Wednesday, May 2, 2012 | 6:21 p.m.
When the Stagecoach festival launched in 2007, it was a countrified version of promoter Goldenvoice’s popular Coachella festival in Indio, California, featuring artists from mainstream country, bluegrass, Americana, alt-country and other variations on roots music. But the festival was scaled down significantly in its second year, with more focus on the Nashville acts and a reduced number of performers from alternative genres. Attending Stagecoach in 2012 was like being at two different festivals; on the Empire Polo Club’s main stage, big-name country acts like Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert and Jason Aldean (the festival’s three headliners) drew tens of thousands of fans with arena rock-style sets, while over on the second and third stages, alternative artists like former Nickel Creek fiddler Sara Watkins and singer-songwriter Elizabeth Cook (two of the festival’s highlights) barely managed to bring in a few dozen audience members.
There were strong performances in both realms, though, which made the limited fan crossover all the more frustrating. It was great to see Texas country singer Sunny Sweeney hitting the main stage with an excellent afternoon set on Saturday, incorporating songs from her radio-approved album Concrete as well as a few attitude-filled new songs (“You Don’t Know Your Husband Like I Do,” “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass”). A few years ago she might have been relegated to a secondary stage, and this year she had a chance to reach the rowdy, inebriated cowboys and cowgirls in the main-stage audience.
The highlight of the bluegrass-focused Mustang stage was Saturday’s performance by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, which also drew easily the Mustang’s biggest audience. That was actually a problem at first, since the boisterous crowd drowned out the quiet, mellow music and Martin’s dry humor. But once the volume issues were worked out and some of the more obnoxious audience members wandered off, Martin and the Rangers delivered a set that combined the sometimes sleepy charms of bluegrass with a strong sense of humor and top-notch musicianship. Anyone who thought Martin’s music career was a joke quickly learned otherwise.
While Martin’s celebrity drew in the curious onlookers, most of the other bluegrass acts on Saturday and Sunday played to small handfuls of people. At the alternative-leaning Palomino stage, the set by recently reunited alt-country pioneers The Jayhawks was plagued with technical problems and an anemic crowd, although another recently reunited act, Tex-Mex favorites The Mavericks, drew a stronger and more enthusiastic audience for their first live show since 2003. But the Palomino’s biggest crowd (and the festival’s largest secondary-stage attendance ever) showed up for country legend Kenny Rogers, who delivered a smooth, hit-packed set that could easily have moved over to the main stage.
As for the headliners, they performed exactly as expected, although Lambert did bring out a few special guests (her cohorts in vocal trio Pistol Annies, The Voice favorite RaeLynn), and Paisley showed up to support Sheryl Crow, whose new country-leaning album will feature him as a guest. Fans danced and sang along to country-radio hits from Lambert, Paisley, Aldean, Blake Shelton and The Band Perry, among others, and had a wonderful time. For most of them, the festival happening on the other side of the field might as well have not existed.