One of the most revelatory discoveries when the Dixie Chicks toured the United States for the first time in ten years was that they had never sounded better.
Was it really ten years ago that the Grammy-sweeping Taking the Long Way and its accompanying tour doubled as both their victorious comeback and their undeclared swansong? Aside from the timely covers of Prince, Beyonce, and Patty Griffin, the set list for MMXVI could have been the same ten years ago.
But like those confident covers indicated on last year’s tour, which has been documented so accurately on both album and film, the band has completely shaken off the turmoil that surrounded their return to the national music scene after they were exiled from country radio and the industry that surrounds it. You could still feel the jilted lover aura in the air when they toured Taking the Long Way as a new album, and their struggle to balance their hitmaking legacy with their more recent and more personal material in a way that would satisfy both the band and their audience.
Ten years later, having not released anything new since, the Dixie Chicks have a stronger handle on their legacy and their audience. “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the emotional peak of their Accidents & Accusations Tour that came far too early in the set list, has claimed its rightful place as their encore and signature song. Tracks from Home and Taking the Long Way dominate the proceedings here, and rightfully so. Those two albums contain their strongest and most personal material, and fans react with enthusiasm for “Truth No. 2,” “Top of the World,” and “Lubbock or Leave it” as if they were #1 hits. Resurrecting actual chart hits like “There’s Your Trouble” and “I Can Love You Better” would have both the audience and the band checking their watches until they were over.
That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of hits in this show. But with the exception of “Wide Open Spaces,” they all come from Fly (“Ready to Run,” “Cowboy Take Me Away,” “Goodbye Earl”) and Home (“Long Time Gone,” “Landslide,” “Travelin’ Soldier.”) Some are played in a way similar to the record, while others are given fresh reinventions, particularly “Long Time Gone,” which has more in common with New Orleans than Austin in its reincarnation.
The film gets the edge over the album for two reasons. First, it includes all of the stage banter that is oddly left out of the CD version and is greatly missed. Natalie Maines is as great on the mic when she’s talking as she is when she’s singing, and their cover of Patty Griffin’s “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” is prefaced by a hilarious audience interaction story that I wont’ spoil here. Second, director Sophie Muller filmed the show flawlessly. The last Chicks live DVD had rapid, disorienting cuts. This one has long cuts that linger on the band, while also capturing how fans are reacting to the music. Muller recreates the experience of attending the MMXVI tour better than most films I’ve seen of shows I’ve also attended. (Madonna needs to hire her.)
Country Universe launched thirteen years ago in the wake of the Chicks backlash and largely inspired by it. At the time, I was concerned that the genre would never recover from their blacklisting and that their peerless work would be forgotten because of it. Well, country music never did recover from losing the Chicks and subsequently becoming more hostile to female voices than it had been in fifty years. It’s a barren wasteland.
But as for the latter concern, I needn’t have worried. All the Chicks had to do was get back on stage, and the audience showed up to hear them prove, once again, that nobody does it better than them.