he ladies ruled the desert on the last day of Stagecoach 2011. Sure, Rascal Flatts may have technically been the headliner - for playing last - but this Sunday's country-esque music featured the most variety among its female performers.
The Palomino Stage was packed with enthusiastic rockabilly fans for Wanda Jackson's afternoon set of old favorites, which was highlighted by a healthy selection of tunes from the Jack White-produced "The Party Ain't Over." She opened with rockers like Mean Mean Man and closed just as hot with a rumbling Shakin' All Over and even a cover of Amy Winehouse's You Know I'm No Good.
In between songs, Jackson reminisced about her days dating Elvis, as well as the thrill of working with White, whom she described as a musical genius. Wearing a white frill top, Jackson simply appeared radiant from start to finish. Those that gathered close to the stage with phone cameras at the ready to take pictures were delighted to be in the presence of true rock & roll royalty. It's likely these fans didn't give a hoot about that other royal wedding across the pond a few days earlier.
k.d. lang has never fully fit in with the Nashville country music establishment, but she found a small contingent of true believers for her late night Stagecoach performance. Rather than try to woo non-diehards with her more popular recordings, k.d. lang decided instead to dig right into tracks from her brand new release, "Sing It Loud."
Opening withI Confess, lang hit her peak with the moody, spiritual The Water's Edge. It's difficult to find the right words to describe lang's new sounds. These are highly textured songs, featuring twang-y guitar, strong vocal harmonies and minor key melodies. As anyone who's followed lang's career knows, however, this woman can sing almost anything well. She dedicated a cover of Neil Young's Helpless to all lovers of Canada (they're both fellow Canadians, by the way), by drawing out all the conflicted emotion that great song entails.
Carrie Underwood started her set five minutes early, but her fans were already primed and ready to go. She kicked off a high-energy appearance with Cowboy Casanova and went on to perform most all her big hits, along with a few fun covers along the way. You can say what you will about Underwood's country credentials - except for some fiddle at the beginning, and a little banjo at the end, there wasn't a whole lot of traditional country elements - but there's no questioning her vocal talent.
Underwood sang for over an hour with a powerful voice that did not lag nor slip up once. Even when she got to Jesus Take The Wheel, which also included a bit of How Great Thou Art toward the end of the show, Underwood sounded just as pure and strong as at the start. It was also fascinating to see how confident she looked on stage. Many times, performers can appear overwhelmed by the huge spectacle that is Stagecoach. Not Underwood, however. She was clearly in charge from the get-go.
Underwood may have surprised a few folks by her rocking a Steven Tyler-assisted version of Walk This Way at the recent ACM Awards show, but she reprised that cover, by introducing it as a song she'd like to hear sung at a concert, and then upped the rock and roll ante by following it up with an authentically rocking version of Guns 'N' Roses' Paradise City. This sister was truly doing it for herself tonight.
While women made the biggest impression this Sunday, there was also some stellar male country music, as well. You'd never guess Josh Turner was on one of biggest shows of his life by his demeanor. With his casual, awe shucks behavior, this could have been any state fair show for all we knew. Turner doesn't need to run around the stage or fill it with visual pyrotechnics to please - he merely needs to sing.
One image that stood out, however, was the big screen picture of George Jones during Turner's cover of One Woman Man. Turner smiled as he sang this ode to fidelity, while all the while rolling those beautiful pipes all around the lyrics. Another notable image was the stained glass window shots during Jesus Is The Answer. Along with Long Black Train, this song proved that spirituality is more than just a token part of Turner's persona. He may not be Mr. Excitement, but for pure vocal pleasure, it just doesn't get any better than Josh Turner.
It made all the sense in the world Rascal Flatts announced the news of Osama Bin Laden's death during their set - they're just natural cheerleaders. Singing their emotional ballads and goodtime country-rockers, the group stepped right into a formula that works. And like the Osama Bin Laden announcement, they were guaranteed a positive response.
In stark contrast to Rascal Flatts' predictability, the Jerry Douglas Trio showed how taking musical chances can oftentimes pay off big time. Douglas played both an electric and an acoustic Dobro, while backed by jazz great Omar Hakim on drums and Viktor Krauss at the bass. This jazz/bluegrass trio (for lack of a better term) shone brightest during a cover of Chick Corea's Spain - an instrumental originally composed on piano - with fantastic interplay. Hakim took an impressive drum solo turn, which proved once again that jazz drummers know best how to solo. His playing was subtle, melodic and inventive, unlike those by rock dudes, which are usually clichéd and bombastic. Nope, Hakim's solo didn't scream, 'Bathroom break!'
There was just so much music going on, it was impossible to take in everything. However, Leon Russell sounded in fine form while performing a lot of old rock standards, such as Kansas City, while Jack Ingram reached all the way back to the "Hey You" album for a smoking version of Mustang Burn, for a set that was far stronger than his recent local turn on the Throwdown tour. On that prior one, Ingram talked a little too much.
Similarly, Ricky Skaggs' set was spoiled by a little too much talk, and not enough action. He wasted precious set time on a long story about how he first met Douglas. However, as soon as he got to some Bill Monroe-styled blue grass, and let the music do the talking, most all was forgiven.
It was hard to walk away from this year's Stagecoach and not be impressed by its diversity. From k.d. lang's complex pop, to Jerry Douglas Trio's unusual instrumental sounds, this continues to be a country-inspired festival like no other. Most importantly of all, whether these artists passed the country music snob authenticity test or not, all were on their A-game during this high profile event. Those that truly love music, found much to love at Stagecoach 2011.