Luke Bryan, who headlined the first night of the 2018 Stagecoach Festival, is still touring behind his “What Makes You Country” album. What does make him country, you may ask, if you haven’t heard the song of the same name, which offers a list of potential differentiators? The list is a pretty long one, but a certain kind of straight talk may be one of the qualifiers.
Halfway through his Friday night set, following the standard question of how many in the audience had been drinking — and Bryan certainly had, both from a red Solo cup and straight out of a bottle of tequila — he asked how many crushed up against the front were in serious need of a bathroom break. And then, referring to the day’s 100-degree-plus heat, still into the mid-80s by the time he came on after 10, he offered a suggestion.
“You can just piss down your leg and it’ll evaporate,” he said. “That’s the best thing about the desert.” Bryan then thought better of the remark and ordered everyone not to YouTube it, but sometimes you can’t take back a piss-take.
You can add this to the long list of Things No One Said at Coachella Last Weekend file, which can get to be a fairly amusing one by the end of Stagecoach every year. It may also fall into the “you had to be there” bin, which can also be said, to some extent, of Bryan’s entire superstar persona, which puzzles a lot of non-country fans from a distance but tends to be explicable to one and all witnessed up close, in evaporative conditions or otherwise.
If ever there were a performer who seems to be very conscious of what his appeal is and un-self-conscious at the same time, it’s Bryan, whose strengths and limitations generally coalesce into much the same thing over the course of a performance. As his third performance as a Stagecoach headliner further proved, he’s more congenitally congenial than just about any other performer alive, maintains the good song sense any pop superstar should, has more than a little Elvis in him, and is also in touch with how silly it is to be that sexy. You can deride the famous wiggling moves, but if you’re going to like it when Dwight Yoakam does it, you probably ought to be willing to take it from Bryan, too. And he has at least as much of a sense of humor about it as Yoakam — when he went to make a semi-risque move during “Knockin’ Boots,” it came off as more agreeably goofball than anything else.
“Knockin’ Boots,” his first single off a forthcoming album, may be an example of the aforementioned song sense abandoning him. It’s as indefensible as anything he’s ever done — but then, you’re talking with someone who thought the set’s opening song, “Country Girl (Shake It for Me),” was the Antichrist when it came out, and now thinks it’s kind of genius. So maybe the same reassessment is in store someday for “Knockin’ Boots,” though I doubt it. That said, there’s something to be said, after all the pressure on Bryan to prove he can be a more mature artist, that someone has decided to Let Luke Be Luke (and that someone is probably Luke). Some of his more serious songs were still peppered into his Stagecoach setlist — “Most People Are Good” will be there for years to come as a country-humanist sing-along, while the deeply melancholy “Drink a Beer,” great a song as it is, has probably wisely been dropped since he last played Indio.
In lieu of that now-absent grave-considering song, what now passes for gravitas in Bryan’s set is him considering the threat of “Someone Else Calling You Baby.” He does his best for a few short minutes to put across the idea that he could be romantically threatened … but he can’t get more than two choruses into it before breaking into that hugely “what, me worry?” grin of his. It’s a hell, naw that he carries like a natural national cheerleader for an hour and a half at a clip.
If only there had been some surprises, which Stagecoach was very short of on day 1. In 2016, he brought out Little Big Town for an impromptu, soused miniset; this year, bringing out Cole Swindell for the song they co-wrote for Florida Georgia Line (with Swindell’s mic off — shades of Coachella weekend 1) seemed more like an ad for their impending summer tour together than a real Stagecoach Moment. If you wanted spontaneity coming out of that tequila shot glass, you had to settle for the TMI (Too Much Instruction) of those stage remarks.
Kane Brown was third-billed on the main stage (or “Mane Stage,” as they call it) on Day 1, behind Bryan and Swindell, but given his popularity, you’d have to think he would have been second if the two above him hadn’t come as a package deal. No offense to the perfectly likable Swindell, but Brown has a lot going on — not just commercially, although having the biggest non-crossover country song of 2018 with “Heaven” was a pretty big deal, but with the cross-section of ’90s country and ’90s R&B that is his engaging bread-and-butter. But Brown came into the festival bearing one strong sign that he is one of the biggest current stars on the bill: In a festival that makes a point of letting the fields lay fallow and only having performers return every two or three years, Brown is the one 2018 Stagecoach guy who was invited to come immediately back in 2019. That might be an even bigger signifier than headlining.
“How many people out here love your mama?” Brown asked, leading into the sweetly earnest “Good as You,” and boy, did he come to the right place for that. There was a little bit of being all things to all people in Brown’s set: Before doing some of his covers, he would ask how many people were born in the ’60s (prefacing a version of “Stand By Me” that led into the sound-alike modern-day hit “Suicidal”), or how many were into hip-hop, or how many were rockers. Like most modern country stars, Brown touches at least a little on all those bases, but as of his recent sophomore album, you do sense a signature style developing, and it’s kind of traditional, despite his unusual background and look. He’s romantic first and lusty secondarily — although one of his newer songs, “Short Skirt Weather,” is one of the best leering summer songs since “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” if they get around to releasing it as one.
There’s a running joke at country festivals that you’ll hear a hundred rock, pop and rap covers before you’ll hear anyone do an actual country song from yesteryear. That seemed to be the case on the main stage Friday not just with Brown’s choices but when Scotty McCreery, that no longer quite so innocent kid, performed Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.” In between sets, too, the PA was blaring Jonas Brothers and Ariana Grande. But maybe the trend is reversing a bit. Bryan sang Alabama’s “Mountain Music” deep into his set, and Swindell covered Tim McGraw’s “I Like It,” perpetual line-dance starter even if you’ve never line-danced in your life.
Surely someone would have gotten around to covering “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” if Bret Michaels had not been there to do it himself. Michaels is one of the meat-and-potatoes rock acts that Stagecoach likes to book onto the Palomino stage (on Saturday, along those lines, there’ll be Lynyrd Skynyrd). Michaels tried and failed to break into country as a solo recording artist some time back in the 2000s, but he came to Stagecoach with what we would imagine is his standard hair-nostalgia show, and rightfully imagined the audience would meet him more than halfway.
No one was working it at Stagecoach like Michaels, who was neither the first nor last of the day to offer salute to the armed forces but was maybe the most insistent about it. He showed up in Guy Fieri’s barbecue tent — where Poison was welcomed, against the better advice of most health and safety experts — and then had Fieri join him on stage to sing along. Michaels even made an appearance in the press tent, and, come on, how much lower can you go? But how high he could go was the burning question, and in answer to it (see photographic evidence above): the man can still execute a drum-riser leap. Good showmanship, although if he still has designs on crossing over, he may still need some pelvic lessons from Bryan.