INDIO -- Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” blared over the main-stage loudspeakers before Trace Adkins’ performance Friday evening at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival, and that song title turned out to be a portent for what was to come.
With back-to-back sets by Adkins, Hank Williams Jr. and headliner Toby Keith, Stagecoach on opening night felt like an old-fashioned guys’ club full of gun talk, sex jokes and plenty of songs about trucks and booze.
“Who’s your daddy, who’s your baby?” Keith sang at one point over a hard-driving honky-tonk groove, “Who’s your buddy, who’s your friend?”
Closing Friday’s bill in front of an enormous, enthusiastic crowd, Keith kept things exceedingly loose throughout his 100-minute set, mixing old hits like “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and “I Love This Bar” with the title track from last year’s “Hope on the Rocks” and several tunes by George Jones, whom Keith memorialized following Jones’ death Friday as “the face of country music.”
Yet as raggedy as some of the music got -- thanks perhaps to Keith being “hammered,” as he admitted -- the singer stayed sharp in willfully provocative odes to American exceptionalism such as “American Ride” and “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” for which he brought to the stage a group of servicemen he referred to as “the only thing that protects our Constitution ... from evil.”
He seemed also to relish delivering “Made in America” -- in which he describes his father’s heart being broken by the sight of “foreign cars filled with fuel that isn’t ours” -- on a stage flanked by giant Toyota signs.
“Never apologize for being patriotic,” Keith said before he left, adding for emphasis a phrase that can’t be printed here.
Williams was even more outspoken -- and, at times, more thrillingly pugnacious -- in his performance, which included a rollicking version of his libertarian cri de coeur “Keep the Change.” “I’ll keep my freedom, I’ll keep my guns,” he sang, fronting a punchy eight-piece band, “Keep the government out of my business, and y’all can keep the change.”
The son of country-music pioneer Hank Williams maintained that electricity for “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight,” but he later dialed down the intensity for several solo songs with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. His take on Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” was especially stirring.
Compared to those outsized presences, Adkins seemed relatively disengaged Friday, cruising through the likes of “Swing” and “Hot Mama” and sidestepping the emotion in “Just Fishin’ ” and “You’re Gonna Miss This,” two songs about parenting that both kill on record. Still, the deep-voiced singer and “Celebrity Apprentice” star did score a reaction with a deeply affectionate rendition of Jones’ “The Grand Tour.” Adkins summoned warmth, just no real heat.
Follow Mikael Wood on Twitter: @mikaelwood