“We’re at halftime now,” said Mack Brown as the first night of Mack, Jack & McConaughey came to a close Thursday at ACL Live. The legendary Longhorn football coach still thinks in game-time terms, not surprisingly. If he were giving a locker-room speech for this one, it would probably be along the lines of: “Let’s just try to have another half as good as THAT was.”
Participants in the annual fundraiser for children’s charities were headed to the golf course on Friday morning, before they reconvene at ACL Live for a 7 p.m. Jack Ingram & Friends concert that will feature Patty Griffin, John Fullbright, Radney Foster and several other sterling songwriters. But they’ll probably still be talking about Thursday’s Dixie Chicks concert all day long.
In the six-year history of MJ&M, this may have been the grandest night of all. Numbers from the pre-concert auction and other fundraising avenues will be confirmed later, but in terms of sheer excitement, hearing the group that co-host Matthew McConaughey introduced as “the biggest-selling female band ever” in a room much more intimate than the Chicks’ usual arena/amphitheater venues was a rare and special experience.
The band lived up to lofty expectations and then some. The MJ&M gala is a bit of a marathon, starting with dinner and then a lengthy live auction that on this night stretched past 9 p.m. Bids in the tens and hundreds of thousands came fast and furious for items ranging from lavish vacation packages to a Maserati convertible to a guitar signed by the Dixie Chicks.
Proceeds benefit five charities dedicated to empowering children: CureDuchenne, the Dell Children’s Medical Center, HeartGift, the Just Keep Livin’ Foundation and the Rise School of Austin. Since launching in 2013, MJ&M has raised more than $7.5 million on their behalf.
Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines noted early on that performing a charity functions was something the band had done since their early days together in the mid-’90s, when sisters Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire (both nee Erwin) called up Texas Tech student Maines and asked her to join the group. Back then, Maines explained, she and her bandmates typically would be pressed into duty showing off auction items between sets.
“So this is fantastic. I feel like we really made it,” she beamed, tongue-in-cheek. “We’re playing a charity event where we don’t have to model jewelry!”
Backed by a five-piece crew that included Austin’s own Glenn Fukunaga on bass and longtime touring guitarist Keith Sewell, the Chicks sounded at the top of their game in a 16-song set that included fan favorites “Ready to Run,” “Cowboy Take Me Away,” “Easy Silence” and “Wide Open Spaces.”
They also sprinkled in several songs from other writers that they’ve made their own over the years. “Patty Griffin writes songs for us, and Bob Dylan writes songs for us,” Maines said half-jokingly after they’d played the latter’s “Mississippi” and the former’s “Truth #2” and “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida.” While Griffin and Dylan obviously write first and foremost for their own records, the Chicks have long had the gift of being able to make cover songs their own — a strength underscored most directly when they followed “Mississippi” with “Landslide,” the 1970s Fleetwood Mac classic that the Chicks brought back to the pop top-10 in 2002.
A pleasant surprise near the end of the night was the inclusion of “Not Ready to Make Nice.” A platinum-selling single from the band’s 2006 album “Taking the Long Way,” it addressed head-on the hate-mail and radio boycotts the group received after speaking out against George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Chicks could have held off on playing such a politics-is-personal song at a high-dollar charity event; that they made a point to include it was was very much to their credit.
And then there was the encore. When stagehands placed bongos and conga drums onstage before the band returned, it was pretty clear we were going to see McConaughey breaking out his percussive side. The surprise was that Mack Brown joined him. The coach’s bongo skills might be described as rudimentary, though a noted Austin drummer gave credit on Facebook that “he was in the zip code. Not claps on ones and threes.”
The song was Ben Harper’s “Better Way,” a perfectly uplifting message on which to end the night, and to dovetail with the fundraiser’s mission. Now it’s on to the second half with Mack, Jack & McConaughey. But this game’s already in the bag.