It’s the weekend; Birmingham is bathed in sunshine; the canal towpaths surrounding tonight’s venue are awash with fans decked out in varying degrees of western wear, no doubt in homage to a love of all things country and the cherished Texan troupe that has descended upon the city as part of a mammoth tour that will cover the much of the globe before 2023 comes to a close.
The band’s last tour to ventured to these parts was way back in the summer of 2016 when the then, ‘Dixie Chicks’, delivered a storming set as part of the ‘MMXVI’ world tour. Since then, name changes have been the order of the day with this evening’s venue morphing from ‘The Barclaycard Arena’ to ‘The Utilita Arena’ and the band choosing to rebranded themselves as ‘The Chicks’ in the midst of the soul-searching and self-reflection that many underwent during 2020. Certainly a bold move for any band, not least one that has more than twenty years under their belts and an identity cemented into the hearts and minds of their fans. Though ‘The Chicks’ have never sought to hide their beliefs or politics – a position that has often gone against the grain back home in the USA and particularly the groups beloved home of Texas.
The heady cocktail of sunshine and country, with the odd splash of ethanol here and there, creates quite the joyous and celebratory atmosphere as fans flood into the vast arena, well in advance of the headliners arrival. The volume of fans nestled in their seats and the welcome that greets Maren Morris and her excellent band as they arrive on stage likely accounts for the eagerness of fans to get to their seats. Morris’ billing feels like a great fit and an exceptional opportunity to revel in the presence of one of country music’s rising stars.
Morris’ musical journey could easily have ended very differently had she been successful in her endeavours to break into the business via the route of X-Factor and The Voice. Despite multiple attempts, Morris could never manage to get through the early auditions and was swiftly pointed in the direction of the exit door. Following a move from Texas to Nashville, Morris began to plough her efforts towards songwriting and eventually secured the ears of the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Tim McGraw who both recorded songs that Morris had helped to craft. ‘My Church’ was Morris’ jewel in her song catalogue and she was determined that this song would only see the light of day were she to record it. A determined Morris eventually released the single herself via Spotify and cue the explosion of interest within the country community as the song spiked on the labels across the music industry. A recording contract with Columbia was signed and ‘My Church’ opened the door to numerous industry awards and a torrent of collaborations with the likes of Taylor Swift; John Mayer; Hozier; Niall Horan to name but a few, as well as a stint in the country supergroup ‘The Highwomen’.
Morris’ set will focus very much upon the debut album ‘Hero’ which forged her space in amongst the country music landscape, but for the opener, there is an airing of material from her latest release ‘Humble Quest’. ‘Circles Around This Town’ and its addictive chorus spirals around the huge arena less than a minute in as the audience numbers continue to swell towards the irresistible music that is heavily rooted in country but with some delightfully executed flourishes of 90s R&B. ’80s Mercedes’ drips at every turn with the seemingly effortless ability to create an earworm, a formula that is applied to songs like ‘Drunk Girls Don’t Cry’, ‘The Bones’ and the epic ‘My Church’, a song which celebrates the sacred space that exists when in a car travelling on a highway armed with a head full of noise and the restorative effect of FM radio and a great song.
Morris’ set is incredibly soulful and songs like ‘I Wish I Was’ allow her voice the space to sit prominently and glide around whist underpinned by the old familiar guitar ache that only a pedal steel or slide guitar can muster. As Morris’ set comes to an end the now full arena graciously receives her for delivering a stalwart set of songs that have the many already familiar with Morris’ catalogue singing along in joyous union. The band all appear to be enjoying themselves and the set is relaxed and demonstrates a unit operating in full control of their labours. Morris is truly superb and her songwriting is filled with the perfect blend of wit, hope, heartache, redemption, tinged with a hint of bleakness. It’s wholly apparent as to why so many have sought to collaborate with this young artist who is offering a unique take on country and Morris is a wonderful choice for The Chicks opener and it is magnificent to see so many turning out to catch the set.
Ahead of The Chicks arrival to the stage, the vast screens that hang at the front of the arena blast out music videos of Blondie, Heart, The Runaways, Joan Jett and The Pretenders, a move that goes down well with the expectant crowd as multiple impromptu sing-a-longs ignite and ripple through the audience.
Having been denied the opportunity to tour around the time of The Chicks’ latest 2020 album release, ‘Gaslighter’, for obvious reasons, this tour feels like the trio of Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire, have something to prove following all the furore around the name change and just existing in an industry where you avert you gaze for just a moment and it’s quite easy to become lost and never find your way back. But this band have faced adversity many times over and have always forged a way through to the other side, armed with a few scars here and there, but a renewed vigour and a new batch of songs born out of exorcising the troubles.
The enormous curtain falls to the floor to reveal The Chicks surrounded by their longtime band members, with the addition of Maines’ own son, Jackson Slade, on guitar. The audience immediately jump to their feet and welcome the band with a rapturous reception as the opening harmonies to ‘Gaslighter’ are blasted from the throats of Maine, Strayer and Maguire. The new album will form the majority of the first half of the show and a decision that shows the faith and belief that The Chicks have in their latest material. Indeed, it’s only ‘Sin Wagon’ and ‘Taking The Long Way’ that deviate from the focus on the most recent additions to The Chicks catalogue. ‘Texas Man’ and ‘Julianna Calm Down’ already feel like classics and will likely form part of the band’s sets for the foreseeable.
‘Ready to Run’, ‘Travelin Soldier’ and ‘Wide Open Spaces’ follow in quick succession and Maine’s voice sounds incredibly strong throughout. This show feels so much more intimate than the ‘MMCXVI’ tour, yes, there is the same gigantic screen at the back of the stage, but it’s used sparingly throughout and allows the focus to remain solely upon the group. The intimacy of the show is further enhanced when all band members decamp to seats lined up on the lip of the vast stage for what feels like the largest campfire sing-a-long in history.
In amongst the old favourites, The Chicks make room for a number of covers from the likes of Patty Griffin, Miley Cyrus and Fleetwood Mac, the latter being the now legendary and quite brilliant version of ‘Landslide’, with Maine’s stirring vocals supported by the hushed backing of the arena. After reducing the arena to an emotional disposition, The Chicks swiftly jump back into the bustling texan tour de force with ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ and the rousing ‘Goodbye Earl’ to bring a close to the set. There is no encore, just the “house lights” turned up, and the band taking to the front of the stage to greet the crowd and thank them for their unwavering support. It certainly feels like The Chicks have plenty of fire in their bellies and the hope is that a new album will be in the offing and many more evening’s like tonight.
Reviewer: Chris Curtis
Photos: Andra Tudoran