Dixie Chicks Play Nice as U.S. Comeback Tour Winds Down With DVD Filming

Chris Willman
Dixie Chicks performs onstage at The Forum on Oct. 8, 2016 in Los Angeles. 

Hitting the Forum for the penultimate date on their first arena tour in a decade, Natalie Maines and company made past provocations or controversies seem a very hazy memory, unless you consider reaffirming the worth of women a political statement.

Nice. This is the word for the Dixie Chicks’ about-to-wrap tour, even though their most famous post-“incident” protest tune remains in the set to assure us they’re not ready to make benign. The song doth protest too much, maybe: As the trio's 57-date North American trek winds to a close at the Hollywood Bowl Monday night (Oct 10), everything about their road show suggests a ridiculously easy rapprochement: the crowd-pleasing oldies, the healthy box office receipts, the utter lack of any polarizing commentary in the show. It’s as if nothing ever happened, which is a little spooky — Twilight Zone-ish, almost — considering the traumatic business we all faintly remember did.

The success of this controversy-free tour can be measured in part by the fact that the Chicks scheduled dates in three different L.A.-area venues, Monday’s Bowl show being the capper. For their penultimate gig Saturday night at the Forum, the group had a camera crane swooping over the floor seats, the reason for which became apparent as Natalie Maines announced, “As you can see, we’ve chosen you guys and the Forum to be the audience for our DVD. Do people have DVDs anymore? I guess it will be a DVD for 10 percent of America; for everyone else it will be somewhere online.”

Physical DVDs, diamond-selling albums, and “Some Days You Gotta Dance”: there is so much to be nostalgic for when you’ve been off the scene as long as the Dixie Chicks. The question remains whether this national victory lap represents a nostalgia tour or the beginnings of a renaissance. There is no new record in sight, reminding us that after the vast acclaim afforded their last album, the 10-year-old Taking the Long Way, the Dixie Chicks seemingly became the first act in history to retire from the studio immediately following their first Album of the Year Grammy win. (Unofficial theme song for their fallow last decade: “Not Ready to Make Records.”)

Rumor had it that Maines was put off by the uneven attendance for their 2006 tour, which hinted that maybe their days as an arena act were waning. Now that it’s been proven that absence makes the heart grow fonder and they can reliably fill the big venues after all, maybe they’ll plan on a studio resumption, too… unless a guarantee of more 10-million sellers is also a condition of their return.

At the Forum show, as on other recent dates, 17 of the 22 songs were repeats of the material the Chicks were doing on their last U.S. tour a decade ago, so there wasn’t much indication of what new Chicks music would sound like if it were to theoretically happen. The one song they’ve doing that could theoretically become the cornerstone of a new album is Patty Griffin’s “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” (joining the two older Griffin songs in the set). Two other unrecorded covers are included for their topical value and wouldn’t seem likely studio bets. “Nothing Compares 2 U” gets a full-throated balladic Maines treatment as Prince’s glyph is represented on a giant purple screen. Beyoncé’s “Daddy Issues,” meanwhile, stands out as an obvious highlight of the acoustic/bluegrass middle section of the set. (According to Maines, they have “seen the visual album (of Lemonade) 57 and a half times. And the last song we hear before… every show is ‘Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation.’”) They’re Beyoncé-crazed enough that when they do a number that is referred to only as a “bluegrass instrumental,” it turns out to be at least in part a string-band cover of “Single Ladies.”

Some adjustments have been made in the set since the tour opened June 1. Another cover, this one of Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games,” has been dropped, as were three lesser-remembered tracks from Taking the Long Way (“Silent House,” “Favorite Year,” and “I Like It”). “Nothing Compares 2 U” was one of two mid-tour additions, the other being “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” its re-inclusion maybe a recognition of the fact that fans wanted to hear a little more from the era of top 10 country hits. That whole making nice thing, again.

As for the familiar material, not everything was carried over in amber from the 2006 tour. Most notably, “Long Time Gone” has been transformed from the neo-bluegrass tune that opened 2003’s Home album into a funkier and greasier stylistic tribute to Little Feat — an appropriate nod, since the group took its name from Lowell George’s “Dixie Chicken.” And Elle King, the opening act on most of this last stretch of dates, came out to duet on the Chicks’ hit version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” replacing the tough-chick gear she favored in her own set for a girlier, swirlier outfit that Maines described as “channeling a little Stevie Nicks.”

Most of the songs are played with an unerring faithfulness, though. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re dealing with material as strong as Griffin’s “Top of the World,” the lament of a deceased husband who can’t explain even in death why he was so emotionally distant in life, which with the addition of the Chicks’ harmonies became as chilling a song as has ever been recorded.

References to the Chicks’ predicament of 2003, and after? Almost none, overtly, at least. Besides “Not Ready to Make Nice,” they did prove themselves masters of the musical subtweet last decade when they began performing Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi,” which almost reads like it was written about their situation (if you read “stayed in Mississippi a day too long” as “stayed in country music a day too long”). That excellent Dylan cover came back for this tour, and you could read the same deep-South-as-metaphor-for-country-radio interpretation into Griffin’s “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida.”

Maines said that when they played that song “in front of two Florida audiences, it was a little uncomfortable... We hadn’t thought of that when we were sitting in Florida and our tour manager came in and said, ‘Are you sure you want to keep that in the set tonight?’ I said, ‘Absolutely — it’s my favorite song that we do during the show. And I just remember the great advice Martie (Maguire) gave me when I first joined the band: you can say anything as long as you say it with a smile. It was about 13 years later that I found out that’s not true.”

Ironies abound these days, like the fact that the Republican politician Maines has spent some time deriding on Twitter this year, Donald Trump, is a guy who claims he was against the Iraq was as much as she was and who’s appeared on the Howard Stern show as much as she has. Not surprising, anyway, that Trump turns up in the video montage that accompanies “Goodbye Earl” as one in a pantheon of male villains that includes everyone from the film noir icon Dan Duryea to O.J. Simpson. His devil-horned appearance in that clip reel went by so quickly that it was almost subliminal, though. Trump reappeared in an animated segment accompanying “Ready to Run,” but joined by the entire cast of every presidential candidate who ran in the Republican and Democratic primaries, all seen in clown wigs with red noses.

It might have seemed cute in June, but with its imagery of Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, and other long-gone contenders, the video seemed a lot older now than “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Also, on the weekend when Trump had just gotten in hotter water for a leaked tape that seemed to condone sexual assault, putting up a video in which both Trump and Hillary Clinton are comically portrayed as bozos on this bus seemed like an example of false equivalency, at least to some folks in this blue-leaning L.A. audience.

But, obviously, putting up a video in which all politicians are portrayed as clowns is the Chicks’ way of making nice and assuring mixed crowds that there won’t be any provocations. In her off-duty time, if not on stage, Maines is still willing to be outspoken. Tweeting while watching the debate Sunday night, the singer went off on Trump in a way she never would on stage now, writing that she “heard from a fairly reliable source that Donald Trump has a cat lick the sides of his hair back” and wondering “how can Trump not tan his hands to match his face?”

Not that Maines owes anyone any profound political statements, on stage or off. For the one big one that she inadvertently did, as the song says, they paid a price, and they’ll keep paying, even if that penalty is measured in micropayments in a year in which they are clearly commercially redeemed, again. And in a week when the measure of women’s worth is Topic A for discussion all of a sudden, the Chicks continue to make their own implicit statement, by being the most successful “girl group” of all time, by just about every yardstick. The example they’ve set for women in music in the past, and again now, has made for some pretty wide open spaces.

 

Setlist:

"The Long Way Around"

"Lubbock or Leave it"

"Truth #2"

"Easy Silence"

"Some Days You Gotta Dance"

"Long Time Gone"

"Nothing Compares 2 U"

"Top of the World"

"Goodbye Earl"

"Travelin’ Soldier"

"Don’t Let Me Die in Florida"

"Daddy Lessons"

"White Trash Wedding"

"Bluegrass Instrumental"

"Ready to Run"

"Mississippi"

"Landslide"

"Cowboy Take Me Away"

"Wide Open Spaces"

"Sin Wagon"

"Not Ready to Make Nice"

"Better Way"