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Stagecoach sizzles musically (and weather-wise too)

Empire Polo Club, Indio, Cal., April 28, 2023

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

Editor's note: Stagecoach was a three-day festival, April 28-30, 2023.

So, who was hot at Stagecoach 2023? Answer: Everyone.

At temperatures above 100 degrees each day, this weather was not suitable for attending a festival. Not ignoring the elephant in the atmosphere, nearly every artist said at least something about the darn heat. Nevertheless, even the hot sun could not prevent this from being one of the best Stagecoach's in recent memory. It reflected the recent upswing in country music, where young fans are discovering the joys of this music played the right way.

With that said, though, you might not have expected this, considering the three headliners. Only Chris Stapleton (closing on Sunday night) was a must-see, while Luke Bryan is popular (but not essential) and Kane Brown is a stylistic outlier, with at least some true country credentials. Hopefully, it far surpassed expectations.

Friday highlights included a packed Palomino Stage full of enthusiastic Ian Munsick fans. While not yet a big mainstream star, Munsick's reception was reminiscent of last year's Zach Bryan performance at the same venue. It marked Bryan as a star in the making, and one wonders if the same trajectory is in store for Munsick.

Munsick is more of a traditional cowboy singer, though, and has not the kind of emo country image Bryan projects. Songs like "Long Haul" and "Long Live Cowgirls" had these fanatics singing along with every word, which was oh so similar to the Bryan experience last year. With his traditionally instrumented band, Munsick made the very best of this opportunity. Since most of his fans are young, this connection bodes well for the country genre.

With only 50 minutes Jon Pardi packed his set with hits. The Mexican bar feel of "Tequila Little Time" and the danceable "Heartache Medication" felt like cool drinks on a hot night. It's been fun to watch Pardi's rise to fame. Yes, sometimes good things happen to good people. His commitment to sound traditional country elements helps keep the door open for guys like Munsick to walk through in the future.

Elle King also performed on Friday's Mane Stage bill, and opened with "Tulsa," a rip-roaring fun song. She closed with "Drunk (And I Don't Wanna Go Home)," which was also supposed to be fun, but King didn't appear to be having any fun. Her words said 'party,' but her body language suggested she was just putting this on for show.

Maybe the biggest, pleasant surprise was Sammy Kershaw's set. This year's edition was short on legacy acts, and there was no one like, say, last year's Tanya Tucker appearance. Kershaw did a good job in giving a career overview with his introductions of each song. When he sang the George Jones standard, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," that great voice reminded us why he's been a welcome mainstay in country music.

A few of the first day surprises included a strong 20-minutes from Drake Milligan, who worked a touch of rockabilly vibe into some of his songs, and Jackson Dean, who showed why radio has been wise to embrace him of late. The only slight disappointment was American Aquarium, which sounded good, but not great. Its 45-minute set was longer than that of many others, but not enough to build any kind of real momentum for this band.

It was fun to see Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives in colorful, sparkly Nude (or Nudie-like) suits on the Palomino Stage Saturday night. The group's set wasn't too different from its last time through town, although it performed "Space" off the new "Altitude" album as an encore.

You could say Saturday was a girl's night out, as Gabby Barrett filled an evening Mane Stage slot, while the emotive Morgan Wade played during the late afternoon on the same stage. However, Mary Chapin Carpenter (always solid), Nikki Lane and Jaime Wyatt (in all pink, no less), took turns bringing that feminine touch to the Palomino Stage. Not to be outdone by the women, though Logan Ledger opened the day with some fuzzy cosmic cowboy sounds coloring some of his songs. Tre Burt showed why the late John Prine took an interest in him. His songwriting, especially one called "Solo," revealed his stellar songwriting abilities.

The only clunker, and probably the worst performance from the whole festival, came from Cooper Alan. He appeared to be trying his hand at mixing dance elements into his country songs, but the rhythms sometimes didn't match the music. If it was a technical issue, that was too bad. But if it was intentional, then, bad on him. His songs sounded overly light and meaningless, so even perfect sound couldn't have made that dog hunt.

It seems like one can discover something new and enjoyable each time seeing an artist that is loved in concert. With Stapleton on Sunday, this came when he traded his trusty electric guitar for an acoustic one. Then, when he performed "Fire Away" and "Broken Halos," the steel guitar became much more prominent in the performances. It was just a thing of beauty to hear these songs performed live.

Brooks & Dunn may qualify as a legacy act by now, played the hits – and there were many. When the duo closed with the patriotic "Only in America," the thought came to mind that this could only happen – with its salute to the U.S. military – in a country song, at a country festival. And that's sad.

Tyler Childers' set at the Palomino was problematic because he had no competing performances on other stages, which meant there were way too many people to fit under the Palomino tent. Watching it as an outsider looking in was not the best vantage point. Nevertheless, it was worth it all just to see Childers sing "Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven" in concert.

Other memorable moments included the always lovely Sierra Ferrell performing in what looked like a '20s Flapper outfit. Ryan Bingham drew a full house, and deservedly so, to the Palomino. Bailey Zimmerman, with his white cap, didn't fit the desperate soul singer image of the guy that sings "Rock and a Hard Place," but still utilized his 20 minutes well.

As for Sunday's girls, Kaitlin Butts played first at 12:15 on the Mane Stage, but attendees had a second chance again to see her at the Bud light Backyard Stage; this year, a tent made to look like a honky tonk inside. She can really sing, so keep her name in mind. By the way, after the whole advertising fiasco at Bud Light, there sure were a whole lot of cowboys draining bottles of that beer brand during her show.

Just to hear that long held note during "Heart Like a Truck" sung by Lainey Wilson made catching her set worthwhile. This will be the last time we see her name in the middle of any festival bill.

When Valerie June called for more banjo in her monitor during her appearance, one was struck by how this is a phrase only heard at country or country music-related concerts.

Finally, 49 Winchester fully impressed with its mixture of fine playing and great singing. This is another act to keep a close eye on.

There was just so much to see and hear, that no mortal human could have taken it all in. Those that did and didn't succumb to heat stroke, will remember this Stagecoach for a long time.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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