the word “LOSER!” flashed quite clearly across Taylor’s screen. This made me laugh. I don’t think that was the intention (it was very clearly a reference to Guitar Hero), but it worked all the same. [EDIT: Thanks to the L.A. Times, I now know I was seeing like one-fourth of a video battle for supremacy against Little Jimmy Dickens. Huh.] God bless you and your high-tech visuals, mainstream country! Sometimes I wish you’d just stand there and experiment with the musical aspects of your songs instead of relying on so many bright and shiny things to hold my attention, but when I’m like 400 yards away and the people on the stage look like ants, I suppose having enormous L.E.D. screens enhancing my experience doesn’t hurt.
Tomorrow: that Chesney guy, yes, but also Kid Rock, Miranda Lambert, Lady Antebellum, and the Zac Brown Band, among others. Plus, I eat lots of barbecue.
Photo Credit: Whitney Pastorek/EW.com