By Richard Skanse
Out of all the stunning visuals on display throughout most of the Dixie Chicks’ two-hour concert Sunday night at the Austin360 Amphitheater, the coolest was a blink-and-you-missed-it moment that didn’t even make it onto one of the video screens. It came at the very end of the set-closing “Sin Wagon,” when an extra young guitarist who’d joined the band unannounced during the song’s heavy-metal/bluegrass rave-up looked over at the beaming pedal steel player for a thumb’s up sign of approval, then stepped closer to exchange a fist bump. The steel player was Lloyd Maines, father of lead singer Natalie Maines; the walk-on guitarist was her 15-year-old son, Jackson Slade Pasdar.
It was a beautiful thing to witness, and not just because it’s not every night that three generations of Maines get to share a stage together. Pasdar — aka “Lil’ Jack Slade” — was just shy of 2-years-old when the Dixie Chicks instrumental named after him (and co-written by his granddad) won the band their umpteenth Grammy back in February of 2003. Two weeks later, one little throw-away comment his mother made at a concert in London would set in motion arguably the most egregious backlash and radio boycott in modern American music history. Of course everybody knows that story, but to put it in a different perspective, imagine having been just a toddler when it all went down — and then coming of age and to the understanding of not only what it meant, but that all that happened to your mom and her two best friends. But that was way back then and this is now, summer 2016, and you’re standing onstage looking out at a sold-out crowd of some 15,000 people who all know know every word to every song your mom and her friends sing and play because they are rock stars.
And oh holy hell, are they ever good at what they do, as demonstrated in spades Sunday night.
You can probably chalk some of that up to the fact the Dixie Chicks’ Austin show not only capped a triumphant three-night stand in Texas (following stops in Dallas and Houston), but came a little more than halfway-through the band’s extensive MMXVI World Tour — which kicked of with 13 dates in Europe back in April and landed stateside June 1 in Cincinnati. That’s afforded them ample time to work out any kinks in the production, though the reviews — like the ticket sales — have been pretty consistently encouraging from the get-go. Having a rock-solid band behind them doesn’t hurt, either; in addition to Texas legend Lloyd (a featured guest at all three Texas shows) on pedal steel, the Chicks were backed by seasoned pros Keith Sewell on lead guitar, Justin Weaver on guitar and mandolin, John Ginty on keyboards, Jimmy Paxson on drums, and Austin’s own Glenn Fukunaga on bass. These are all grown-ass men with serious session-pro credentials, seasoned road-warrior chops and zero cheese factor, all of which are essential when it comes to keeping up with sisters Emily Strayer (banjo, dobro, papoose) and Martie Maguire (fiddle, mandolin). Frontwoman Maines strums a fair amount of acoustic and electric guitar in concert, too, but as has been the case ever since she joined the Dixie Chicks 21 years ago, it’s her powerhouse of a voice that drives the boat.
Although much has been made about this being the group’s first headlining tour of the States in a decade, between the odd benefit appearance, opening spots for the Eagles and even a successful tour of Canada and Europe three years back, Maines, Strayer and Maguire have actually played a fair amount of times together since wrapping their Accidents and Accusations Tour supporting their last album, 2006’s Taking the Long Way. But the differences between that tour and this one, not just in reception but in overall vibe and spirit, is night and day. Preceded by the rightfully angry single “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Taking the Long Way was the record with which the Chicks finalized their bitter divorce from mainstream country radio and for all intents and purposes the conservative-leaning genre as a whole. At that point, there was not much love left to lose on either side; the album may have scooped up another armful of Grammys for the Chicks, but ticket sales took a significant hit and the prevailing mood of that 2006 tour — both from the band and the remaining cadre of loyal fans who circled their wagons in a sort of us-against-the-world protective solidarity — was defiant but somber. By marked contrast, this year’s model plays like a far more joyous and celebratory affair: A “comeback,” sure, but just as importantly, one that never feels like a mea culpa retreat or pretend-nothing-ever-happened nostalgia trip.
To wit, after a pair of strong warm-up sets by Nashville duo Smooth Hound Smith (think Shovels and Rope with more than a hint of Buckingham/Nicks) and the wildly energetic Los Angeles retro-soul combo Vintage Trouble (admittedly terrific, though this writer is a tad jealous of the earlier tour stops that got England’s The Heavy on the bill), the Dixie Chicks opened not with a throwback to their reign as America’s country music sweethearts, but rather with Taking the Long Way’s “The Long Way Around.” If any song in the band’s cannon released after the infamous “incident” ever deserved a bygones pass and a fair shot at the top of the pop and country charts, it’s this flat-out exhilarating survivor’s anthem of “six strong hands on a steering wheel” perseverance and purpose; it’s far and away the best song the Chicks themselves have ever written, followed closely by the same album’s gorgeous “Easy Silence,” which came up in the set a couple of songs later. In between those two high water marks were a breakneck, ornery “Lubbock or Leave It,” Natalie’s sneering love/hate letter to her ultra-conservative West Texas hometown, and the always potent “Truth No. 2” — the first of the evening’s three Patty Griffin songs.
After going four-for-four right out of the gate, the Chicks laid their lone foul egg of the evening by jumping all the way back to 1999’s Fly for the worst single of their career: the skonking, inexplicable Top 10 hit “Some Days You Gotta Dance.” It went over like gangbusters just the same, though, no doubt cheered for loudest by those in the crowd who likely would have been happy to hear an entire set packed with nothing but childhood and early 20s favorites from Fly and the band’s 1998 major-label debut, Wide Open Spaces. They got another blast from that past a few songs later with the far superior “Goodbye Earle,” which closed out the first half of the set in rousing fashion after two throwbacks to 2002’s impeccable Home (the acoustic firestorm of “Long Time Gone” and Patty Griffin’s staggering “Top of the World”) and the first of two standout new covers that have proven to be amongst the tour’s biggest buzz moments: a tribute to Prince via “Nothing Compares 2 U,” sung by Maines with wrenching pathos to spare against a purple screen emblazoned with the late Artist’s signature glyph.
The giant screen at the back of the stage was used to great effect all night long, with unique and frequently mesmerizing — and sometimes amusing — videos and graphics projected for every song in the set (save for the five song “unplugged” segment that came in the middle, during which the Chicks and the rest of the band took seats at the front of the stage in front of a white backdrop). Compared to the elaborate “in the round” stage design for their 2003 Top of the World indoor arena tour, the amphitheater set up for MMXVI is spare but strikingly classy, especially the stunning all-white instruments (including Lloyd’s pedal steel.) It wasn’t all highbrow, though: The montage of unsavory mugshots projected behind “Goodbye Earle” included a devil-horned Donald Trump, and during the short intermission that preceded the unplugged set, the screen showed a Mad Max-style video of Maines, Strayer and Maguire getting post-Apocalypse medieval on each other over a fun and frenzied bluegrass instrumental cover (their own, presumably) of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades.”
Opening with Bruce Robison’s always devastatingly effective “Travelin’ Soldier” and closing with another new bluegrass instrumental (performed by Strayer and Maguire alone and featuring a snippet of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”), the acoustic middle set also featured the Home stomper “White Trash Wedding,” the evening’s “third and final Patty Griffin song” (“Don’t Let Me Die in Florida,” plucked off of the songwriter’s 2013 album American Kid), and perhaps the tour’s other most talked about song to date, a smashing cover of “Daddy Lessons” off of fellow Texan Beyonce’s still relatively brand new Lemonade, which Maines deemed “the best album of the year.” The Chicks worked their cover up and into the set within days after the album’s release in late April, and it now fits them so well that it’s hard to imagine them never getting around to recording it; thanks to clips already circulating on YouTube, the crowd certainly seemed to know it was coming and greeted it like an old favorite. The only surprise, really, was that Maines’ own daddy Lloyd sat that one out (along with the rest of the acoustic set.)
Lloyd was very much back in the mix in time for the homestretch, though, beginning with the Fly smash “Ready to Run” (accompanied by an election-year-themed parade of clowned-up caricatures of just about all the candidates, be they already vanquished or still in the hunt, from both major parties on the big screen — along with cannon blasts of red, white and blue confetti that the Austin360 staff will probably still be sweeping up a week later.) A cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi” — as first heard way back on the Top of the World Tour — gave the whole band (guitarists and keyboard player in particular) ample room to jam with conviction, even if the difficult chorus maybe got the better of Natalie a couple of times (hey, you try nailing that one). She thrashed her way through it with admirable punk verve, though, and recovered in peak form in time for their far more familiar cover of Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide,” “Cowboy Take Me Away,” and of course “Wide Open Spaces.” Not that she even had to sing a note of any of those herself, what with a blissed-out choir of thousands matching her word for word.
After the aforementioned set-closing “Sin Wagon” and a short break, the crowd proved just as up to the task of singing along to every line of the encore’s “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Given the amount of people in attendance, there may well have been at least a few stubborn representatives of the “Shut Up and Sing” party still sprinkled throughout the amphitheater, but judging by the palpable pride and swelling emotion shared by the majority of fans when the song hit its climax with that line (you know the one), it was clear which side of the divide was doing the shutting up on this night. And yet, anyone who might have been counting on or even hoping for Natalie to gloat, even just a teeny bit, had to end up going home a tad disappointed, because apart from taking a few moments here and there to introduce the band, shine the spotlight on her father (“Praise the Lloyd!”) or gush about Beyonce and Patty, she really didn’t do much talking at all. “Not Ready to Make Nice” was served up without so much as a word of commentary — at least not until it was over.
“We can’t leave y’all angry,” Maines offered with a shake of her head — almost an apology of sorts that, judging from the ecstatic standing ovation reaching clear back to the lawn seats, was entirely uncalled for. “There’s way too much hatred and anger going on in the world right now. So we want to leave you on a positive note. Because I believe we can change the energy out there in the universe with a little positivity …”
Behind and all around her and the rest of the band, the stage began to fill up with enough kids to fill a school bus. Not just the Dixie Chicks’ own kids (nine in all), but with nieces and nephews and other bandmember kids and grandkids, too. Some had guitars or tambourines in tow, others just that deer-in-headlights look you’d expect from any grade-school-aged kid looking out at a crowd of 15,000 people looking back at them while holding a constellation of glowing smart phones.
“We’re gonna do this Ben Harper song and try to put some good vibes out there,” Maines continued. “We gotta do it for all these little kids up here to have a future in this world. There’s gonna come a time in this song where I’m gonna ask you to help us chant ‘Better Way’ at the top of your lungs. Can you do that?”
She certainly didn’t have to ask twice.
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 Earle
Set change w/ “Ace of Spades” instrumental
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. I’m Not Ready to Make Nice
22. Better Way