Music and controversy go hand in hand. At its best, this concoction can have a transformative effect. At its worst, it provides those with the appetite, the necessary ingredients required to rub another little bit of humanity from this world. There are some stories or events however, that are considered so controversial that they become forever entwined with the identity of those at the very centre of the story. So much so that the very mention of one will almost always lead to the mention of the other. This association can be trying at the best of times, particularly in instances where the subject matter may no longer be considered preferable or even relevant. Even more so when it is something that the musician themselves might not want to propagate.
If we think back over the short time period in which rock ’n’ roll has graced our existence you will easily find instances where a singular moment in time either propelled or eradicated – depending upon the incident, or how good the record company PR machine was working that week – the career of the musician in question. Elvis joining the army at the height of his fame, Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, Ozzy biting the head off a bat onstage, Judas Priest being accused of inciting suicide amongst their teenage following, Sinead O’Connor tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live. All the aforementioned led to a change in perception, be it the media, the public, the fanbase, or even the musician’s perception of themselves.
One of the more memorable controversies in recent years was the one that temporarily threatened to paralyse the Dixie Chicks’ career. It has been well documented that following lead singer, Natalie Maines’ anti-Bush comments, made just weeks prior to the US invasion of Iraq, it was heavily contested as to whether the group could ever come back from such a position of ostracisation. Those few sentences, uttered amongst friends, had an incendiary effect upon all the years of hard work that the band had put into establishing themselves at the heart of the world of country music.
The band were vilified back in America. Overnight, they went from darlings of the country music scene, to being blacklisted by the very radio stations that had helped to spread their music across the country. The band came under political attack from all quarters and were even subjected to death threats. Suddenly, the Dixie Chicks were saddled with a decision, whether to “shut up and sing” or embrace the controversy and enter into a dialogue with the world that would address the right to freedom of speech.
Following the first few days of the story breaking, it must have seemed like the end was nigh, it has since turned out to be a bit of a blessing. The band were able to wipe the slate clean, no longer having to garner favour with those that would have them toe the line for fear of upsetting the status quo. From that moment onwards, the Dixie Chicks would bow to no one, they would embrace and insight political discussion, free to write whatever they felt passionate about. Following the destruction of their identities as the darlings of the country scene, the Dixie Chicks have been able to rise up and construct an identity of their own choosing, that of the artist and truth.
It has been a difficult few years for most Dixie Chicks fans, especially for those positioned on this side of the pond. The Dixie Chicks machine has been on hiatus for the last few years, with live performances few and far between as other priorities have demanded their attention. It is no surprise to find that tonight’s Birmingham crowd is almost close to full occupancy, with many in attendance having had to wait over a decade to get to see the group around these parts once more.
The expectant crowd are nudged a little further towards fever pitch as Prince and The Revolution’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ blasts across the arena before it dissipates and is replaced by the faintest rumbling sound, which grows steadily before propelling itself at the stage, accompanied by a blinding wall of diamond white lights that burn across the vast stage whilst a climactic John Williams-esque score slowly bleeds into the opening chords of Taking The Long Way. The wall of lights ascend to reveal the silhouettes of three wholly familiar starlets. The audience take the prompt from Prince and The Revolution and indeed, go crazy.
Natalie Maines is armed with a brilliant white acoustic guitar, Martie Maguire clasps a white violin and as for Emily Robison Strayer, her hands are temporarily occupied with a white banjo, one of many instruments that she demonstrate her dexterity with during tonight’s romper of a show that see’s the band perform over twenty classics from across their catalogue. Peppered amongst the famed Dixie Chicks recordings are a number is stunningly delivered covers. Take for example, the acclaimed version of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’ that was immortalised on their 2002 ‘Home’ album. In addition to this, the band perform Patty Griffin’s ‘Truth #2’ and Ben Harper’s ‘Better Way’ closes out the show. Easily the most memorable cover of the night was in dedication to the recent passing of Prince. The gigantic screen displays the unmistakeable sign that Prince employed during his legal wrangling with Sony whilst Maines delivers a stunning performance of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’.
It is not until ‘Easy Silence’ that Maines really breaks off to share a few words with the packed arena. “Well, hello Birmingham. It is so lovely to see you. You guys are rowdy, on your feet, and that’s exactly how we like it. We are going to attempt to entertain you this evening”. Cue one of the many extraordinary films that accompany each song performed tonight. Each one is so distinct, original, funny, often enhancing the music. For this particular short, we see aerial views of serene lakes, turbulent ocean tides and landscapes, whilst the lyrics seep in and out of view on screen. The epic camera swathe is matched only by Maguire’s emotionally charged violin playing which soars in unison with the cinematic images displayed on screen.
Considering that this is only the sixth date of the MMXVI tour, the Dixie Chicks sound superb. The audience would seem to corroborate this observation, demonstrated by the fact that most of them are on their feet pretty much from the opening few moments, right up until the last notes ring out across the arena. Maines teases that after this current European stint, the band will head back to tour the southern states of America, before possibly returning to the UK in July. The news is greeted with jubilant cheering from all quarters of the Birmingham audience. Perhaps tonight’s show has reaffirmed to the Dixie Chicks just how much they miss this. Country music has never been more popular, particularly in the UK. It would make perfect sense for the Dixie Chicks to expect a fervent take up of any further dates that are added to the itinerary. Roll on summer.
Reviewer: Chris Curtis
Photographer: Dave Musson