Back on tour for the first time in years, the Dixie Chicks kicked off a three-show dip into Canada with a slightly cool appearance at RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest on Saturday. Ultimately they should be able to dispel rumours of the band’s breakup but it will take a few more shows to get there.
With lead singer Natalie Maines sporting an Annie Lennox-short haircut and a square-shouldered, leg-baring jumpsuit, and knowing that she just released a solo rock album, my first impression was that she didn’t particularly want to be singing Dixie Chicks songs on a Saturday night in Ottawa. She hardly acknowledged bandmates Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, and barely spoke to the audience.“I’m super nervous I’m going to inhale one of these bugs,” was one of Maines’ few remarks to the crowd, as she eyed the insects drawn to the stage lights.
She wasn’t the most engaging frontwoman but the feisty dynamo is a pro, and her big, brassy voice nailed the song every time, whether it was a heart-wrenching ballad or a slick country-pop number. Plus, with a great band backing the core trio, the songs were delivered with the proper attention to musical details.
First up was an old song, the banjo- and fiddle-driven Goodbye Earl, followed by Patty Griffin’s Truth No. 2 from their multi-million selling Home album. Other selections from that monster bluegrass album included the cover of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide, the twangy Long Time Gone, the bittersweet Travellin’ Soldier and another Griffin tune, Top of the World, that featured some lovely harmonies and mandolin work.
The surprise of the night was a cover of the White Stripes’ Prickly Thorn but Sweetly Worn, nicely executed with an old-timey flair. Other highlights came during a barnburner of a home stretch, when the songs Not Ready, Wide Open Space and Sin Wagon showed the Chicks can still generate some power when they put their heads together. By the time they finish this summer’s handful of dates in Canada, it should be even more potent.
Earlier, you could tell from his band’s inspired performance that Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch was having a positive experience on his first visit to Ottawa. Not only was a beautiful sunset happening in front of him, but the sound was terrific, the crowd radiant and the band, which on this tour includes a string section and a trumpet, has clearly gelled into a cohesive unit.
What’s more, Murdoch got a free ride on an OC Transpo bus, a random act of kindness that led him to declare Ottawa the friendliest city in Canada. As he explained, he was going to be late getting to the site so he hopped on a bus and tried to give a $20 bill to the driver. It seems the driver recognized him and refused his money. “Just this one time, Mr Murdoch,” the driver told him.
Not bad for a semi-obscure band in a new territory. This minor ego boost seemed to fuel Murdoch with a desire to return the favour with a stellar concert. The usually soft and earnest Glaswegian shoegazers demonstrated a solid bottom end and remarkable amount of energy, and they did so immediately, without taking four or five songs to get their act together.
It was a wonderful concert, with a setlist that included I Want the World to Stop, To Be Myself Completely, Piazza New York Catcher, to name a few, along with a snippet of blues and an onstage dance party with a gaggle of fans who looked to be having the time of their lives.