Jason Isbell, performing the penultimate set at the inaugural Palomino Festival in Pasadena on Saturday, took time out near the end of his performance to comment on the rock-solidness of the day’s nearly 20-artist bill, giving voice to what a lot of impressed attendees were no doubt thinking.
“Most of the time on these festivals, there’s a couple people I don’t give a shit about. But today has been genuinely great,” Isbell said, referring to a lineup that was about to be headlined by Kacey Musgraves and earlier had seen performances by Willie Nelson, Orville Peck, Old Crow Medicine Show, Turnpike Troubadours, Valerie June, Amythyst Kiah, Charley Crockett and Nikki Lane, among others.
Indeed, this new single-day country/Americana gathering — set in the Brookside Park area directly adjacent to the Rose Bowl — had Goldenvoice essentially taking all of the best things about its Stagecoach Festival out in Indio (like the cred bookings that usually take place on that fest’s Palomino side-stage), jettisoned the not-great parts (the bro-country, leagues of drunken spring breakers and Bataan parking-lot death marches), and moved everything 110 miles closer to town, for most. What wasn’t to like?
Except for, maybe, supply-chain issues that reportedly caused many of the bars to run out of craft cocktails early in the day. Still, a little enforced sobriety was a small price to pay for a festival that made country feel like a big tent. Although no one would have mistaken the grounds for the most diverse place on earth, people of color, gay artists and women — all traditionally long marginalized in mainstream country — were decently represented on the bill… to the extent that, at one point early in the day, six out of seven acts playing in one sequential stretch were female artists. That ratio reversed itself later when the bill’s undercard gave way to headliners, but still, with Musgraves at the very top of the lineup, it was not difficult to see that the roster represented the kind of moderately progressive thinking a country festival based in greater L.A. deserves.
Musgraves’ capping set proceeded largely along the lines of the arena tour that already passed through the area’s Crypto.com Arena back in February — even down to the introductory language, that with the divorce-themed “Star-Crossed,” she had made a “fucking depressing” album, but that the next hour would constitute a party anyway — with one notable exception.
In a preceding set by Willie Nelson, “On the Road Again” had gone unplayed, leading some fans to wonder if the 89-year-old singer had miscalculated his set length and been forced to leave it out. It was nothing so inadvertent as that, as it turned out — he’d put it on hold so he could come back out and perform it as a duet midway through Musgraves’ set. The timing of Nelson’s appearance seemed almost random — most likely he really was looking to get on the road again — leaving Musgraves to wonder aloud, “How do you top that?” A karaoke version of “9 to 5” with lyrics printed out on screen was not the answer, though you can’t blame her for trying.
In any case, the song she did end the set with, “Slow Burn,” seemed especially apropos for a festival that really had burned long and slow, with 11 unbroken hours of music. When the performances began at noon, and even a couple hours further in than that, some attendees were wondering if the Palomino Festival would be a bust, with only a few hundred people on hand at either stage during the first hour. As it turned out, there was no need for commercial concern — there are just a whole hell of a lot of fair-weather country fans who will pay a couple hundred bucks or more just to turn up in time for Kacey, Willie and maybe a couple of other acts they’d heard of, like jam-band-circuit favorites Turnpike Troubadours and Old Crow Medicine Show, or a recent staple of the top 10 on the album chart, Zach Bryan. Those whose roots-music love runs deeper, meanwhile, soaked up a full day’s worth of sun and sucked in a seemingly endless spliff’s worth of Americana.
Few performers are still out there doing what they do — or have done — at 89, of course, and at the outset of Nelson’s set, it was apparent that a few accommodations were being made for the country legend. He and his sons, Micah and Lucas, were seated, and the two offspring both were asked to sing numbers early in the set, even as the senior Nelson encouraged the crowd to sing some choruses for him in his own songs. There was a softness, too, that made his vocals hard to make out if you happened to be standing in a particularly yammering part of the crowd. (Festival tip: the more people struggle to get closer to the stage, the more likely they then are to ignore the music and conversationally shout at one another, counterintuitive as that may seem.) Did he not have the goods this particular night, or was he pacing himself?
Happily, the latter proved to be the case, as Nelson kept the spotlight all to himself in the latter part of his performance, and seemed to gain in vocal strength as he went along, to boot. Whiskey rivers ran and mamas were given stern warnings, as expected. But highlights included some more obscure picks, from his 1964 ballad “I Never Cared for You” to a recent number co-written by Chris Stapleton and Rodney Crowell that he declared was one of his favorite songs ever, “I’ll Love You Till The Day I Die” (off what he noted was his his 98th album, released in April on his 89th birthday). There was a strong poignancy to be felt between that song and the Pearl Jam oldie “Just Breathe,” performed movingly as a duet with Lucas. But if you thought Nelson would end the set in that very mortal mood, you don’t know his penchant for taking the piss out of himself, as he did by ending the show with Mac Davis’ outrightly comedic “It’s Hard to Be Humble” (with Old Town Medicine Show coming on stage for background-vocal bragging rights).
On the other stage, the Lefty stage, Isbell noted that he had delayed his start time until Nelson’s set — which ran over a bit on the Pancho stage — had finished, as any Southern gentleman would. With his own set time knocked down a little as a result, Isbell declared that he wouldn’t be doing much talking. “If you want to know more about me, you can check me out on the Internet,” he announced, wryly alluding to his sometimes rightie-baiting Twitter account, which tends to be as wantonly funny as his songs tend to be life-and-death-sober.
His backing band the 400 Unit was down a woman, as his wife, Amanda Shires, prepares to launch a solo album late this month, but there was no shortage of interplay to fill any gaps, with an abundance — even in an abbreviated nine-song set — of instrumental conversations between Isbell and fellow lead guitarist Sadler Vaden, sometimes on twin electrics, sometimes matching Isbell’s acoustic against Vaden’s electric. The two-year-old “Dreamsicle,” in particular, really did establish a dreamlike feel in the western festival grounds, even if it’s a song about a 14-year-old product of a broken family. Isbell is nothing if not humble about sharing the spotlight: The crunchy rock highlight — if far from the emotional one — came when he allowed former Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ member Sadler to take over lead duties on a cover of that band’s “Honeysuckle Blue.”
Predictably, a big crowd favorite was Orville Peck, whose boomy, lonesome vocals are deeper than any arroyo (Seco or otherwise). The country tailor Manuel may never have thought to specialize in the kind of fringy facial masks Peck uses as an eternal disguise, but Peck looked to be paying homage to country tradition not just with his Western-themed music but an inescapably Nudie’s-style suit — further upholding a sense of country classicism even as he pushes the envelope on bringing in LGBTQ+ themes. And an audience to go with it, as it was clear this festival was a safe, even celebratory space for gay couples.
At the Stagecoach Festival out in Indio, it’s possible to run out of notepad paper in keeping a running tally of how many of the mainstream artists there will find a Tom Petty cover to work into their set, as if required by law. With the more outlier-country leanings of many of the acts at the Palomino Festival, there was no such danger of hearing the thousandth Nashville take on “Free Fallin’.” Covers were actually in short supply at Palomino, which may have been partly a function of set times being truncated in order to work 20 acts into one day with no overlaps. But some notable and unexpected ones did pop up, from the irreverent — Old Crow Medicine Show wrapped up its crowd-pleasing set with an only slightly countrified version of KISS’ “Rock N’ Roll All Night” — to a more mysterious satisfaction like Amythyst Kiah’s rocking version of Tori Amos’ “Sugar.”
Kiah, whose music has sometimes skewed a little more folkie on record, took optimum advantage of her power-trio format to rock things up just a bit more, on the Amos cover as well as elsewhere. Conversely, she snuck in a wrenching song about the death of her mother without even missing much of a beat in the mostly upbeat set. The climax of her set was inevitably her bittersweet, hard-boiled anthem “Black Myself,” a song that tends to make a predominantly white crowd a little nervous — as in, “are we allowed to sing along with this, even in our heads” — but which is such a joyful experience that worries about shared experience fall aside in the performance moment.
Valerie June sang about what she called “goddess energy” but made it clear that men were allowed to participate, because “none of us came here without a woman” — into this realm of existence, she meant, not to Palomino Fest. “Astral Plane,” she explained, was “a song for all the hippies” who believe in “stardusty” predestination — or in Carl Sagan, whom she quoted in introducing the song. With her clangy electric guitar tones and one-of-a-kind voice, June is not much more of a core country artist than Kiah is, but in her own freeform way, she sort of represents a strain of ’60s/’70s country-rock that’s gotten lost: the cosmic cowboy.
For non-goddess, male energy, there were several determined rabble-rousers in the lineup, not least of them the reliable Old Crow Medicine Show, and the more recently galvanizing Turnpike Troubadours, who play a sort of vaguely sad-sounding yet cheerfully energized country-rock. They answer the question of what Drive-by Truckers might be like, or the kind of crowd they’d attract, if Patterson Hood were in a perpetually better mood. The band Low Cut Connie, less of a country act than a Philly rock-and-soul revue, set a party mood right at the beginning of the day, with the kind of winning bluster that seemed projected all the way back out to the still-unpopulated food trucks a quarter of a mile away.
The MVP when it came to really working the crowd was Langhorne Slim, who made his way over the barricades and into the crowd not once but twice. Like many of the performers in the first two-thirds of the day, he seemed surprised by how quickly his allotted 25 minutes went by. “We have two more songs,” he announced. A whisper in the ear. “We have one more song,” he corrected himself. For that finale, he settled on “Past Lives,” bounding into and through the crowd as he compelled the audience to sing along with the “Past Lives” refrain of: “I ain’t dead.” With temps peaking in the high 80s in the early afternoon and many hours of sunlight ahead for the crowd’s diehards, it was like a vow not to abandon the front and retreat into the festival’s few shade tents.
The number of bad-ass women on the bill can’t be overstated — the whole first half of the day, for those who partook, was almost like Lilith Fair reinvented as an outlaw-country beer blast.
Nikki Lane, who also oversaw the hippie-hillbilly clothing part of the merchandise areas, was as much the totem of this festival as she is of the hepper parts of Stagecoach. With her shades and lack of smiles, Morgan Wade didn’t engage the crowd nearly as much, but between her all-business attitudes and all-consuming tats, she had a convincingly outlaw persona that fits her songs, even if some of them are commercial enough that this indie artist just got signed to a major label.
For bluegrass and/or string-band music, it was a tale of two Sierras — and let anyone who has not accidentally tagged the wrong one in a post about the other cast the first stone. Just to keep them straight for those keeping score at home: Sierra Hull is the virtuoso mandolinist, who also sings perfectly well — her song choices included a vocal cover of “People Get Ready” — but whose band shreds hard enough that you may feel you’ve been beaten into a happy submission without an electric instrument in sight. (She does employ a drum kit, so this is not your snobby Kentucky grandfather’s bluegrass.) Instrumentally, at least, the day was peaking right at 1 p.m.
Sierra Ferrell, meanwhile, is a vocal marvel — which is not to say that her acoustic quintet was anything less than fearsome in its own right. One of the best new finds in any genre of music over the last few years, Ferrell seems directly transplanted from a ’30s, ’40s or ’50s that never quite actually existed… or at least didn’t have anyone sporting nose rings while covering the Flatt & Scruggs favorite “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” Although she hasn’t yet attracted his level of popularity, Ferrell may be the female equivalent to Billy Strings, as someone who can take sounds generally considered as old-timey and make them feel as relevant as any kind of pop-punk to her own generation.
As representative as the Palomino Festival was, it came up short in one area — currently popular, mainstream, format-friendly country — which clearly was a feature and not a flaw to much of this audience. But aside from Musgraves, who both is and isn’t mainstream country these days, depending on which means of dissemination and consumption you’re defining it by, there was another guy on the bill, Zach Bryan, who can’t quite be pinned down so easily in his commercial achievements and prospects. Appearing mid-afternoon, Bryan was the first act of the day to really have a solid audience of thousands singing along and pointing fingers or pumping fists. Where do all these people know all this music from, you might’ve asked? His album, “American Heartbreak,” recently spent several weeks in the overall top 10, yet has little presence at country radio. He often sounds like an Americana artist, not so much a mainstream Nashville guy — but there’s something about him, maybe not least of all his Navy veteran status, that puts his appeal more among the crowd that would normally listen to a Luke Bryan.
Watching a crowd of thousands respond to Bryan as if he were a weathered mainstream veteran begs a lot of questions about who exactly he’s reaching… and who made sure to not wait till nighttime to show up to Palomino Fest. For now, maybe looking for answers about his appeal can be put off while we just enjoy the fact that somebody who would have seemed destined to fall between the industry cracks has instead blossomed up from among them.
A few other snapshots of the day, as captured by Variety photographer Michael Buckner: