Long before public sentiment curdled against them, the Dixie Chicks were regarded as one of the fiercest and most successful country acts of their prime time.
A decade since their last major road outing (they last played Atlanta in 2006 at Philips Arena), the Texas trio of Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer, have returned in a warm embrace from fans who are snapping up tickets to their “MMXVI World Tour” and rewarding them with a show that proves they are as musically ferocious as ever.
Before the ladies and their five-piece band hit the stage Sunday night at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Alpharetta , Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” blasted from the sound system, followed a few minutes later by Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.”
It was a signal that this night wasn’t going to be about politicking – and aside from a silly JibJab-type video lampooning presidential hopefuls from both sides of the aisle during “Ready to Run” and a blink-and-you’d-miss-it glimpse of Donald Trump with devil horns in a “Goodbye Earl” montage, a moment which elicited a roar from the sold-out crowd, it wasn’t.
Instead, Maines, Maguire and Strayer spent two hours on a stage featuring bars of lighting and a video screen stocked with National Geographic-worthy imagery doling out faithful renditions of their most treasured tunes. They also supplied a cadre of covers ranging from band favorite Patty Griffin (“Don’t Let Me Die in Florida”) to Beyonce (“Daddy Lessons,” which even the most ardent Bey fan would have to admit was stellar) to Bob Dylan (“Mississippi”) to Fleetwood Mac (their 2002 hit cover of “Landslide”).
Maines’ voice, a distinctive amalgam of country twang and rock grit, soared on show opener “The Long Way Around” and the lullaby “Top of the World,” which also featured a strikingly mournful fiddle solo from Erwin.
The singer, her blonde hair shorn on a section of one side, noted the influence that Prince had on the Dixie Chicks, prompting them to cover – as they have all tour – “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The song isn’t quite suited to Maines’ voice, but her delivery was heartfelt; the highlight came from Strayer's tremendous lap steel solo.
After breaking briefly for what Maines called the first costume change they’ve ever had on a tour – and it wasn’t drastic since the black and white motif of the staging and their clothing remained – the band filed onto the front of the stage for an unplugged segment under the watchful eye of “Flat Ronnie.” (For those not in the know, that’s Howard Stern’s limo driver, Ronnie Mund, and super fan Maines vowed to bring the cutout on tour. #HitEmWithTheHein)
The airtight musicianship of the entire band – including Atlanta native Keith Sewell on guitar – burst from the stage during the kinetic “White Trash Wedding,” while the Chicks injected some pop pizzazz into a medley that included snippets of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It”) and The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” presented bluegrass style.
The show’s sound slipped into the muddled zone on a couple of occasions – notably during “Mississippi” when Maines’ voice was buried in the mix – but mostly the band’s musicianship and vocals were showcased cleanly.
The girls’ harmonies were especially pristine on “Travelin’ Solider” and the swooping “Wide Open Spaces,” and it was a delight to hear Maines’ snarl intact for the wicked “Sin Wagon.”
Even if, as they sang during the encore, they’re “Not Ready to Make Nice,” it’s OK.
The Dixie Chicks are unapologetically themselves – and should be proud of it.