In a triumphant return after 10 long years away from the Valley, Dixie Chicks smashed expectations at Ak-Chin Pavilion with a show that went beyond simple country music. Visually, it was as modern and effective as they come, a slick black-and-white palette as a setting that would have looked at home for a pop megastar in 2016. Sonically, it was a reminder that right now, Dixie Chicks are somehow of the moment without having released a full-length album in more than a decade.
Augustana, the band behind that mid-'00s smash “Boston,” opened the evening with a renewed lease on their sound, now a four-piece folk-country act with the occasional fiddle player. Their new focus feels like Shovels & Rope tunes as seen through Andrew McMahon’s lens. It’s real meat-and-potatoes songwriting and singing, with the occasional song like “Loved By You” that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Cardinals-era Ryan Adams record.
After a 40-minute changeover, Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” blared from the speakers, faded out into thunderous applause, and then there they were, vocalist Natalie Maines, fiddle player Martie Maguire, and banjo/lap steel player Emily Robison, backed by three columns of light that ran floor to ceiling. It was as dramatic and fitting an entrance as any for one of the most controversial country acts around, a reminder that the band really can be larger than life, especially given the fandom surrounding them. “Taking The Long Way” lead into “Lubbock or Leave It,” and the instrumental musical chairs that ran all night began. Each member of the core trio is just a massively talented musician, whether it’s Maines behind her electric guitar, Maguire on mandolin or fiddle, or Robison on virtually anything with strings.
With an enormous video screen as the focal point of the stage, spanning the width and height of it, songs like “Easy Silence” took on a new depth as high-definition, meditative landscapes emblazoned with the song’s lyrics flashed across it. "Long Time Gone” is the shimmering remnants of '90s country condensed into a single tune with its lush harmonies, fiddle, piano, and slide guitar solos, with Maines belting big vocal lines that resolve into a series of honky-tonk turnarounds. It's a delight to hear when the radio country landscape is what it is today.
One of the few slow-paced moments of the evening came in the form of a Prince tribute of "Nothing Compares 2 U." Maines' voice is just shockingly good, even in the dry desert air, with all the range and power you'd expect on a song of that nature. Maguire's fiddle solo adds another dimension to the song, with its expressive vocal tone, and was backed by a brilliant lap steel solo from Robison.
It wouldn’t be a Dixie Chicks show without a political comment of some sort, and “Ready To Run” had all of the lampooning imagery that’s befitting of the current presidential race, politicians reimagined as 40-foot-tall bobbleheads on the screen. Maines took on the role of vocalist alone, strutting from one end of the stage to the other as confetti cannons spewed out an obscene amount of colorful paper. "Landslide" was that first full crowd-singalong of the night. Think of this song as not a country cover that was arguably one of Dixie Chicks' most popular songs, but rather for all the early 2000s kids that were so blessedly turned on to Fleetwood Mac. Maybe Dixie Chicks are to blame for all the Tusk reissues in your local Urban Outfitters in some roundabout way.
With horses fording a river on the video screen, the band launched into "Wide Open Spaces." It really feels like the Dixie Chicks distilled into a song, a big, uplifting anthem that caps the band's ethos perfectly — fly your flag, run free, and trample whatever gets in your way.
With “Not Ready to Make Nice,” their response to their Bush criticism backlash of the early 2000s, there’s a real full-circle feeling to Dixie Chicks’ set; they’re maybe one of the only bands touring today that still has true country and pop-leaning songs all in their set. It’s almost like hearing an anthology of the genre's evolution over the course of the band's career from 1989 to 2006. It's important to note that these songs still feel incredibly vital. Given the current political and social climate, it makes more sense for the Dixie Chicks to now be as big or bigger than ever.
Yet nothing was more reflective than their closing cover of Ben Harper’s "Better Way," with smattering of chosen fans on stage, almost all of them with instruments, and a rainbow-hued heart blazing above them. There's always a message with the band; the same thing that once landed them in hot water is now the platform that they scream from. Ak-Chin was definitely all ears on Sunday night.
Last Night: Dixie Chicks MMXVI World Tour at Ak-Chin Pavilion
The Crowd: Lots of mothers and daughters, swaying to the band that shaped a specific generation of open-minded country music fans.
Random Notebook Dump: This band does covers so, so well. It's always more an homage than a reimagining, a reminder to leave well enough alone sometimes.
Taking The Long Way
Lubbock or Leave It
Truth No. 2
Sometimes You Gotta Dance
Long Time Gone
Nothing Compares 2 U
Top Of The World
Don't Let Me Die In Florida
White Trash Wedding
Ready to Run
Cowboy Take Me Away
Wide Open Spaces
Not Ready To Make Nice