Let’s get this out of the way up front: The Dixie Chicks were right about George W. Bush. When Natalie Maines told a London audience in 2006 that the Chicks were ashamed of Bush, the band took a whole ration of crap. Her comment was pretty mild compared with what has been said about President Obama by some of the same people who blasted the Chicks. Apparently speaking ill of the President is only a sin when the chief executive is a white Republican. (And if you think this is old news, read the comments on any recent article about the Dixie Chicks.)
The London incident derailed the Dixie Chicks’ career for a while, but they are touring again after a 10-year hiatus, and we went to see them this weekend at the White River Amphitheater in Auburn, a suburb south of Seattle.
The amphitheater is served by a single two-lane road and known for its traffic jams, so we opted for the shuttle buses that run from an outlet mall near our hotel. The shuttles turned out to be school buses and not all that comfortable, but they got us to the venue in good time.
We found our seats and then went to get some food, which was a disaster. The lines were not that long, but the operation was the most disorganized I have ever seen. It took us 45 minutes to get something to eat. Robin’s sandwich took so long that they gave her her money back. It turned out that the food booths were being staff by volunteers, mostly high-school kids. For what we paid for the concert, you would think they could have professional staffing.
The opening act was somebody named Josh Herbert. I can’t tell you if he was any good because we missed the whole set waiting for our food. The second act was a band led by a guy who calls himself Anderson East. (Is there an Anderson West?) It’s one of the those bands that figures if you can’t be good, be loud. He seemed unhappy with the crowd response and kept asking if everyone was having a good time. I wasn’t.
That changed when the Dixie Chicks came out. They opened with “Taking the Long Way Round,” from their 2006 post-London album, and brought the house down. The show was tremendous, with all sorts of lights and with video playing on a giant screen behind the band. Some of the video was as entertaining as the music. “Goodbye Earl,” for example, was illustrated with old photographs, movie clips, and news headlines. A couple of songs had striking black-and-white abstract images.
Politics was kept to a minimum, though Donald Trump did show up in the “Goodbye Earl” montage with added horns and a goatee, and “Ready to Run” featured an array of dancing presidential candidates with clown noses. Red confetti rained down on the audience halfway through the song.
The crowd was overwhelming female — we estimated it at 75% — and middle aged, but there were a lot of young women too, and they seemed to know all the words to the songs. Unfortunately, they insisted on standing throughout the concert, which put something of a burden on us older folks. The young women in front of us kept standing even when the Chicks themselves sat down to play “Traveling Soldier” and a couple of other songs, including “Daddy Lessons” from Beyonce’s new “Lemonade” album.
The Chicks also sang Prince’s “Nothing Compares to U,” in tribute to the recently deceased singer. Given Natalie Maines’ roots — her father is Lloyd Maines, an icon of Texas alt-country — I would like to have had a song in tribute to another recently deceased musical icon, Guy Clark, but no such luck.
The Dixie Chicks are really a pop rock band now, with little of the country sound that they started with. But at one point, Maines announced that they were going to do a bluegrass instrumental that would show off the talents of the other two Chicks, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, who are virtuosos on the fiddle and banjo respectively. Unfortunately, Maines joined in, banging on a drum that kind of overwhelmed the other instruments. No drums in bluegrass, ladies.
On many songs, in fact, the instruments were so loud that it was hard to make out the words. That seems to be the standard these days, and maybe it doesn’t bother most people because they know all the words. With no new album to flog, the Chicks were able to play most of their big hits. Besides those already mentioned, other highlights included “Long Time Gone,” “Wide Open Spaces,” and “Not Ready to Make Nice” (the first encore).
Because the band is from Texas, I thought they might make some comment about recent events in Dallas, but Maines made only an oblique reference in her introduction to the final song, “Better Way,” by Ben Harper. She noted that a lot of terrible things were happening in the world and asked the audience to join in on the song’s refrain “I believe in a better way.”
The verdict: The Dixie Chicks were stupendous. Go see them if you can. With luck, you’ll have a better-run venue than the White River Amphitheater.