Headlining a major event like the Stagecoach Country Music Festival is no easy feat, let alone headlining that same fest a trio of times in its 13-year existence.
Singer-songwriter Luke Bryan, like many artists at Stagecoach, rose through the ranks. He played earlier day sets in 2008 and again in 2012 before finally landing his first headlining slot in 2014 alongside Eric Church and Jason Aldean, the latter of whom just so happens to be closing out this year’s fest on Sunday. Bryan came back in 2016 to headline with Church again and Carrie Underwood.
However, it wasn’t quite the third time’s the charm out in the desert Friday night. Bryan, though an undeniable talent with his boyish good looks, swiveling hips that would make Elvis Presley envious and an arsenal of radio hits to pepper throughout his set, still hit a few road blocks during his third headlining turn. The 42-year-old entertainer and current “American Idol” judge opened his set with “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” and had a lot of energy, which was apparently fueled by an undetermined amount of tequila shots and a few red Solo cups filled with beer. He breezed through its like “Light It Up,” “I Don’t Want This Night to End,” “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” “Crash My Party” and “Play it Again,” as well as “All My Friends Say,” which could basically be the anthem for the long Stagecoach weekend.
Though he’s a pretty consummate performer, Bryan made a few strange, off-color comments about urine, the timing of his set being off, according to him, and there seemed to be some trouble with getting fellow Mane Stage player Cole Swindell out for the song they wrote with Florida Georgia Line, “This is How We Roll.” Bryan yelled for Swindell several times and as the song started up he came sprinting out with the microphone, which wasn’t on. Ah, the best-laid plans can still go awry.
That said, it was still a solid set and he did hit fans with a brand new song, “Knockin’ Boots,” which sounds a little like Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” with a doo-wop vibe.
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Swindell, who preceded Bryan on the Mane Stage, has such a great catalog of songs, and while his performances are always good, they’re not great. He just doesn’t have the stage presence that some of his peers make look so effortless. He has fantastic hits such as “Flatliner,” “You Should Be Here,” “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey” and, the one that pulls at the heartstrings, “Break Up in the End,” that just about everyone in attendance sang along to.
Kane Brown played the Mane Stage last year but has definitely improved his stage show since. He made a pretty strong statement when he came out to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” at sunset, a song that became shrouded in controversy when it hit landed on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts simultaneously. Billboard had pulled it from the country chart citing that it didn’t have enough elements of today’s country music to warrant the charting. It’s clear that Brown disagrees (Bryan also had the song blaring before he came out on stage, too). Brown opened with a hit, “Baby Come Back to Me,” and delivered his single “What Ifs” without his co-singer Lauren Alaina, who plays the Mane Stage on Sunday. His set was also the first of the day where temperatures dipped below 100 degrees as the unforgiving sun finally sunk behind the mountains and a nice breeze kicked up.
Meanwhile, over on the Palomino Stage, Poison rocker Bret Michaels was ready to party. Michaels, who had been popping up all over the festival throughout the day and even did a barbecue demo with Guy Fieri at the Stagecoach Smokehouse and served tacos to fans, had so much enthusiasm. He let the giant audience that turned out to see him know how grateful he was to finally be playing Stagecoach and kicked off his fun-filled set with Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me.” Though the rock songs were a few beats slower than usual, fans sill roared along to “Ride the Wind,” “Look What the Cat Dragged In” and a bluesier rendition of Poison’s take on the Loggins & Messina classic “Your Mama Don’t Dance.”
Michaels brought out male and female active duty military members, veterans and their families as he performed “Something to Believe In” and got the entire Palomino singing along to Poison’s power ballad, “Every Rose Has its Thorn.” He also did a new song, “Unbroken,” which he co-wrote with his daughter Jorja Bleu, and ended his set with a rousing rendition of “Nothin’ But a Good Time,” during which he brought out Fieri on stage to sing with him.
Other early day stand-outs included Ashley Monroe over in the Palomino, sweetly singing “Hands On You” and “American Idol” winner Scotty McCreery covering George Strait’s “Check Yes or No” on the Mane Stage. Cody Johnson drew a nice crowd to the Palomino with songs like “Wild as You” and “Ride With Me.”
Stagecoach Country Music Festival
When: Friday, April 27
Where: Empire Polo Club, Indio