Pop Music Review : Rodeo Tunes a Hit, Crowd Just a Graze
Cowboys wearin’ beepers, sittin’ on bales of hay
Chowing down on yogurt and chicken Thai satay
Tossin’ back an iced cappuccino
It’s the cowboy way, don’chew know
Gettin’ stains on my Garth shirt
At an Orange County rodeo
That’s a little theme song the California Countryfest and Rodeo is welcome to, if they hold one again next year. Let’s hope they do, because last weekend’s event certainly turned standing around in a big dirt field into a more interesting experience than it ordinarily is.
One couldn’t help but be struck Sunday by the dichotomy of holding a rodeo in an area where most people only see their livestock wrapped in cellophane at the supermarket.
There were cowpokes toting beepers and cellular phones, and sporting clothes that likely cost more than the Ponderosa did. Instead of all the roping and riding, given the citified affluence it may have been more appropriate if the rodeo had offered something more along the lines of a veal-breading event.
At any rate, it was an ambitious fest, organized by some of the same folks who put on the Dana Point Blues Festival last year. Along with bovine celebrity Ricky the Bull, the event lined up big-name performers and choice local musical talent along with several restaurant booths and vendor booths offering everything from chic Western wear to chiropractic services.
While the rodeo stands were filled Sunday night, attendance overall fell short of quite being Moostock. In the hot afternoon, the sparse population made the Buchheim Field site seem especially vast, and, given the wide gaps between events, one did indeed have a lot of time to wonder, “ Why am I standing around in a big dirt field?”
The Countryfest organizers did have the savvy to hire some of the best local country talent, including D.D. Wood, who appeared Saturday, and Rosie Flores and Chris Gaffney, who performed Sunday.
Though Gaffney and his band the Cold Hard Facts can still be found playing in local county bars such including the Canyon Inn and the Swallows, his is a world-class talent.
He has a lived-in voice that is the perfect conduit for his lyrics, which are some of the most distinctive in country. His 10-song set included tunes of woozy celebration, but also painfully real tales of neighborhood violence, domestic dead-zones and faltering lives.
Those included “ ’68,” a song he penned with Dave Alvin about a man still living with the memory of a best friend lost in Vietnam, and “Silent Partner,” an up-tempo but deeply sad song about a marriage where the lines of communication have dried up.
No more cheerful was “Quiet Desperation,” Gaffney’s lyric about a man living with self-recrimination and loss following his wife’s suicide:
What will I tell the babies when they ask
Why mama had to leave her future and her past
They’ve got to know they’re free of any guilt or blame
For me I know that won’t be any children’s game It’s a painful, moving song, but its performance only proved that determined people can line dance to just about anything. There Gaffney and his band were, singing about death and despair, and folks were boot-scootin’ and tush-pushin’ away.
At least he played to a fair-sized audience. Flores originally had been scheduled to appear right after Gaffney (she was on the main stage, and he was on a second one), but her performance wasn’t allowed to start until 90 minutes after Gaffney finished.
Not only did that leave a lot of down-time for folks again to ponder that big dusty field, but it also meant that by the time she did play, most people had headed off to hold down seats in the rodeo bleachers.
Though there weren’t many there to hear it, Flores’ set was an excellent showcase of the singer-songwriter’s many strengths. She has a voice that is, by turns, gutsy, whimsical and tender, and songs that require that range.
Much of the set was drawn from her current Hightone album “Once More With Feeling,” including the infectious show-opener “Someday.” As that song ended, an Amtrak train barreled by the rodeo grounds, and Flores took advantage of its rhythm to launch into an impromptu version of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Other songs included her current video pick “Honky Tonk Moon,” the spunky “Try Me” with its “Honky Tonk Women” mood, and “Crying Over You.” Gaffney joined her on vocals and accordion on Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” and on Harlan Howard and Bobby Braddock’s remarkably bitter country ode, “God May Forgive You (But I Won’t).”
Flores had to spend the tail end of her set competing with the noise of the rodeo announcer coming from across the field, where the rodeo had commenced. One might have thought rodeos would be the one sporting event that would remain impervious to Queen’s “We Will Rock You” anthem, but there it was, blasting away.
When the day’s headliner, Doug Stone, finally appeared, he was a true misery. Had one of the rodeo horses performed as lamely, he likely would be going on a little field trip to the glue factory today.
Stone has had a number of hits, which is a scary indicator of how little talent has to do with success in country today because, simply put, Stone can’t sing for squat.
From his opening number, an insipid, lifeless cover of J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight,” and through hits of his own such as “A Jukebox With a Country Song” and “I’d Be Better Off in a Pine Box,” Stone’s voice kept landing way off pitch and the emotional content was as phony as the stage fog washing over the stage.