With Vintage Trouble and Smooth Hound Sound
Gexa Energy Pavilion, Dallas
Friday, August 5, 2016
Girls everywhere, Friday night at Gexa Energy Pavilion. Old girls, young girls, middle-aged girls; girls in gangs of twos and threes and fours and fives; lots of girls in cutoff jeans and cowboy boots; and even a few girls with male companions, though these were outnumbered by about nine-to-one. All the men’s restrooms were converted to women’s, save one in a far corner; in other words, members of the majority gender got a glimpse of something they never see otherwise: Wall urinals.
They also got a rare chance to hear and see a live performance by the Dixie Chicks. The Chicks, officially the most popular and successful all-female ensemble in the history of country music or, for that matter, all human history, were back in what can reasonably be called their hometown for the first time since 2003. Back then, they performed a successful concert at American Airlines Center while battling one of the biggest controversies of the early 2000s, with a death threat aimed at lead vocalist Natalie Maines as part of the mix. Of course, back then, folks mostly talked about the disputed presidential election of 2000, the attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the War in Iraq and the Dixie Chicks.
This time around, unlike the 2003 concert, there were no angry picketers and no death threats. (At least none announced to the public, though security was reasonably tight, including entry searches, the barring of press photographers, and not allowing enthusiastic followers to rush the stage at the end of the concert.) The Chicks, at least two of whom once upon a time set up shop on the sidewalks of downtown Dallas to busk, nowadays won’t even talk to reporters, except for The New York Times.
The show itself owned the almost guaranteed success that comes with making people pay $50 for a spot on the lawn or up to several hundred dollars for covered seating: anyone who pays that much is obviously obligated to enjoy the performance.
That said, the Dixie Chicks clearly demonstrated at least some elements of the musical genius and artistic energy that brought them to the apex of country music in the early 2000s. Longtime masters of the artfully arranged set list, they dove in at 9 p.m. (when the temperature at Gexa had cooled to a chilly 91 degrees) with a fairly low-key version of the 2006 (post-controversy) hit “The Long Way Around.” Maines, whose intensity carried the show, started sweating — and making a genuine connection — with Patty Griffin’s “Truth No. 2,” and, finally putting down her outsized guitar, cut loose with “Some Days You Gotta Dance.”
Visuals were, as at any arena show, vital; as usual, the Chicks managed to come up with some original takes and subtlety for the attentive observer in the midst of the overwhelming digital blitz. A purple rain backdrop was pretty obvious for a brief Prince tribute, in which, in true Dixie Chicks fashion, they made “Nothing Compares 2 U” their own. The visuals for old fave “Goodbye Earl,” with its almost operatic narrative of abuse and deadly revenge, combined vintage clips of romance and violence from old black-and-white movies as well as headlines from crime tabloids (including references to O.J. Simpson), creepy antique mugshots and a quick clip of Donald Trump in the montage of criminal bad guys.
The classic and quiet anti-war ballad “Travelin’ Soldier” lost most of its depth in the arena format, but still had at least part of its magic intact; “Long Time Gone” took on a revised hard rock percussiveness that worked beautifully in the format.
A strategically placed bluegrass celebration segued magically into one of the cleverest bits of glitzy showbiz in the evening, a transformation of “Ready to Run” — originally a defiant and humorous plaint of a woman who refuses to marry — into a combination satire-celebration of the presidential election, complete with confetti drop, for a brilliant spoof of the obligatory patriotic finale of mainstream country arena shows. (The flashed images of Bernie Sanders drew the loudest cheers, and the images of Trump the most boos; in the end, the visuals featured alternating “Drumpf” and “Ready for Hillary” icons, for those keeping score.)
From there, the show eased into the Chicks’ greatest hits, which the performers seemed to enjoy almost as much as the hypnotized audience. Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide,” which the Chicks transformed from a pretty good song into a masterpiece in 2002, was magnificent, even when blasted into the arena format; and the audience was clearly and predictably enraptured with three final songs from the pinnacle of late-’90s to early-2000s Chicks: “Cowboy, Take Me Away,” “Wide Open Spaces” and “Sin Wagon.” Though occasionally lapsing into conventional visual effects, here, at times, the Chicks were backed up by images that emphasized their ability to make the personal universal and the universal personal.
The audience roared for about five minutes after the lights went down on “Sin Wagon”; anyone who had read the playlist in advance — or who has ever been to an arena show — knew they would be back for encores. First came the almost revolutionary “Not Ready to Make Nice,” followed by Ben Harper’s “Better Way” — not a particularly great song, but an appropriate philosophical statement for this crowd and this trio. The two warmup acts as well as a troupe of Dixie Chick offspring joined onstage for the sort of communal love fest audiences pay $300 or more to join.
Before the Chicks came on, the warmup groups had done their best to get a little attention and entertain an audience busy finding its seats and grabbing a final pre-concert beer or snack. Male-female “Americana” duo Smooth Hound Smith recalled the early days of the Dixie Chicks in terms of energy, innovation and retro repertoire, but with not quite the same level of subtlety. Rhythm-and-blues band Vintage Trouble, however, has real potential to break into the top ranks; vocalist Ty Taylor combined a beautiful, wide-ranging voice with charisma and great musical material.