A Tale of Two Festivals

May 4, 2011 /

By Jesus A. Vargas, Coachella Unincorporated

The place is familiar. The people crowded in lines, the barely contained excitement; I’ve been there, seen that, and only two weeks ago. But as I enter the venue, the familiarity starts to dissipate. There are square stacks of hay everywhere, and cowboy hats and boots are the attire of choice. A persistent smell of barbecue hangs in the air, people walk around with a beer in each hand, and the main stage has been moved and re-branded the “mane” stage.

Although the venue is the same, the festival is not. Only two weeks ago, the Empire Polo Grounds hosted “Coachella,” and now it is home to the fifth annual Stagecoach Festival, the country music-loving little brother to Coachella’s indie hipster.

Full disclosure: I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to country music. My upbringing did not provide very many instances of exposure to the music. Some more mainstream country rock songs on the radio caught my attention, but I never really followed through on them. I mean kids from Southern California are not supposed to be country music fanatics, right?

But I am open to everything and jumped at the opportunity to cover Stagecoach. How bad could it be? I’m pretty good at squeezing a good time out of anything, so why not go check it out? I had some reservations, along with many questions: A) What would the people be like? B) Would I derive that much enjoyment from songs by artists I didn’t know at all? C) How was I going to sneak backstage to catch a glimpse of Carrie Underwood in person? And, most importantly, D) Would it pale in comparison to Coachella? I got my answers by the end of the weekend: A) the people were great; B) Yes, I would; C) Through the VIP sections and over a large green fence; and D) Not really.

Although organized by the same promoter and held in the same venue, Stagecoach has its differences from Coachella. The pace of the latter is much more frenetic, with up to five acts playing at once and everyone scrambling to see who they want. While everyone stands to see acts at Coachella, at Stagecoach people just lay their blankets and unfold their chairs at the “Mane Stage” and pretty much stay there the whole time (not counting beer excursions). The crowd is older, more family-oriented, and more Caucasian at Stagecoach but the festive atmosphere from Coachella remains. The people are unusually nice and just want to have a good time listening to music and drinking beer. Lots and lots of beer. As soon as I got into the parking lot, I was making friends with strangers.

Some of the music was a welcome surprise as well. Many of the artists covered rock songs. Carrie Underwood did “Walk This Way” and “Paradise City.” Darius Rucker (of Hootie and the Blowfish fame) ended his set with an unexpected cover of “Purple Rain” and Rascal Flatts did a cover of “Carry on Wayward Son.”

Speaking of Rascal Flatts, it was they who broke the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death to the crowd at large, although a lot of people already had heard about it and were celebrating accordingly. They led the crowd in a chant of “USA, USA” that was pretty surreal. Never had I witnessed such unmitigated joy at the death of a person, the moral ambiguity of it washed away in a torrent of alcohol. Let me just say that Stagecoach was probably one of the more interesting places to be when that news broke.

All in all, I had great fun at Stagecoach. I learned to appreciate the whole country culture a lot more and learned that it is much more accepting of outsiders than I initially thought. So while my attempts at line-dancing may be embarrassing at best, I know that there are always cowgirls and cowboys willing to teach you a step or two.

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