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Stagecoach '09 Sunday: Kenny Chesney cleans up Kid Rock's mess

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times on this, the closing night of Stagecoach. As the sun set over the hills of Indio once more, those of us in attendance found ourselves bearing witness to a tale of two headliners, an entertainment battle of thunderdome proportions. In this corner, wearing the black silks and way too much bling, we had Kid “No Really I’m a Country Star Now” Rock. And in that corner, wearing the gray cotton, we had Kenny “He’s Not the 287-Time Entertainer of the Year for Nothing” Chesney. The two faced off like samurais, bringing every inch of power to bear upon the stage. Guitars were played. Pyro was unleashed. Video screens seared corneas. But in the end, one man emerged victorious, and it was not the man who valiantly tried and failed to segue “The Roof is on Fire” into “Ramblin’ Man.”

And so while I must tip my (non-existent) cowboy hat to Kid Rock for compressing the entire history of modern recorded music into an hour and a half, tonight’s headliner was the dude on top of the poster, the man who saw Kid’s lunacy and vaulted over the crazy bar with ease, the guy who never met a shirtsleeve he didn’t cut off. Kenny Chesney has a lot of hype. You should believe it all.

After the jump, the full report from Sunday at Stagecoach, including the Zac Brown Band, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, and what happens when an exhausted entertainment reporter eats five different kinds of barbecue in twenty minutes, then lies down in the sun.

Since I got in about as late as humanly possible yesterday, I headed over to the Empire Polo Fields well before 1 p.m. today, in the interest of drinking in the stuff we call “color.” Somewhere between the blacksmith stand and the Soap Network promotional tent, I decided that what Stagecoach lacks in drug culture, it makes up for in freebies, and wondered if the two weren’t somehow connected. (Taking ecstacy is one thing, but standing in line to spin the Toyota Tundra prize wheel is quite another!) I passed up on it all — airbrush tattoos, karaoke, mechanical bull rides, posters, radio station key chains, something called “fry bread” — and went straight to the afternoon’s main event: the Stagecoach barbecue competition, where $10 buys you the chance to sample five different kinds of pulled pork/brisket/ribs while being badgered by assorted cooks and men in pig costumes to try their smoked meats. There had to be at least 50 entrants in this year’s competition, enough burning flesh to make Morrissey kill himself several times over, and I was in heaven. It didn’t occur to me until I was choking down my third rib in as many minutes that this was not a speed trial, and after I cast my vote (for Palm Springs’s own The Cowboy Way), I kind of didn’t feel so good. I wandered the field in a porky haze — thought for sure I was hallucinating Greensky Bluegrass’s cover of “When Doves Cry” until someone else said, “Dude, that’s a Prince song” — and eventually collapsed under a trash can outside the tent where Texas legend Jerry Jeff Walker was playing “Mr. Bojangles.” There, with my head in shade and my heart pondering Walker’s career trajectory vs. those of Texans like Jack Ingram and Pat Green, I lost a little time. Flies buzzed around my lifeless body. I called a friend for help, and his voice on the other end of the phone gave me the strength to rise to my feet and walk again, but just barely. My hands and face were sticky, like a toddler in jam. It was not my finest moment.

Thankfully, the pair of up-and-coming groups on the mainstage (sorry, “Mane”) gave me something to think about besides my probably perforated colon. The Zac Brown Band and Lady Antebellum share few musical similarities, but it can’t be denied that they are both, for different reasons, the next generation of commercial country. ZBB opened with their lightning-fast cover of “Devil Went Down to Georgia” — continuing my longstanding Stagecoach tradition of seeing young radio-friendly acts on the mainstage covering songs that were just performed by their originators in tents elsewhere on the grounds — then went on to play basically the same set I saw them do at the Mint in December. I like to think of ZBB as the Chef’s Special Three Kind Lo Mein of bands, packing country, reggae, ska, bluegrass, jam band, adult contemporary, and folk into one delicious, slightly greasy package. With the crowd booming the words of “Chicken Fried” all around me, I took a moment to mentally thank the brave men and women of our armed forces for fighting for our freedom so that the terrorists do not come and take away our fried chicken. Then I also couldn’t help also thinking about something Darius Rucker told me when I interviewed him a couple weeks ago: In his opinion, Cracked Rear View would have to be a country album to succeed in today’s climate. So, welcome to Nashville, ZBB. Don’t forget to thank the crowd for spending their hard-earned cash to come hear you play!

Nothing wacky or revolutionary about Lady Antebellum’s brand of Neutrogena-fresh radio country, but singles like “Lookin’ for a Good Time” and “I Run to You” have gained traction and fans, and the stage presence of Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott, and Dave Haywood has increased tenfold since I saw them at the Mint a couple years ago. Both vocalists are really starting to look like they’re fronting a band with a future — Scott especially has done her homework and is now copping both the fashion sense and the knee-bending swagger of Jennifer Nettles — and even though they’re still having to flesh out the set with covers (Dwight Yoakam, Mellencamp, Doobie Brothers), by the time they got to “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” the masses were up and out of their lawn chairs, arms writhing in the sun. If Rascal Flatts are standing at the top of the country-group ladder, and ZBB have both feet on the bottom rung, Lady Antebellum are somewhere in the middle and climbing — and if what I saw today is any indication, they may have just passed Little Big Town. They’re young, they’re attractive, they write their own stuff, the sky’s the limit. Except when it comes to awards shows, because seriously, Rascal Flatts are taking up the entire top of the ladder.

When the speakers start blasting Beyonce’s “Ring the Alarm,” it can only be time for one thing, and that thing is not Ralph Stanley. With her rifle-butt mic stand and increasing penchant for tossing her hair a la “Toxic”-era Britney Spears, Miranda Lambert seems bound and determined to kick down the walls of any pretty-girl box you might want to put her in. It doesn’t help that her best songs are the ones about guns and fire — “Kerosene,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Gunpowder and Lead,” even “Famous in a Small Town” involves hunting — and that she picks covers like “I Love Rock And Roll.” (Better: Her cover of Rod Stewart’s “Stay With Me.”) Still, it would be a mistake to consign her to angry-grrrl territory, since she can turn on the emotional dime of “More Like Her,” bring the serious honky-tonk in “Dry Town,” or challenge the Nashville notion of what “sad” sounds like as her licorice-stick belt bores through “Dead Flowers.” Better to just sit back and respect anyone who can come off a reality show, release at least one single that scares the promotional bumper stickers off radio programmers nationwide, and make Kid Rock look like a chump in the middle of his own set.

Yes, if you want to pull out a highlight from the Kid Rock fiasco, it’s gotta be Lambert’s guest spot in the role of “Sheryl Crow” during the braying, too slow, yet earworm-esque duet of “Picture.” In true June Carter Cash style, she schooled Kid hard: mock-scolding, palming his face, out-singing him by a mile. At one point, he tried to funny about with a lyric and cracked himself up; Miranda went deadpan. “Stop messin’ with me,” she said. “I’ll shoot you.” It was the line of the night, in a night so full of lines I stopped writing down half the crazy s— the Son of Detroit said about three songs in. When the song ended and we cheered Lambert off the stage, Kid could only laugh nervously. “Heh-heh,” he wheezed. “Don’t shoot me.” That was straight up gangsta, Miranda, and nicely done.

But let’s back up. Why was Kid Rock a fiasco? Seriously, if we had the time, I’d just copy my notes and paste them directly. Instead, how about we do this: You assume that he chainsawed his way through “Bawitdaba,” “Cowboy,” “Only God Knows Why,” and any other song you might casually recognize, and I’ll throw in that he also played electric guitar, rapped, danced like late-period Michael Jackson, played acoustic guitar, played someone else’s electric guitar while it was still strapped to the someone else, played drums, scratched on a DJ turntable, encouraged the treating of women as objects, covered David Allan Coe, covered Deep Purple, covered Ted Nugent, operated a vocoder, insulted Coldplay, Radiohead, Britney Spears, and Madonna, wore three different hats, stopped the show so we could greet our neighbors like in church, needed a ponytail holder badly, made me miss Brad Paisley’s trenchant wit, sang one song so vulgar I thought the older couple next to me was going to start crying, and absolutely sucked every time he attempted to approximate playing country music. Though he does get bonus points for “Amen,” a song that hits the Middle America trifecta of God, the military, and conflicting fiscal/public policy so directly I’m not sure why John Rich hasn’t retired out of shame.

Now for the good news: All of this amounted to a show so self-indulgent and unfocused it was riveting. “It’s important for you to know all the music on this stage is being performed live,” Kid said early in the set, as though that was the part of his legitimacy in question. “There’s no tape recorders, no drum systems. This mic is on.” He whacked it three times for emphasis. “This isn’t any of that American Idol bulls—. This is American badass s—.” Then he dutifully thanked the crowd for spending their hard-earned money to come see him. The whole thing almost made me wish rap-rock were still a viable genre (ALMOST), just because he’s so very good at rap-rock, and his band is so good at rap-rock, and they are all so very not good at anything else. Still, I’d invite Bob to my backyard barbecue any time he cares to show up, for the same reason it’s always fun to have drunks at a party: At least you know it won’t be boring. Next time, I’d ask him to leave “I’d Like to F— You One More Time”/”Half Your Age” out of the set list, however, because I don’t like to watch old people cry.

How to put this next bit? Um, Kenny Chesney has more hit songs than Kid Rock has facial hairs. “Living in Fast Forward,” “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” “Summertime,” “Beer in Mexico,” “Big Star,” “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems”: Good on the radio, great when accompanied by hi-def video that occasionally doubles as a message from the Jamaican Tourism Board and some Tower of Power-style horns that should make Sir Paul McCartney even more ashamed that he rolled into the desert with a synth. This is feel-good music, performed in a no-muss, no-fuss style by a 12 piece band that never overshadows Chesney’s straightforward, muscular style. “If you watch TV, you know the whole world has got problems,” Kenny said about halfway through, the most chatting he’d done so far. “But here tonight? We don’t gotta solve a single one of them.” The crowd roared, bent down to pick up their spare beer off the ground, roared some more.

Want to build a career like Kenny’s? Everyone thinks it’s his island vibe that won him the fans, but I believe the secret’s in the nostalgia. Let’s focus on two songs he did tonight: “Live Those Songs Again” and “I Go Back.” They’re essentially identical lyrics, one in first person, one third. “It was better back then,” these songs say. “Times were simpler, I knew who I was and what I wanted and I had a girl and an awesome vehicle and dreams and a future.” (Hell, throw “Don’t Happen Twice” in there, too.) They use music as a touchstone for those halcyon days, hearkening back to songs like “Me And Bobby McGee,” “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” “Jack and Diane” — which he covered tonight — to place them in space and time, and by extension, they somehow take on not just their present qualities, but all the emotional weight of their thematic content, too. He mingles his discography with memories of the beloved soundtrack from your past, and your brain gets confused, and affection is transferred, and boom: Entertainer of the Year. I would make fun of this stylistic tic if I wasn’t such a sucker for “Don’t Blink,” which deals in nostalgia for things that haven’t even happened yet. Trading on nostalgia = a sure-fire strategy for success. Even Kid Rock knows that. After all: Whose bag of tricks do you think he’s snaking for “All Summer Long”?

That’s enough out of me, folks. I leave the comments to you. Anyone out there in the field tonight or yesterday? Care to share your Stagecoach journey? How did Kid Rock change your life?

Photo Credit: Whitney Pastorek/EW.com