Music festivals, like people, can evolve and mature with age, a notion quickly evident on Friday's opening day of the 2018 edition of the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio.
Now entering its 12th year, the world's largest country music gathering isn't settling comfortably into young adulthood. Instead, organizers are continuing to experiment, most noticeably this year with the addition of the SiriusXM Spotlight Stage, a new space that is highlighting emerging artists in the often scorching daylight hours before the desert sun goes down and the country stars come out.
In the early going Friday, after short and sweet sets from Kendell Marvel, Jade Bird, Walker McGuire and Morgan Evans, fans were quickly embracing the new setup, which places a relatively modest stage several dozen yards in front of the Mane Stage, putting them considerably closer to the musicians than they've been in afternoon sets in years past.
"I think it's great," said Mekayla Williams, 21, of Lake Forest, attending her second Stagecoach festival with three friends also from south Orange County.
"It gives the less-known artists more of the attention they deserve," she said. "When they're on the side stages, people don't pay attention."
The strategy worked well for Evans, the Australian country singer and songwriter — and as of Dec. 2, Mr. Kelsea Ballerini. He made a point of commenting on the enthusiasm and proximity of a couple of hundred fans dancing and pumping fists into the air for his one-man band version of his 2015 anthem-like song, "We Will Never Be This Young Again."
"There were at least 20 people who didn't know who Morgan Evans was," one of Williams' friends, 21-year-old Kelly Middleton, also of Lake Forest, said, "but they came over here to listen when they heard music coming from the direction of the Mane Stage."
That was essentially what Stacy Vee, festival talent buyer for Stagecoach's promoter, Goldenvoice, had in mind when she talked to The Times recently about her rationale for the Spotlight Stage. Historically, many so-called "baby acts" played on the Mane Stage in the festival's early hours, a gulf of dozens of yards of open ground often separating performers from listeners.
The Spotlight Stage replaces the smaller Mustang Stage from previous years, one trade-off being this year's lineup holds fewer heritage acts on the level of bluegrass veterans Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley who played Stagecoach in years past. That gives this year's lineup of nearly five dozen acts a younger slant.
Now occupying the space previously devoted to the Mustang Stage is another new element: Stagecoach Smokehouse, a single giant tent in which a dozen or more food vendors, most of them offering various types of barbecue as well as a shady place for festival-goers to step out of the sun for a while.
For Williams, however, it wasn't any single headlining superstar or up-and-coming favorite that drew her back to the desert.
"I would come every year if I could," she said. "It's not about who's playing, it's about the experience and all the music."
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