Apparently, there are people who still believe the Dixie Chicks should just shut up and sing. One of them even said so on a bus shuttling concertgoers from hinterlands parking lots to Austin 360 Amphitheater Sunday, where the Chicks played the third of three home-state headlining dates — their first in 10 years.
But even those fans knew better than to expect an opinion-free night from the outspoken trio of Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer. Several chose instead to do a little sloganeering of their own: T-shirts ranged from “Republicans have more fun” to “Hillary 2016” and “Natalie Maines for President.” And clearly, their love for the Chicks’ blend of country-bluegrass-rock-pop, close harmonizing and impeccable showmanship trumped their feelings about the ladies’ stances — including that 13-year-old comment about their Texas homie that has everything to do with why they haven’t toured stateside or made new music in a decade.
The Chicks were making bold statements long before their 2003 criticism of then-president George W. Bush, though; in fact, they built their career on songs such as “Goodbye Earl,” about taking revenge on an abusive male; and “Sin Wagon,” in which they celebrated “mattress dancin’” in an era — and genre — that still hadn’t let women progress much beyond the scandal of Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill.” So even when they did “shut up and sing” to Sunday’s sellout crowd of 15,000, they used their medium — and nonstop arrays of powerful visual imagery — to make some definite points.
Even the purposely stark design motif, which included all-white instruments and black-and-white outfits broken by an occasional splash of magenta, seemed to suggest not everything is black and white. (It also served to enhance the visuals, including spectacular lighting and video effects that ranged from black-and-white pop-art whirls and Rorschachs to captured-live images of the women morphing into shadows and tinted silhouettes filled with shifting scenery.)
When they performed “Goodbye Earl,” nearly halfway through their tightly paced 22-song set, the video screen flashed famously tense scenes from classic films interspersed with mug shots of infamous killers — and several O.J. Simpson headlines. A set-change video featured the Chicks as masked, drag-racing outlaws raising hell to Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades”; the clip looked almost like an outtake from Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City. And when they sang “Ready to Run,” the screen exploded in a parade of donkeys, elephants and clowns — as in Republican candidates dancing in clown wigs — along with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in boxing gloves and dozens of other suggestive visuals that could have been crafted by the team from Jib-Jab. The song ended with cannons blanketing the air so heavily with volleys of red, white and blue confetti, it outdid the Democratic-convention balloon drop.
Homages abounded throughout the night, starting with the intro music: Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” Later, they would do a near show-stopping version of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Bathed in purple lighting, with Prince’s glyph looming large behind her, Maines’ voice soared, answered by Strayer’s dobro. Steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, sitting in with his daughter’s band for their three Texas gigs, performed a masterful version of Prince’s guitar solo.
They followed that with “Top of the World” — the real showstopper, into which Maines poured every ounce of her formidable vocal power. The haunting ballad was one of three Patty Griffin tunes they performed; the first was “Truth No. 2,” which sounds more relevant post-Bush than it did when they recorded it for 2002’s Home. Before singing the third, a dance-inducing “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida,” Maines said, “We’re huge fans of Patty Griffin … Whether she knows it or not, she writes us a lot of songs.”
That one followed another emotional workout, “Travelin’ Soldier,” written by Strayer’s ex-brother-in-law, Bruce Robison, and preceded a cover of “Daddy Lessons,” from Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Maines praised her fellow Texan’s latest work as “the best album of the year,” and credited their arrangement to Zach Smith of opening act Smooth Hound Smith, who joined the band for the sit-down acoustic segment.
On their feet again, they nailed the close a cappella harmony opening to “White Trash Wedding,” which set up one of Maines’ pithier comments of the night, as she introduced an instrumental bluegrass medley containing bits of their namesake song, “Dixie Chicken,” and the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”
“As far as I’m concerned, every single tour needs a bluegrass instrumental,” she said. “Let’s see Kanye pull that out.”
A lively cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi” continued the energy boost before Maines again shifted gears with the intro to another career-hallmark song. When they recorded it 15 years ago, she said, she was the only mother in the band and had only one child. Now, nine babies in, the line, “I’m getting older, too,” doesn’t charm them anymore. But the song, which inspired one of the night’s several sing-alongs, still does.
Just about every one of the night’s performances did. The whole evening had a bit of a reunion feel, and when Maines said, “I hope you don’t wait another 10 years before you have us back,” the answering thought was, “Please don’t make us.”
One would hope they deliver some new music in the meantime; they do what they do so well, it’s a shame they haven’t recorded anything since their Grammy-winning hater kiss-off, Taking the Long Way. Signs indicate reason for optimism. After they performed the feisty encore tune, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Maines said they wanted to end the night on a more positive note. As their kids trotted onstage, she asked the audience to help put out “good vibes” by chanting the Ben Harper song’s title, “Better Way,” at the top of their lungs.
“I believe if we all say it together as loud as we can,” she added, “we actually can change the energy in the universe.”
After some Harper-level dobro work from Strayer, the trio ended the night by standing around a tom-tom drum, banging happily together.
Maybe they can’t really change the energy in the universe, but they certainly elevated 15,000 souls in Austin Sunday.
Opening sets by Smooth Hound Smith, a Nashville duo also featuring vocalist/percussionist Caitlin Doyle, and Vintage Trouble, a killer soul/R&B outfit featuring dynamic vocalist Ty Taylor, helped rev up concertgoers despite playing into the sun in nearly 100-degree temps. Taylor, who even made his way into the audience and onto a railing, is the kind of showman who’s hard to follow. Unless, of course, you’re the Dixie Chicks, who deserve to be back on top of the world.
1. The Long Way Around
2. Lubbock or Leave It
3. Truth No. 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