It’s hard to believe that a full decade has passed since Natalie Maines offhandedly remarked to a London audience that she was ashamed George W. Bush was from Texas. In one of the craziest knee-jerk reactions since John Lennon opined that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, many American fans as well as the American mainstream country scene turned their backs on the Dixie Chicks, who were by 2003 one of the biggest selling country groups in history. Everyone knows the story, how Maines and sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire stood their ground, recorded a Rick Rubin-produced album that was embraced by pop music listeners, and were fully vindicated when that record won Album of the Year at the 2007 Grammys.
Since then, though, after that remarkable success, things have been quiet for the Dixie Chicks in recent years. All three have embraced motherhood. Maines has pursued her own causes such as the campaign to free the West Memphis Three, and after expressing disinterest in current mainstream country music, released her rock-oriented solo debut Mother earlier this year. Robison and Maguire continued making music without Maines, forming Court Yard Hounds and putting out a pair of likeable, understated country-folk albums. Although they’ve played the odd show in recent years, it wasn’t until this summer when they were asked to fill in for Lady Antebellum at several Canadian festivals, that the itch to bring the Dixie Chicks back in full gear returned.
That the trio decided to kick off their Long Time Gone reunion tour north of the border was no real surprise. Not only were Canadian audiences quick to embrace the breakthrough album Wide Open Spaces, but their country fanbase didn’t abandon them when Conservative America did. While 2006’s Taking the Long Way went double platinum in America, it fared even better per capita in Canada, going quadruple platinum. In a recent interview with the Vancouver Sun, Robison admitted she and her bandmates regard Canada as a “safe haven”, a place where their music is embraced for what it is, rather than being mistakenly perceived as overtly political. And the love affair between the Chicks and the Great White North was on full display in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, as more than 11,000 enthusiastic people braved the raging snowstorm outside to pack the Credit Union Centre hockey arena.
From the moment Maines, Maguire, and Robison and their five-piece backing band strode onstage after a playful overture of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, it was clear that everyone was relishing the simple, back-to-basics concept of this new tour. The open, streamlined stage was simply set up: a pair of modest risers, an understated backdrop, no more lighting than there had to be, and a pair of video screens. Unlike most mainstream country acts today, there was no gimmickry to speak of; no confetti cannons, no costume changes. It was all about the music, and the ladies, clearly looking refreshed and happy to be back on the road together, reeled off 22 songs over the course of two satisfying hours.
Some critics have already been griping that the Dixie Chicks’ idea to create a chronological setlist takes away from the kind of crescendo that happens when you build up to the crowd-pleasing hits, but the pacing of the show was a wonderful way to showcase the group’s graceful metamorphosis from mainstream country upstarts, to playfully audacious mavericks, to a full-fledged crossover success. Kicking off with a hard-edged rendition of Wide Open Spaces opener “I Can Love You Better”, which hadn’t been performed since 1999, and followed immediately by the title track, the trio and band sounded impeccable, the ladies’ trademark three-part harmonies sumptuous. Maines, whose Miley-style faux-hawk looked anything but country, nevertheless sounded every bit the country vocal powerhouse she’s always been on “Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way)”, while Maguire’s plaintive fiddle accentuated the tender ballad “You Were Mine”.
The selections from the vibrant – and wildly popular – 1999 album Fly were greeted with great enthusiasm: “Ready to Run” was ebullient, “Cowboy Take Me Away” got the lighters and iPhone flashes out, “Sin Wagon” was joyfully saucy and raucous, and everyone’s favorite feminist murder ballad, “Goodbye Earl”, got the predominantly female audience dancing and singing along. 2002’s more down-home, devoutly country-oriented Home was represented by a gorgeous selection of songs, from the breezy “Long Time Gone”, stunning covers of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and Patty Griffin’s “Truth No. 2”, and “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, which Maines dedicated to the trio’s nine children.
The fascinating dynamic of the setlist reached a climax with the material from the more sophisticated, broad-ranging Taking the Long Way, the ace backing band not missing a beat switching from understated country to a mix of adult alternative and Americana. The way the final portion worked its way to a climax was something to behold, starting with the mission statement “Long Way Around”, the melancholy one-two punch of “Silent House” and “Easy Silence”, and Maines’ defiant, autobiographical “Lubbock or Leave It” closing out the main portion of the set.
The momentum continued with a devastating reading of “Travelin’ Soldier”, the song whose famous intro in 2003 got the Dixie Chicks into so much trouble, which of course led right into the show-stopping, career-defining “Not Ready to Make Nice”, as Maines, who had ditched her high heels and gone barefoot, sang those climactic lines with power as the crowd’s ovation grew and grew: “And how in the world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge, that they’d write me a letter sayin’ that I better shut up and sing or my life will be over?”
As Robison’s soaring fiddle melody carried the song to its conclusion, that connection between the Dixie Chicks and their Canadian fans was at its most palpable, and carried right into an upbeat performance of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi”. Still sounding as vital, bold, and impeccable as ever, it was a perfect way to cap off a subtly triumphant show, one that had more than a few people hoping a new album would come around the pike sooner than later.