With dusk falling, maybe it was fitting that storm clouds gathered over the outdoor concert venue where the Dixie Chicks had come to perform last weekend.
A few miles north of Portland, fans scattered across a sloping lawn bundled up in ponchos, rain jackets, blankets and tarps while light rain fell during two forgettable warm-up acts.
Days earlier, America seemed ready to burst at the seams, ripped apart by the newest spasms of gun violence in three states. Two African American men were shot to death by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Five white police officers were gunned down by a black sniper in Texas, evidently seeking revenge for the civilian deaths.
Even though I’d waited years to see the Dixie Chicks live, I couldn’t help but view the weather as a metaphor for the national mood and my own.
(Aside from dark emotions unleashed by the shootings, I also was thinking of the older of our two dogs, who was spending the night in an animal hospital because of worsening symptoms associated with congestive heart failure.)
It wasn’t lost on me that all three of the Dixie Chicks were born or raised in Texas and that the band had gotten its start in Dallas, site of the mass cop killings. I wondered, would they address the ugliness?
Some two hours later, after a setlist of 20-plus songs, I had my answer.
From the opening notes of “The Long Way Around,” the mood changed in an instant. Thousands of people leaped to their feet and stayed there all night long — dancing, singing along, taking selfies and shooting videos. In the covered seats under a pavilion, the scene was much the same.
Saturday’s concert was at the Sunlight Supply Amphitheater in Ridgefield, Washington, and comes as part of the band’s first tour in a decade, dubbed DCX MMXVI.
The Dixie Chicks rocketed to fame in the late ’90s on the strength of “Wide Open Spaces” and “Fly,” but hadn’t released anything since 2006, when they won five Grammys, including Album of the Year for “Taking the Long Way.”
Lead singer Natalie Maines released a solo album in 2013, and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison (now Strayer) had teamed up to do the same in 2010. Neither, as far as I’m aware, found great commercial success.
Seeing the band reunited, three moms in their 40s with nine children among them, was worth the wait. There’s no question that Maines, a blonde spitfire, is the heart and soul of the band. Though Maguire (on fiddle) and Strayer (on banjo, mandolin, dobro and bass) are superb musicians and fine backup singers, it’s Maines that exudes a commanding presence and Maines who speaks for the band.
It was she who criticized President George W. Bush during a concert just days before the Iraq War began in 2003, drawing the wrath of many country music fans and performers. And it was she who led the pushback after her comments led to boycotts and cut into record sales.
On Saturday night, as the rain dissipated, it was Maines who bantered with the audience, who introduced the musicians in their backing band, who set the tone for the evening. .
And what a concert it was. If you think of the Dixie Chicks as a twangy, country-western band, think again. They hop back and forth across genres, from country to bluegrass to rock, performing ballads, foot-stomping numbers and covering songs by Patty Griffin (“Truth #2”), Stevie Nicks (“Landslide”), Bob Dylan (“Mississippi”) — even Prince (“Nothing Compares 2 U”) and Beyonce (“Daddy Stories”).
They performed all the crowdpleasers you would expect — “Goodbye Earl,” “Sin Wagon,” “White Trash Wedding,” “Cowboy, Take Me Away” and “Wide Open Spaces.”
And they didn’t hold back on their feminist politics.
During one song, a backing video showed caricatures of all the presidential candidates. During “Goodbye Earl,” the screen showed photos of O.J. Simpson, Chris Brown and other abusive men and also included an image of Donald Trump with drawn-on devil’s horns. And when it came time for the encore, Maines at last referenced the mayhem that weighed on my mind.
I can’t recall her exact words but they were something to the effect of urging everyone to get past the crazy shit that has us warring with each other instead of coming together as a nation. And with that, the Dixie Chicks ended the night with a rousing version of Ben Harper’s “Better Day.”
Before the concert, I marveled at the variety of people streaming into the venue. For sure, there were big hats, belt buckles and blue jeans on many of the guys, and cowboy hats, cowboy boots and long dresses on many of the women. But there were lots of gays and lesbians, too, as well as mothers and daughters, teenagers and senior citizens.
Somewhere between the Chicks’ speaking out against President Bush and their Grammy-winning CD — somewhere en route to becoming the biggest-selling female band of all time in the United States — “the band’s fan base apparently had shifted away from the red and toward the blue,” one writer noted.
I would agree.
When Natalie, Emily and Martie left the stage just before 11 p.m., I don’t think anyone left without having had their spirits lifted. Nothing like a talented trio of women to bring light to darkness through the gift of music.
Interested in more? Check out these two pieces:
“Dixie Chicks take the stage again on their own terms,” Erie News-Times.
“What it’s like seeing the still-political Dixie Chicks in the U.S. and Europe,” The Washington Post.