Saturday, 30 April 2016

Dixie Chicks - Barclaycard Arena, Birmingham. Friday 29th April 2016

“No smiling during this song” expressed Natalie. However there was a slight grin detected during the line ‘I kinda like it’ as the defiant Dixie Chicks anthem ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ reverberated around the Birmingham NIA (even the ticket hasn’t quite let go of the original name). This defining track of the Dixie Chicks transitional period had its rightful place at the start of the encore. It signalled the end was approaching on the first date of the first proper UK tour in thirteen years and the packed arena was left in little doubt that this was Dixie Chicks circa 2016. The most important aspect had to be that the girls were back in full pomp and glory, splashing out on a lavish show and filling the air with a deluge of much loved songs.

Half hour into the show, you couldn’t help but feel that you were witnessing the unfinished business from 2006’s Accidents and Accusations Tour. While that set of dates did visit London for the ‘return to the scene of the crime’, the anticipated UK provincial roll out didn’t materialise and that was the Dixie Chicks done, or so we began to think. There is still little hint of the band heading back into the studio, but the massive announcement of ‘MMXVI World Tour’ re-awoke the phenomenon that is the Dixie Chicks. 2016 was also straight out of the 2006 sound base, with a five piece touring band heavily leaning in the rock direction selected to back Natalie, Emily and Martie. Four of the first six songs were lifted from the Rick Rubin produced album TAKING THE LONG WAY, headed by ‘The Long Way Around’ before launching into Natalie’s guitar riff assault on her home town in ‘Lubbock or Leave It’.

As soon as the opening strobe lighting and highly visual stage show had settled down, the hugely creative and spectacular background video show kicked in playing a significant part in the band getting over their messages and inspirations. This included a lyric video for ‘Easy Silence’ and a montage of domestic abuse headlines accompanying ‘Goodbye Earl’. Yes, he was killed for the umpteenth time, the band continue to show no remorse and the crowd sing along to every word. This conclusion of this classic brought a small scene changing break and a few moments to reflect on the first segment of the show. In light of a recent seismic event, especially in American music circles, a Prince cover was included and Natalie strained every ounce of her vocal talent to belt out a version of ‘Nothing Compares to You’. The other key observation from this part of the show was the reworking of ‘Long Time Gone’, answering questions in how they were going to reflect their country heritage.

It was clear from the start that the band set up was very much in the rock camp complete with piano, keys, drums, guitars and notably a lack of pedal steel. Of course this does not detract from Martie’s fiddle playing which was given plenty of opportunities to blossom over the two hours and Emily switching between banjo, lap steel and occasionally Dobro. Following a swift scene change, the stage was condensed to focus on the more roots material with Natalie leading off this section of the show with a glorious acoustic version of ‘Travelin’ Soldier’, not that any other version would do this fantastic song any justice. By now the band had joined the girls at the front of the partitioned stage and they all contributed fantastically on ‘White Trash Wedding’, with even the mandolin making an appearance. Following band introductions and subsequent temporary departures, we were left with the trio improvising on a bluegrass influenced instrumental medley of a couple of popular non-country contemporary songs.

One long term feature of the Dixie Chicks is their total admiration for Patty Griffin. Two of her songs featured on the multi-million selling album HOME and duly ‘Truth #2’ and ‘Top of the World’ found their rightful place in this evening’s set list. A third Patty Griffin song featured during the show’s intimate section when the band covered ‘Don’t Let Me Die in Florida’. Natalie introduced it as a new song for the Dixie Chicks, although it appeared on Patty’s 2013 album AMERICAN KID. Perhaps this suggestion of a new song did give a glimpse of hope that the band recording hiatus may end at some point. While on the subject of covers, there was the usual superb version of Dylan’s ‘Mississippi’. Usual, in the fact that it has appeared in the set list of the band’s sporadic shows over the last decade including their appearance in London at Country to Country in 2014. Before we end on covers, Ben Harper’s ‘Better Way’ was a suitable closer for the Dixie Chicks 2016, containing an important message and reflecting the musicians who Natalie has worked with since the now distant country music industry divorce.

For many folks, on this triumphant return, the thrill was in hearing and singing along to so many old Dixie Chicks favourites in the final part of the show. ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’, another song a little different minus pedal steel, soared around the arena with gusto and the audience played their part perfectly for the orchestrated unaccompanied chorus piece of the coming of age anthem ‘Wide Open Spaces’. Natalie still possesses all the old sass when pouring her heart and soul into ‘Sin Wagon’ and the Dixie Chicks version of ‘Landslide’ does this Stevie Nicks song complete justice. The final section commenced with a red, white and blue ticker tape shower filling the front of the arena as ‘Ready to Run’ was bashed out with an accompanying large screen video displaying a parody of the American political system. This was the sole reference to politics all evening with Natalie keeping the chat to a minimum generally.

This was an evening that few thought we would ever see again and for two hours the Dixie Chicks showed a Birmingham audience, thirteen years since last playing the city, that they are still a force to be reckoned with. Upon hearing ‘Goodbye Earl’ for the first time many years ago, the hook was complete and they still remain my favourite American band to date. The promise to return was made by Natalie and everybody present should hold her to that. The thorny subject of new material will need to be addressed at some point if this is to be materialised, and you get a general feel of the direction that it will head. The country influence will never wane, Emily and Martie will see to that, but Natalie is such an inquisitive and explorative artist that she should be trusted to freely wander. Her solo album of a couple of years back MOTHER showed what she can do and hopefully she will make her professional life more prolific from a recording perspective.

The Dixie Chicks flame has flickered, dimmed a little and nearly been extinguished but now in 2016, it’s approaching oxygen fuelled status and ready to burn brightly again. They are such a special act and sharing their music with a wide audience will thrill many adoring fans. Tonight at Birmingham’s Barclaycard Arena, the re-emergence was complete and anticipation grows for what next? 

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