Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
August 6, 2016
It’s hard to imagine how the Dixie Chicks could have made a better choice of color scheme for their DCXMMXVI tour than simple black and white. It’s almost as if they’re saying if the public’s image of the trio is going to be fixed in such stark terms — heroes or traitors, with precious little middle ground — they might as well have fun with it. Hence the neon pink accents here and there: Natalie Maines’ suspenders, Emily Strayer’s guitar strap, the patches woven into Martie Maguire’s tunic. Pink could never be an angry color.
The Chicks used to regularly play Houston venues like the Mucky Duck back in the day, but hadn’t done so in this area since at least after Fly came out more than 15 years ago. Maines’ anti-Bush comments in 2003 and the Chicks’ subsequent disappearance from country radio, then their Grammy sweep following 2006’s Taking the Long Way (whose tour came nowhere near Texas), and their retreat from the public eye was all so much water under the bridge for this crowd, which sold out the Pavilion within minutes after tickets went on sale late last year.
Probably 20,000 strong, many there Saturday were probably not even alive the last time the band played in town. But they welcomed the Chicks back with gusto, screaming often, singing along to most of the set and lighting up social media with the #DCXHouston hashtag. The people in my section did not even sit down until “Top of the World,” eight songs in. They didn’t stay seated long.
The band responded in kind, lead singer Natalie Maines saying they were glad to be back with the appropriate amount of humorous Dallas-baiting; she even went on to ask the crowd’s opinions of Austin, Waco, Lubbock and Amarillo (all favorable), just to be sure. But the laughs were few compared with the cheers spanning the 21-song, 130-minute set. Much credit is due to the Chicks’ excellent five-piece backing band, including steel guitarist and Natalie’s father Lloyd Maines, a Texas music legend in his own right; Glenn Fukunaga, the longtime Joe Ely bassist who also appears on the Chicks Home LP; and Keith Sewell, whose other main touring gig is with Lyle Lovett. But let’s not kid ourselves: Natalie, Emily, and Martie were the indisputable stars of the evening, instrumentally, vocally, and in their animated superhero alter egos.
The Chicks’ divorce from country music appears final, and so the show’s opening was all rock and roll, the resolute “The Long Way Around” surging into “Lubbock or Leave It,” a song about breaking with the past with the relentless pace of Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” All night long, the songs were given added depth and context by the animation on the video screen. If these often-brilliant mini-films were any kind of window into the Chicks’ collective character (and let’s just assume that they were), they revealed an abiding love of nature and travel, nocturnal highways and cityscapes, and a passion for subverting traditionally male-dominated milieus, best seen in the set-change interlude of a Sin City-style drag race over an instrumental version of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades.”
Backing Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi” (telltale lyric: “you can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way”) were films of rodeos and Depression-era stock-car races, perhaps equating the music business with other contact sports. The only times the animation really worked against the Chicks were during “Ready to Run,” featuring a carnivalesque shooting gallery of Campaign 2016’s presidential candidates complete with clown wigs and noses, plus a confetti cannon; and “Goodbye Earl,” which alternated footage of gangsters and other heels with tornadoes and tabloid clippings of O.J., Robert Durst and similar modern villains. (The much-discussed “Devil-horns Trump” popped up for all of a split-second; it’s amazing anyone was even able to get that on film.) Entertaining, absolutely, but there was so much to look at it almost pushed the band into the background, even on two of the Chicks’ most recognizable and beloved hits.
But those were the exceptions. A better example would be Taking the Long Way’s “Easy Silence,” which superimposed fraught lyrics like “children lose their youth too soon, watching war made us immune” on images of serene-looking mountain lakes, an effect that really drove home the message of taking refuge in loved ones. Other songs required little video enhancement at all and instead reveled in the musicians’ interplay: “Some Days You Gotta Dance” slipped some real honky-tonk into the set; “Long Time Gone” made a gleefully old-fashioned hoedown; while “Truth No. 2,” “Top of the World” and “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida” — the latter performed during the middle “busking” section — all proved once again why Patty Griffin is the Chicks’ greatest muse.
Although now, Prince comes close. At this point almost every major act currently on the road has worked some sort of tribute to the late purple-clad icon into their set, but the Chicks (who also jolted the crowd with “Let’s Go Crazy” on the PA before coming onstage) set a new standard with their passionate version of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Considering the song’s association with a certain other controversial female performer, it made an especially inspired choice. Should they decide to release it as a single, they could have another huge hit on their hands — unless they decide to release their foot-stomping version of Beyonce’s “Daddy Lessons” (another “busker”) instead.
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The finale was an escalating succession of the Chicks’ biggest singalongs — “Landslide,” “Cowboy Take Me Away,” “Wide Open Spaces,” “Sin Wagon” and its brilliant flip of “I’ll Fly Away.” The crowd, amazingly, was not already hoarse. It felt cathartic and communal, and so did the encore, “Not Ready to Make Nice” and Ben Harper’s “Better Way.” The Chicks must have felt vindicated that a part of the country that once effectively turned its back on them was back screaming itself silly. But not for a minute did Saturday feel like they are using this tour to say “I told you so.” It’s about using music to release a bunch of positive energy into a world that could really use it right now. And thanks to everything they’ve been through, there may not be another act better equipped to do that than the Dixie Chicks. They know the high stakes.
Taking the Long Way
Lubbock Or Leave It
Truth No. 2
Some Days You Gotta Dance
Long Time Gone
Nothing Compares 2 U
Top of the World
[set change/"Ace of Spades"]
Don’t Let Me Die In Florida
White Trash Wedding
[set change/bluegrass instrumental]
Ready to Run
Cowboy Take Me Away
Wide Open Spaces
Not Ready to Make Nice