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By: Chris Dunbar
As darkness began to settle and the house lights went out at Walnut Creek Amphitheatre on Friday night, the crowd was greeted to the immortal words, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” This was met with waves of cheers, as it served as both a dedication to a musical icon and an indication that a band full of iconic musicians were about to take the stage. There are definite similarities between the trajectories of both Prince’s and the Dixie Chicks’ careers. Both have battled their record labels for creative control and equitable financial returns for their art. Each have had their fair share of controversy nip at their heels and attempt to dominate their narratives. Respectively they have defied genres, sold millions of records, and had their work premiere at the top of music charts. As the Dixie Chicks demonstrated to the sweat-soaked Raleigh audience, they share Prince’s sense of visual style, fashion, and his eye for talented musicians that deserve to be introduced to a large-scale audience.
The first group deserving of that broader attention was the opener for the evening, Smooth Hound Smith, from Nashville, TN. The duo of Zack Smith (guitar/harmonica/percussion/vocals) and Caitlin Doyle (percussion/vocals) did an amazing job of cutting through the heat and humidity with their folky blues sound. Being the opener for a large summer concert would be a daunting task for most bands, regardless of their size and instrumentation, but it did not seem to impact this duo’s ability to “make a lot of noise for two people.” For those of us in the world that have to concentrate while walking and chewing gum at the same time, Zack Smith is a bit of a wonder: playing guitar (not just strumming, but intricate finger-picking), kick drum, and harmonica all at the same time. On songs like “Stopgap Woman Blues” and “30 Days,” Smith unleashed a raspy growl with his vocals, and a driving attack with his guitar playing, that made everyone take notice. With that same guitar style on display for “Forever Cold,” Doyle shined, with a voice seemed built for the narrative and expressive nature of the song. As they brought their set to a close with the stark, yet powerful, “Be My Husband,” they proved that this step up to a larger-scale audience was one that they were more than ready to make.
As Smooth Hound Smith gave way to the next band, Vintage Trouble, the sound transitioned from a dirt-road blues to blues littered with rock and shiny metal. Based in L.A., Vintage Trouble takes some pages from Otis Redding, James Brown, and various hard-driving rock bands of the 50s and 60s, and combines them into their own illustrated book. But it’s not a children’s book, it’s very much a book of the grown-ass variety. The band came decked out in suits, in spite of our – 96-degree-but-“feels like”-129-degree – weather, and through sheer force of will, put on a high-energy set that seemed to raise the overall temperature a few more degrees.
Comprised of Rick Barrio Dill (bass), Richard Danielson (drums), Nalle Colt (guitar), and Ty Taylor (vocals/karate-kick splits), Vintage Trouble urged the crowd to its feet, and did what they could to keep them there. The band built a solid, seamless bridge between soul and rock-n-roll throughout their frenetic set. Colt’s fat slide guitar sound and Danielson’s driving beat on “Run Like the River,” paired with Taylor’s actual running of the stage to create a crowd wave and then cover as much ground in the audience as he could, made everyone a bit star struck. Bands do what they can to present their own atmosphere, regardless of the space in which they are performing. Vintage Trouble’s atmosphere was half bootlegger juke joint, half old-time tent revival. The more soulful tunes like “Gracefully” and “Not Alright by Me,” which highlighted Dill’s soulful low-end skills, fit right along with the frantic urgency of songs like their closer, “Blues Hand Me Down.” Vintage Trouble added more heat to the night, preparing everyone for the Dixie Chicks performance to come.
After the final chord from “Let’s Go Crazy” flowed into the transition to the main act, the columns of white lights blocking the front of the stage began to rise, revealing the three silhouetted, statuesque figures of the Dixie Chicks. As they launched into “Long Way Around,” it worked well as the initial “hello” to the frenzied Raleigh assembly that had missed the Chicks’ music and live energy. The overall color palette for the stage show (and most of the merchandise) was black and white, with everything from the mic stands, the drum riser, and most of the instruments in white, and the band either dressed in all black, or black and white. As this theme was also reflected in a giant video display dominated by those same colors, with various red and pink accents, the whole effect took on an 80s punk rock/new wave feel—rebellious, and perhaps sending the message that the night will not have any grey areas.
Martie Maguire (fiddle/mandolin/vocals), Natalie Maines (guitar/lead vocals), and Emily Robison (banjo/guitar/steel guitar/vocals) are talented musicians and songwriters with big voices, and an even bigger, beautiful stage presence. The video screen at the back of the stage featured the three performing with reckless abandon on top of speeding animate vehicles during “Lubbock or Leave It” and used their images to create kaleidoscope-like Rorschach tests in “Truth No. 2,” literally making them stars of stage and screen in a giant way. The band ran through a blistering set, capturing glimpses from their four hugely popular studio albums. “Easy Silence” gave way to “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” and “Top of the World” to “Goodbye Earl” (easily the funniest domestic violence meets comeuppance murder anthem ever) and all were met with cheers of recognition and enjoyment. The Dixie Chicks also paid homage to artists they admire, such as Patty Griffin, Beyoncé, and Bob Dylan; in another emotive tribute to Prince, they performed a stirring version of “Nothing Compares to You.” There were numerous subtle nods to others, as they dropped a few bars of Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” (their namesake) into the laid back “Long Time Gone,” and incorporated melodies from Beyoncé and the White Stripes, among others, in the mandatory “Instrumental Bluegrass Medley.”
As we know from their history, they wouldn’t be the Dixie Chicks if they didn’t demonstrate a political stance or two. One such stance came in the form of their opposition to HB2, North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom” law. Attendees of the NC shows (in Raleigh and Charlotte) were given free hats bearing the message “No Hate in Our State.” Natalie Maines took a selfie of the Chicks and the audience wearing the hats. This is a refreshing change from the lazy approach a handful of big artists have decided to take by canceling their concerts. The political theme continued during “Ready to Run,” whereby the video screen displayed a cluster of red, white, and blue symbols alongside hot dogs and hamburgers and Monty-Python-like cartoon caricatures of political candidates. But this was not a one-sided entertainment piece; scary and humorous “bobblehead” images of both the Republican and Democratic presidential field made their way across the screen (including Lincoln Chafee . . . who? . . . exactly). Finally, perhaps the most powerful statement came in the final song, Ben Harper’s “Better Way.” In preparation, several people came out on stage including Smooth Hound Smith, Ty from Vintage Trouble, and various members of the Dixie Chicks’ family. The massive makeshift choir, with lead vocals shared by Maines, Doyle, and Taylor, gave extra power to the lyrics “what good is a man/who won’t take a stand/what good is a cynic/with no better plan.”
The journey back to the top with this giant tour has been made all the more interesting by the past obstacles dropped in their path. The Dixie Chicks began as a small creek and expanded into a giant country music river. Their talent, and the fact that their musical interests went beyond mainstream country, allowed that river to run fast and become deep. They had a voice beyond their songs, during a time which, in many ways, ushered us all into an era of debate over free speech, excessive patriotism, and allowing hypocritical judgment to rule the media. Once they felt that the Dixie Chicks were getting out of their control, and perhaps taking too many stands, the country music establishment did what they could to dam the rush of water. Faced with that obstacle, an artist can remain a pool of stagnant water, or it can branch out into new directions on its own, because it believes in a better way. At the end of the night, Raleigh was grateful for the return of a cool, cleansing rush of music from the Dixie Chicks.
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