Arts & Entertainment

Stagecoach country music festival rocks SoCal, but includes some arrests

Country star Blake Shelton co-headlined Saturday’s Stagecoach festival with his wife Miranda Lambert.
Country star Blake Shelton co-headlined Saturday’s Stagecoach festival with his wife Miranda Lambert.
Steven Cuevas KPCC

Authorities have made dozens of alcohol-related arrests during the first two days of this weekend’s Stagecoach Country Music Festival, where about 50,000 country music fans have spent the weekend in the desert heat of Indio. An Indio police spokesman said officers made nearly 60 booze-related arrests during the festival’s opening night on Friday.

That’s nearly double the arrests made during the two-weekend Coachella festival earlier this month. Coachella also draws about 20,000 more people a day than its country cousin.

Also Friday, a 17-year-old woman was allegedly sexually assaulted in one of the venues portable bathrooms. The teenager told police she was inside the facility Friday night when three men forced their way inside and assaulted her.

An Indio police spokesman said the men fled before they could be identified. The young woman sought help from staff at a first aid booth and was taken to a hospital.

Last April, a parking lot attendant raped a 23-year-old Stagecoach festivalgoer after helping her find her car. Darin Garrett of Los Angeles was convicted in December and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Unlike Stagecoach’s indie-rock cousin the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which is also held at the Empire Polo Fields over the two weekends prior to Stagecoach, alcohol may be consumed anywhere on site. At Coachella, drinking is relegated to designated beer gardens patrolled by festival security.

People passed out from too much sun and too much beer is a common site at Stagecoach, as are clearly drunken music fans weaving their way through the throngs of people on the festival grounds.

On the way into the venue early Saturday afternoon, music fans could be seen playing beer pong in the designated camping area. One young woman was spotted kneeling on the ground with the spout end of a "beer funnel" (essentially a plastic hose with a funnel on one end) between her lips while a group of young men poured beer down the funnel and into her mouth while several passersby whooped and hollered encouragement.

That kind of excessive boozing has fueled a public perception that Stagecoach is rougher and drunker than the apparently more teetotaling Coachella festival.

“They are more outgoing on their cowboy theme,” said Indio spokesman Ben Guitron. “But if the public you spoke to said, ‘Well, it's Stagecoach,' it's not acceptable to us, and it's definitely not going to be acceptable to the victim.”

He said Stagecoach is a totally different environment from the previous two weekends of the Coachella Music Festival. "You've got your cowboys and cowgirls, and there's going to be some alcohol involved," said Guitron.

But the vast majority of people riding this weekend’s Stagecoach were clearly more enthralled by the music than the partying atmosphere. Thousands of attendees, many with families in tow, staked out places early in front of the festival’s "Mane” stage. They’ve been rewarded by high energy performances from a host of superstar country acts including Miranda Lambert and (husband) Blake Shelton, Alabama, Jason Aldean and Sara Evans.

The festival brings some of country music’s biggest stars to Southern California, including Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert and Alabama. But for many fans, the festival’s not about the well-established Nashville pop stars.

Music fans more attracted to hardcore bluegrass, country-rock and roots rock stuck close to the festival’s smaller Palomino and Mustang stages. Michael Thornburg came down from Ventura County to spend the weekend hanging out at the festival’s smaller (and tented) stages.

“For me, at this event, I never go into the main arena,” said Thornburg. Thornburg arrived at Stagecoach early enough Saturday to see opener Sara Watkins, an acclaimed fiddler who’s a regular on “Prairie Home Companion” and makes frequent appearances at the Largo in Los Angeles.

“I love watching the acts and stuff at these side stages," Thornburg said. "I mean, they have great people performing on these side stages, where you can sit close enough to see them perform, rather than hear and like... yeah, this is so much better.”

Stagecoach’s Mustang and Palamino stages drew big crowds Saturday. That’s where actor-comedian and bluegrass picker Steve Martin and his Steep Canyon Rangers drew one of the biggest crowds of the weekend. Roots rock crooner Chris Isaak, decked out in a stunning sky-blue suit with elaborate Western style stitching, also drew a big crowd, as did L.A. punk-turned-roots-rocker Dave Alvin. Fans also came out for a reunion by acclaimed country rockers the Mavericks.

A highlight for many is the abundance of veteran and upstart bluegrass acts including trailblazers like Ralph Stanley, J.D. Crowe and Del McCoury. It was what could be among the final public performances for bluegrass godfathers Crowe and Stanley. The traditional sound those artists pioneered is being spurred into the future by younger bands like Old Man Markley and Split Lip Rayfield who don’t hide their punk and rock 'n' roll roots. A member of Old Man Markley moonlights with '80s L.A. hardcore punk stalwarts Youth Brigade.

Sunday’s lineup includes performances by a spate of other well known and emerging bluegrass acts including McCoury, the Grascals and Split Lip Rayfield. The three-day festival closes Sunday night with performances by Sheryl Crow and Brad Paisley.

This story has been updated.