Music

After 25 tumultuous years, Dixie Chicks remain at the top of their game

FasterLouder’s JULES LEFEVRE witnessed the Dixie Chicks’ long-awaited return to Sydney last night. Here’s what went down. 

For a lot of bands, their story and personal mythology doesn’t have that much bearing on how they’re publicly perceived. Or at least, it doesn’t often precede them. It might be funnelled into their music, of course, but it’s rare that their narrative becomes as important – or as inextricably tied to – their musical output.

For the Dixie Chicks though, their personal journey has been so explosive that it’s impossible to hear them, or watch them perform, without seeing and remembering all that came before.

Even the fact the trio is here is somewhat of a feat, for 14 years ago nearly to the day, they nearly blew apart their career.

On March 10, 2003, the Dixie Chicks were on stage at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire. They were in the middle of their set, taking a pause between songs to tune instruments, having just played their current chart topping single, ‘Travelin’ Solider’, when singer Natalie Maines spoke:

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“Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

What happened next is well-documented. They were boycotted and blacklisted all over the U.S., their music thrown in bins and burned. They went from being one of the most successful country groups in history, to hated outcasts of the mighty country music scene. If you haven’t seen the excellent 2006 documentary Shut Up And Sing about their ordeal, you need to – it remains one of the best music documentaries ever made.

Their returned from years in exile to make Taking The Long Way, their stunning Grammy Award-winning album which spawned the mega hit ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’. The record was massively successful, but soon after its release the Chicks hung up their guitars, and wouldn’t tour again properly for ten years.

“Dixie Chicks’ personal journey has been so explosive that it’s impossible to hear them, or watch them perform, without seeing and remembering all that came before.”

Turns out, a decade hadn’t dulled their senses. The trio – made up of sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, along with vocalist Natalie Maines – are formidable musicians with an impressive stage presence, and after a year of hard touring there’s nothing even close to a wrong note hit. They’re a finely tuned machine, evident from the opening wide-armed strums of ‘The Long Way Round’ to the ball-busting grit of ‘Lubbock Or Leave It’ and ‘Truth No. 2’.

Away from the beefy drums and vicious curls of slide guitar of the uptempo openers, their gentler tracks – like the cresting ‘Easy Silence’ or heart-cracking ‘Travelin’ Solider’ – make space for Maines’ incredible vocal performance. After 25 years of performing you would easily forgive a little vocal tiredness, but it’s not necessary – her ability to backflip along registers and change notes and dynamics with the speed of a whip crack is as sharp as ever.

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They still aren’t afraid to push buttons either. Crowd favourite ‘Goodbye Earl’ – a song about a woman murdering her abusive husband – was delivered against a backdrop of famous criminal cases, such as news clippings of the O.J Simpson trial, and Chris Brown’s mugshot next to Rihanna’s battered face.

They’re also not ones to stay solely in their country lane. Throwing in a cover of Prince’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, felt completely natural, as did their controversial Beyonce cover ‘Daddy Lessons’. After all these years though, ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ remains the biggest moment of their set.

“We don’t wanna leave you angry,” Maines said after the last note rang out. So a cover of Ben Harper’s ‘Better Way’, with a bulldozing drum interlude, closed out the night instead.

Let’s hope it’s not another ten years before we hear them again.

Jules LeFevre is a writer for FasterLouder and inthemix. She tweets at @jules_lefevre

Photo credits: Lachlan Douglas/Supplied