Near the end of the Dixie Chicks’ way-too-long-awaited, completely sold-out concert on Sunday night at the Austin360 Amphitheater, singer Natalie Maines thanked the adoring crowd sincerely, then added a little tease that seemed incredulous: “I hope you don’t wait another 10 years before you have us back.”
Certainly Maines and her bandmates must know that their devoted fans dearly want and even need to see them more often than once a decade. That’s especially true at a time when mainstream country largely has been dominated by bro-country sound-alikes whose material stagnates in the shallow end of the songwriting pool. Two hours with the Dixie Chicks was a refreshing reminder that it’s possible for musicians to dive in deep and still sell out the biggest place in town. Call these Chicks the anti-bros.
In what was the most momentous concert for local country audiences since George Strait’s farewell-tour stop at the Erwin Center two and a half years ago, Maines and her pals Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire delivered on all fronts. They presented a spectacular stage show, with artful video projections and lighting that often significantly enhanced the music.
Everything was built around a stylish black-and-white color theme, right down to all of the musicians playing bright white instruments. After a mid-show stage reset for an acoustic portion that included a costume change, Maines joked about their “new” color scheme: “Before we were in black and white — now we’re in white and black.”
But it’s still the music, not theatrics, that ultimately drives the show with the Chicks. Backed by a seasoned five-piece crew, plus Natalie’s father Lloyd Maines sitting in on pedal steel, the trio reminded that they’re among the very best in the business as musicians. From Strayer’s versatility between banjo, mandolin and guitars, to Maguire’s consistently spectacular fiddle runs, to Maines’ firepower centerpiece vocals, they can pull off just about anything they wish to try.
On this tour, that has included a couple of intriguing curveballs. They brought the grandeur to Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” that the majestic ballad requires; as triumphant of a tribute as it was, it’s hard not to be a little sad realizing how much Prince himself would have loved hearing it. The band also burned hot on Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi,” which found Maines wailing on her white acoustic guitar at stage right as her father’s steel runs pushed the song to its apex.
Comparatively less successful, though it was the most intriguing stretch, was a stab at “Daddy Lessons” from Beyonce’s recent “Lemonade” album during the acoustic portion. The musicians all took seats at the front of the stage for four midset tunes, and the format suited Austin songwriter Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier” beautifully. But it eventually began to stall the momentum they’d built up with a bang out of the gate on longtime fan favorites that included two tunes by Austin’s Patty Griffin, “Truth #2” and “Top of the World.”
A hot bluegrass instrumental helped them kick it back into gear, and they came out blazing on “Ready to Run,” during which they sent giant blasts of red, white and blue confetti showering down on the crowd. On the big screen behind them, a carnival of election-year hopefuls paraded by, often in caricature. If the video content was directly political in theme, it was also decidedly nonpartisan; the spectacle was directed not at specific candidates, but rather the entire campaign season.
Perhaps that’s a perspective the three women gleaned from spending much of the past decade raising children. Which is not to say they’ve forgotten what happened in 2003, when their political statements sparked a firestorm of controversy as the Iraq War began. When they began their two-song encore with “Not Ready to Make Nice,” it was like a reminder to everyone: Yes, this happened to us, and we will always be dealing with it.
But, as Maines declared at the song’s end, “We can’t leave you all angry!” That was the cue for all of their kids, plus a few others, to bum-rush the stage for a grand-finale rendition of Ben Harper’s “Better Way,” a musically hard-hitting but emotionally uplifting song. “I believe we can change the energy out there in the universe with a little positivity,” Maines said, exhorting the crowd to sing along.
That was an easy ask, as many had been singing along for much of the night, thrilled to hear these women joining voices again on the likes of “Wide Open Spaces,” Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide” and “Long Time Gone.” All those fans really want in return is for the long time gone to be less than 10 years next time.
Two opening acts got the crowd warmed up early. Not many heard Nashville duo Smooth Hound Smith’s bluesy 20-minute starting set, but guitarist Zack Smith got a nice nod from Maines when the Chicks invited him out to sit in for a couple of their acoustic tunes.
Bridging the gap was the blazing soul band Vintage Trouble, who most bands might well not want to book as an opening act for fear of trying to follow singer Ty Taylor’s relentless energy and charisma. On one song, he strolled out into the middle of the venue, perching himself on a railing as he rallied the crowd into a frenzy. The Los Angeles group has made a few high-profile visits to Austin in recent years, and they’re quickly becoming a must-see act in their own right.
1. The Long Way Around
2. Lubbock or Leave It
3. Truth #2
4. Easy Silence
5. Some Days You Gotta Dance
6. Long Time Gone
7. Nothing Compares 2 U
8. Top of the World
9. Goodbye Earl
10. Travelin’ Soldier
11. Don’t Let Me Die in Florida
12. Daddy Lessons
13. White Trash Wedding
14. Bluegrass Instrumental
15. Ready to Run
18. Cowboy Take Me Away
19. Wide Open Spaces
20. Sin Wagon
21. Not Ready to Make Nice
22. Better Way