Palomino festival, the last Goldenvoice production, looked like an offshoot of Stagecoach, the big country festival happening a week after Coachella on the Indio grounds. Palomino shared the same beautiful parkland of Brookside at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena as two other festivals I attended in May: Cruel World and Just like Heaven; and this had the huge advantage to be just a 20 min drive from my home. Back on the site on a very hot day, I embraced the heat, but since organizers made sure free water was available everywhere it was not a real problem.
When you think of country music you may think of men with cowboy hats, and if there were a lot of them, the lineup had reserved an equal part for women: my day started with a lot of women and ended with the most famous one, Kacey Musgraves who was headlining the night.
Country music has changed and diversified and attending the festival was a solid realization of its different variations. If I don’t care much for the new pop country abundantly played on certain popular airwaves, there was something for everyone at Palomino fest, from old school to new faces, from icons to legends in the making. The crowd was very friendly and happy to wear their best western accessories, hats were obviously everywhere, but you will never convince me that boots at 90ºF are comfortable. I missed the first acts — noon is a horrible time slot for a band, especially for a festival that lasted to almost midnight — but I had the chance to catch all the other bands that alternated between the Pancho and the Lefty stages. The disposition of the stages was different from that of the previous festivals, they were much closer to each other and as soon as an act ended on a stage you could run to the other one without missing much. This didn’t leave me a minute to rest and since I approach a music festival like a marathon, I caught 16 acts in one day and had a lot of fun.
Sierra Hull looked like a petite queen of mandolin and she was also having a lot of fun playing her very upbeat tunes with her band. Her blend of country and bluegrass technique was impressive, effortless, and not too flashy but executed with virtuosity while she closed her set with a nice cover of Curtis Mayfield’s classic, “People Get Ready.” The afternoon was definitely dominated by women: With the help of fiddle and upright bass, Sierra Ferrell’s set was more diverse with songs all over the place from traditional country to gypsy jazz, folk, fox trot, and calypso. She was also a lovely vision, wearing wild flowers in her hair below her straw cowboy hat, adding charming details to her outfit. Amethyst Khia was the complete opposite with deep vocals, a commanding presence à la Nina Simone. Her instrument was not the piano but a guitar, a very bluesy guitar completed by bass and drums, while her intense and emotional set – her songs are about her experience as an LGBTQ Black woman living in the South – was very well received by the crowd. She ended with a Tori Amos cover (“Sugar”) at the top of her very personal material. We were not done with female performers and Valerie June was the ray of sunshine of the day as she always is, playing her greatest hits with her nasal delivery and the same fun abandonment she is known for. Her psychedelic country is always a pleasure to listen to and her dreamer’s attitude always an inspiration whether she shakes her dreadlocks with fury or tells us we are all made of lights or eventually goddesses…. “Every man here had to come with a woman!” Nikki Lane was another strong female act with an outlaw country theme, a powerful delivery, and a badass attitude. She apologized for playing new songs – although nobody was complaining – songs from her upcoming album “Denim & Diamonds” produced by Joshua Homme, and featuring plenty of famous faces from Alain Johannes to Dean Fertita, Artic Monkeys’ Matt Helders, and Autolux’s Carla Azar. Controlling the stage with ease and her effective vocals, she looked like the queen of the day with a true rock & roll flavor, especially during the new songs (like “First High”). Rising country artist Morgan Wade was more country-pop oriented or had at least a more contemporary country sound – so obviously not my favorite type of country, but certainly the most popular one right now. Still, the hooks were undeniable. Wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt, covered with ink, she didn’t look like your typical country star, while her sound was crossing over genres.
On the male side, Langhorne Slim gave a super dynamic and fun set, the type of power chord music with a punk sensibility, chaotic enough for frontman Sean Scolnick to roll his back on stage and jump in the crowd a few times. Most of the set was upbeat, bouncy with a sort of flower power spirit, although there were a few quieter and heartfelt moments with “Changes” and “Morning Prayer,” that, he told us, took him a long time to complete: ”Nashville was hit by a tornado, then we were hit by the pandemic!” Paul Cauthen’s set was another fun moment with original stage theatrics, a booming and deep baritone for a voice, and songs delivered in your face with plenty of gesticulation. “Cocaine Country Dancing” was an amazing bluesy slice of rock & roll, and I enjoyed the entire set of his stomping larger-than-live persona. Charley Crockett had a much more traditional approach to his music while wearing a beautiful sky-blue suit and holding his guitar very high, like a gun. He played a large range of genres from honky-tonk country to blues with eventually a slice of the south of the border, even incorporating a banjo or zydeco music in the mix. They were tons of very enthusiastic fans to welcome Zach Bryan on stage, as the front row was filled with young girls and some guys screaming “Zach!!”… I had no idea who he was, but I was certainly the only one! A military vet but still very young, he sang with an emotional tone, installing an immediate, passionate, and strong connection with the public. To me, he sounded like another pop-country star expressing intense feelings with fervor and catchy hooks, whether it was his greatest hit “Heading South” or the recent release “Something in the Orange.” Sure, there was violin but just when I thought the songs were way too slow to trigger my enthusiasm, the band started a fast one that brought the crowd on their feet. There was no shortage of enthusiasm for Turnpike Troubadours and Old Crow Medicine Show, two groups who played successively on the Lefty stage with bottomless passion and impressive dynamism. Both sets were joyful, played by large ass-kicking bands, constantly moving on stage, and fooling around. Turnpike Troubadours fueled many of their songs with banjo, pedal steel, and fiddle while their sound had this authentic country cachet. Meanwhile, the many members of Old Crow Medicine Show played a non-stop bouncy party, looking like possessed-by-an-old-country-spirit. They were a truly fun ensemble, with a super synchronized choreography of numerous players and instruments, including upright bass, banjo, and harmonica, bringing some serious energy to devilish rhythms, sounding like a wild remixed by an old-school string band.
Between these two last bands, the fabulous Orville Peck looked like a new rock star on the Pancho stage, wearing an all-white suit, hat, and guitar with bordered red roses all over. As flamboyant as a country Elvis in a white jumpsuit – and I am not only saying this because he did a sound check singing a few Elvis lines – he mixed “Bronco” and “Pony” songs with his now-familiar bravado and theatrics… did I really manage to see Orville three times in the past few months? Looking at his late time slot, he has demonstrated he could definitely be a country legend with a glorious croon.
Would I make Jason Isbell angry if I say he sounded like Ryan Adams? I don’t know, but that’s how I immediately felt, as he alternated between fired-up songs with classic rock guitars, backed up by his fine band the 400 Unit, and quiet and emotive acoustic ballads. Maybe he is more than just a rocking guy with feelings, but it was hard to find something truly remarkable about him.
Willie had the waltzes, the sweet Texas waltzes, and the 89-year-old country legend played plenty of classics surrounded by family – his sons Lukas and Micah – from “Whiskey River” to “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” to “Always on My Mind.” It was a rather low-key affair, the opposite of loud rock, with remarkable guitar solos by Lukas and fun songs by Micah. They injected a Hank Williams cover, a Pearl Jam cover, announced by Lukas, plenty of other covers, and very few songs penned by Willie; It was probably a personal and humble choice, while the country icon announced he had recorded his 98th album, “A Beautiful Time.” 98th? Can you even imagine? With a discrete but efficient backing band, Nelson looked like the eternal character he has always been, wearing a beat-up cowboy hat, and playing a battered old acoustic guitar, excelling during the finger-picking solos, singing with that familiar nasal croon.
Kacey Musgraves was headlining the festival, appearing on stage in front of a giant burning heart then a large rose in the background, looking like the star she has become so fast. Starting with songs from her last album “Star-crossed,” I was wondering why she was headlining a country festival. This was all pop and light disco beats, butterflies, rays of light, and rainbow, lovely in its own way, especially when they launched giant white balls over the crowd with laser lights, but we were far away from Willie, right? Not so fast, the country legend came back on stage for a duo, “On the Road Again,” and Kacey told us that her grandfather was also in attendance, pointing out what a very special moment, a truly seized opportunity this was. This was followed by Kacey doing, alone, a dynamic cover of “Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” for the delight of the crowd. Saturday was a full day at Palomino festival, covering country music’s diversity, and pushing many boundaries. Let’s hope this will become an annual event!