One of those golden moments you hope for at gargantuan music gatherings like the weekend Stagecoach Festival in Indio came Saturday night, when the Judds, Naomi and daughter Wynonna, resuscitated their monstrously successful '80s act in what was billed as a "one-night-only reunion."
It felt far too sweet to go unrepeated, and we'll see whether they can resist the urge to tour again -- not to mention the money awaiting them if they did, as the word "reunion" is pretty much synonymous with "remuneration" in today's concert world.
As it was, the chemistry was magic, their voices meshing on such overtly inspirational hits as "Love Can Build a Bridge" and "Grandpa (Tell Me 'Bout the Good Old Days)," the harmonies radiating across the sprawling grounds of the Empire Polo Field. Even hundreds of yards from the stage, which is where the majority of the tens of thousands of fans took in their performance, their mutual love and respect wordlessly communicated the heart and soul of country music.
It's more than familial love, though that crucial element of country tradition was evident in numerous performances Friday and Saturday, including 84-year-old bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs playing alongside sons Gary and Randy and sibling-heavy outfits such as Nashville's Jypsi and L.A.'s Cherryholmes. And it was more than the rewarding interaction among generations, both onstage and among the attendees.
At the core, the Judds' relationship spoke to the power of knowledge and passion, and the ineffable value generated by the transmission of that knowledge from one who possesses it (in this case, Mom) to one who first senses, then yearns for it (Wy).
To the extent that was strikingly obvious during the Judds' set, that depth of commitment was absent from Rascal Flatts' curiously scattershot headlining show Saturday. There were moments when the mega-selling trio tried with feel-good anthems such as "My Wish," but the group hasn't discovered the difference between what it can do, as one of pop music's most commercially successful acts, and what it should.
Working in an abbreviated one-hour slot, Rascal Flatts squandered time away from its breezy pop-country hits on the least funky version ever of James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)," not to mention random screeching solo guitar demonstrations and the inevitable drum solo. Most surprisingly, the trio's biggest asset -- lead singer Gary Le Vox's mellifluous boy-band voice -- was remarkably off pitch in several spots.
Of course, pitch, contrary to what the "American Idol" judges would have us believe, isn't everything in music. Case in point: punk rocker Mike Ness' supercharged Friday set on the Palomino Stage, the one physically and spiritually farthest across the polo field grounds from the Tundra Mane Stage where Rascal Flatts and most of the biggest names held forth.
The leader of the veteran O.C. punk band Social Distortion sings in a buzz-saw voice with all the beauty and subtlety of a bloody fist, but there's never a moment when he's anything less than 100% committed to the emotions he's hammering home. Yet his unbridled punk passion doesn't mean he's without a sense of humor. Under a sharp black Stetson, Ness drew heavily from his roots-leaning solo albums before turning Social D's anthem "Ball and Chain" into a honky-tonk slow dance.
Ness' presence on the bill was one of many examples of the admirable eclecticism of Stagecoach organizers, who took the broadest possible definition of country music in assembling this year's lineup.
Given the generally homogeneous nature of the country music community, it's exciting for bookers to reach out to Tex-Mex singer Star de Azlan, African American vocalist Rissi Palmer and Canadian Ojibwa tribe singer-songwriter Crystal Shawanda. Shawanda cited Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn as girlhood influences, but her tastes were broad enough to include recent hits from Pink and Fergie during her set -- the melting pot in action.
Texan Hayes Carll was even more gripping live than on his outstanding new major-label debut album, "Trouble in Mind." The lanky singer-songwriter is as witty between songs as during them, and he brings a welcome dose of the smarts to his narratives about often-hapless characters and situations.
The other major find of Stagecoach so far was Jypsi, a riveting family act that simply sizzled in the midday sun Friday. Sisters Lillie Mae, Scarlett and Amber-Dawn Rische and their guitarist brother Frank have charisma and instrumental and vocal chops to burn.
Lillie Mae especially is a country star waiting to happen, a singer with the twisting, turning style of Iris Dement grafted onto the punky attitude of Natalie Maines. Their elastic bluegrass-inflected harmonies are a wonder to hear.
Shelby Lynne turned in one of the weekend's most transcendent performances Friday afternoon, dipping into her recent Dusty Springfield tribute album "Just a Little Lovin' " for "I Only Want to Be With You," but mostly bypassing that collection to hopscotch through her earlier material. The high point was a reading of Tony Joe White's "Willie and Laura Mae Jones" that took it not just to the swamp but deep into the recesses of the bayou, then to the Mississippi backwoods thanks to guitarist John Jackson's wicked dobro playing.
Lynne was one of the few acts playing the Tundra Mane Stage to gripe, justifiably, about playing to the sea of empty VIP/reserved seats directly in front of the stage that are sold for premium prices. This no doubt is a necessary evil to help Stagecoach pay the bills, but it makes for some literally distant performances since the VIP ticket holders typically show up only for one or two headlining acts.
Surely the regular folk could be allowed in early in the day, then the section could be cleared and turned over to ticket holders when they show up around sundown.
Let's have a conversation
The only other noticeable shortcoming in Stagecoach's sophomore outing was the lack of musical conversation among the participants. With so many musicians representing nearly every strain of country-related music, it's a shame there's been so little in the way of surprise collaborations onstage.
How much electricity would have shot through the Eagles' umpteenth performance of "Desperado" Friday night if Trisha Yearwood, who'd been on the same stage a couple of hours earlier, had jumped in for one verse? In one deft stroke, that would have referenced Linda Ronstadt's stellar version in the '70s as well as the broader communal spirit that was so much a part of the Southern California music scene of that time.
Or how about John Fogerty, who not only matched the sheer energy of his 1969 heyday with Creedence Clearwater Revival but topped it with an unfettered joy in performance that was positively liberating? What a powerful example of torch passing would it have been for him to invite Ness up to sandblast out a verse of "Fortunate Son"?
As the Dan Tyminski Band offered up its leader's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" hit "Man of Constant Sorrow," it was mouthwatering to imagine them bringing up Scruggs, or Ralph Stanley, who was due at Stagecoach on Sunday.
Instead of operating so completely as musical monologue, there's a golden opportunity to expand the conversation with a genuine exchange of ideas through dialogue or even multi-artist one-off sessions. That's also, ultimately, the way to distinguish Stagecoach from the plethora of roots-music festivals across the country.
What a wonderful country world it could be.