By Greg Moses
Naw buddy don't go shakin yer head bout them Dixie Chicks no more, cause I seen it with my own eyes up close. Them girls'z hot, got hot lix, hot dam pipes, and a bramble of fans so thick y'd only get yourself scratched up tryin to part em from each other and their grrrls.
But before I tell you about how they punked the prez, and threw in a Dylan tune at the encore, let's get onto that city bus in A-Town, ATX, Austin, Live Music Capital of the World where tonight we're smelling some off-regulation popcorn (cuz tecknickally speaking the buses don't allow no food or drink) and singing out loud, some "Shut Up" song (still off regulation, because the rules say no such noise) and talkin about how we're going to get this act together in the studio tomorrow morning, spin a hit, and share the money with the driver. But then, ding dang, the lead singer has to get off the bus, leaving the rest of the new-formed duo headed down to Sixth Street or East Twelfth for two hours of musical intoxication.
Inside the Frank Erwin Center shortly after 8pm, Pete Yorn has had the courtesy and good sense to take a bow after eight songs, leaving the hometown welcome party of ten thousand folks buzzing it up during a preview trailer of "Shut Up and Sing" the new documentary about the Chicks and recent world history. Here is a clip of the president walking on some tarmac saying out loud that he doesn't see why the Chicks'd get their feelings hurt if people stop buying their records, cut to front-Chick Natalie Maines reading about that quip, shaking her head, and saying out loud, dumfuk!
The buzzing Chick fest is actually paying attention to the film, you can tell, because up from the lower bowl of the Erwin Center, and down from the upper seats collides a crash of clapping and hollering. As in, you tell it Natalie! And we're right here for you. Yes ma'am, dumfuk's a pretty good word for what you're aiming at.
This kind of thing is going to go on for nearly another hour before the Chicks finally get their boots on stage, but who cares if they're another minute late? Let em take their time. Still somewhere in the back of your mind you know the Chicks are tuned into baby sitter schedules on this Monday night. And if it's not until about nine o'clock that they come out, that still leaves plenty of time to get our eighty dollars worth of musical festivity and get the baby sitters home before midnight.
But not everyone has left their kids at home. Chicks themselves have brought some kids, say the bloggers. And I see a handful of really young ones, definitely elementary school. Also some grrrls in soccer oufits ready to kick some you know what. Wildcats, could be from Elgin, which is not exactly next door.
But speaking of Chicks and grrrls, let me count some heads. Along the row in front of me (mighty, mighty Section 39) there's one extra large white fellow with well-trimmed gray hair in embroidered, starched shirt who should be mentioned for his singular status in a row with a chick to co*k ratio of 19 to 1. Then, counting down the aisle seats we find three co*k heads for a chick to co*k ratio of 13-3. If the count is not scientific it is satisfactory nevertheless and enough of a statistical challenge for me tonight.
Sniffing at the light bouquet of cotton candy, light beer, and wine, I am delighted at the longitudinal arrays of white folk demographics that chat it up all around. Spectacles on faces of gray-beards suggest alphabet street intellectuals. Starched and creased Wranglers hint of Spring Rodeo attire. A long haired stoner in Stones-jacket denim goes way down the aisle, tongue out the whole time. Of course whole book clubs or whatever of women have come together. And here's a guy in starched red shirt waving with his cell phone pressed to an ear. Can you see me now?
Up the aisle comes a woman who studies the steps the way I sometimes used to study center stripes on Saturday nights. Behind her an angel in well presented cleavage and pointy pink shoes. Out in the concourse those soccer girls we talked about, studying the prices on t-shirts (up to $85 dollars). And a tiny woman in wheel chair coming out of the powder room, as if "the day" wants you to see everything once before you return to your seat.
Stage lights down. House lights dimmed. "Hail to the Chief" cranked up. And this can mean only one thing. Here they come. The moral leaders of our Southern fried culture launch into "Lubbock or Leave It." And the audience is on our feet!
Singing to the soul of Buddy Holly, "I hear they hate me now / Just like they hated you / Maybe when I'm dead and gone / I'm gonna get a statue too." Oh, the audience loves that line! Applause rises to the top like cream.
The fierce red color of the video screens (six of them towering in back of the stage, two per Chick) now turns purple, the tempo slows, the drawls extend, the harmonies part wider, and now we're in the middle of "Truth No. 2" in which the heroine and her sweet backup singers strike a deal with you: "Swing me way down south / Sing me something brave from your mouth / And I'll bring you / Pearls of water on my hips / And the love in my lips / All the love from my lips." Just so you know that the wages of courage ain't all pain.
When the house lights brighten, well-prepared fans hold up signs, which I can't read, but if you go to Junichi's blog you can find some likelihood of the kinds of signs there were: The Only Bush I Trust is My Own. Natalie UR My Heroes. To Think without Speaking is to Aim without Shooting: Thanks for Speaking.
And now, with the sisters who founded the Dixie Chicks flanking the far corners of the stage--Emily Erwin Robinson and Martie Erwin McGuire--it's time once again to kill ol' Earl. Look if you don't know the story I can't be responsible for your complete education, but you should know that when they get to the line, "Earl had to die", the whole place pitches in, fists punching the air three times hard.
"Hello Austin," says Natalie. And yes, we're ready for that. "Thank you," she says once to the standing ovation. Then "thank you" again. And finally, "thank you very much for your warm welcome." Well, we do love being here is the bottom line. This could be Kant's Summum Bonum where duty to the truth lives right in the moment of ecstasy. So I have to put down my pen to form a proper four-finger whistle. Can you believe we're making all this out of a Monday night?
Now I'm a back-bencher myself when it comes to these sorts of things, so I don't see the woman that Natalie Maines is talking to next. But San Antonio reporter Hector Salda˝a writes that it was a "female fan toward the front of the stage" and I take his word for it.
"I see you're not wearing panties until the war is over," says Maines, "At least Britney Spears isn't." At this point my handwriting goes into spastic scrawl, and I think I must be going deaf. I resist the well-intentioned urge to lean over to the seat in front of me and whisper into the ear of the married woman wearing big diamond and the tour t-shirt: "did she say 'panties'?" So thanks Hector for being in the middle of the action up there and reporting on this anti-Lysistrata presence with an unflinching hand.
"Just don't make Paris Hilton your chaperone," says Maines as she promises to sing more songs between her jokes. Thanks to the multi-camera video screen high above Natalie's head, we can see how her face goes all devilish in a good way. Chick can act funny. Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Natalie Maines. Yes, they do belong in the same breath tonight, flanked by the Erwin grrrls here at what is for this brief moment aptly named The Erwin Center.
"This next song we wrote because we were getting calls from the White House asking, 'how is it you make these fantastic career decision you make'," jokes Maines as the band digs into "Taking the Long Way." Here's a little autobiography for you about paths taken and paths not. "I met the queen of whatever / Drank with the Irish and smoked with the hippies / Moved with the shakers / Wouldn't kiss all the asses that they told me to." It's another of the night's top applause lines.
As the Chicks harmonize into memories of the top of the world come crashing down, I'm counting the back-up band. From left to right a pedal steel, keyboard, electric guitar, drum, bass, acoustic guitar, another electric guitar, and later, a violin. Damn, it's practically a Bob Wills orchestra! (Of course if you go to Jovita's any Thursday night you can catch the Cornell Hurd band playing up to a dozen pieces from different parts of the room! But that's another story.)
Next song begins with an Erwin sister picking on the mandolin in that style that says we love you, Lindsey Buckingham, and can only mean it's time for Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," which is Chick music to the bone, fellas, and a longing for freedom along dimensions that don't often get discussed on the AP wire.
Then the Chicks sing Trisha Yearwood's "Standing Out in a Crowd" from a stage where Trisha Yearwood has played. Three guys down front go for more beer, which is bad vibe for the cocks, because right now they're standing out in a bad way as we watch their asses block our views. Could've waited for a stand up song, you know, or a break. But what break?
Anyway this next song was written with Pete Yorn after they had all viewed the rough cut of the documentary, "Shut Up and Sing," and it's about "that annoying blonde neighbor that won't go away." Of course the song was welcomed into the documentary soundtrack right away. Sister Emily hits some hot licks on a lap steel and we're into "The Neighbor" which according to chickaholic at the tripod henhouse hasn't come out yet on CD.
Violins introduce "Cowboy Take Me Away," colors turn purple, cell phones go up as lights, and the audience sings along with the chorus: "Set me free oh I pray."
"Just in case anyone was wondering whether I was too cool for school," says Natalie, "let me introduce you to my omnichord." Well it does seem like a toy, and she's joking about the silliness of it, but the omnichord listing at wikipedia lists some impressive musicians who have toyed with it. Still, in order not to confuse our sense of sophistication, Maines announces that the song will be played in the key of C and her son Slade (one of seven children of the band, four of whom were born here in Austin) has requested cell lights throughout the house.
Well, of course, the cell lights go up. And we are now in heaven, there are so many stars, listening to "Lullaby" with easy going accompaniment, unplugged like. "How long do you want to be loved / Is forever enough, 'cause I'm never never / Givin' you up." At which point the audience is cheering in delightful affirmation for their own little ones.
And speaking of family love, Natalie returns to the theme of Britney Spears in order to explain why she has been totally thrown off her game with regard to her allegiances in the whole Britney-Kevin custody feud. I have just done the internet research that Maines suggested as a follow up, to find a photo mercifully "censored" in just the right place. So I can "see" why Maines is asking if "this is describable or even worth discussing? I mean she knows there are photographers around. Oh, my Gawd. I didn't know she had stretch marks!" At which point really it is time to dedicate this next song to Kevin Federline and shut up and sing.
"I can't afford no ring / I can't afford no ring / You shouldn't be wearing white and I can't afford no ring." It's the opening stanza for "White Trash Wedding" and we are out here laughing as the Chicks do this in hard-fast mountain style, you know, like they was singing from a porch in that movie Deliverance, and here comes Kevin and Britney walkin' up a dirt trail barefoot. Which they follow up with some instrumental bluegrass as if reading our minds.
But if you think this is the high point of the evening, well you don't quite understand white trash art, because seriousness is about to happen. Several days before the Grammy nominations were announced, the audience was already treating the next song like something very special.
With the opening chords of "Not Ready to Make Nice" there is a kind of tremor that breaks open all around. Up from the lower steps comes rushing a woman at top speed, leaping like an Impala. Red pants, black shirt, coming right up at you in a blur of tip top desire.
"Come on!" she hollers to friends who have just returned from a break in the concourse. "I'm coming to get your ass!" And back down the aisle she leads them, quickly as that. Meanwhile, the house lights come up, and the crowd is on its feet, hollering and whistling. This is what a hit feels like in the round. No question this is top of the night, and the Chicks know how to play it precisely. They are going to win this Grammy, because you can see all around you that the song is a national treasure. Not a hurt feeling left in the house.
Although the next song--"Long Time Gone"--begins with a banjo riff, Opry style, the unplugged part of the concert has passed and the hot guitar licks start pumping things up. The drummer is back in action, and Natalie is encouraging the audience to clap along, which we do, just as the keyboards kick in with some Al Kooper coolness.
Somewhere in this swirl we've transitioned into another song with its striking (even for the Dixie Chicks striking) vocal punctuations of "I Hope." And when the three singers converge on the word lovingly, well, how can you not hope to highest heavens that we can actually work it out that way? In fine Willie Nelson fashion we are closing up this concert with a Gospel revival, and you do feel like you could fly away.
Which makes "Songbird" such a fine choice as Natalie and company sing us to the top of the world, and when we get there, Natalie takes a seat on the drum stand, listening with us to the string instrumentals that swirl around up up here in heaven.
"We'd like to thank everybody for coming out to the show tonight," says Maines. "This is still our favorite song from the first album." And with the opening notes of "Wide Open Spaces" we're on our feet again.
But what's this, one more song? "Sin Wagon" with the devil and Martie keeping tempo on the violin, Charlie Daniels style.
"Thank you so much! Good night"
To which we can only reply, fat chance!
Thunderous, yes, we are. Stomping, hollering, whistling, clapping, and taking breath to do it all over again. We ain't moving one inch. We ain't shuttin up. We're trying to shake it all the way out to the freeway where drivers will wonder if the Balcones Fault has suddenly given way, looking in their rear-views for some of that St. Elmo's Fire.
Which all this noize, after a while, the Dixie Chicks have to respond to, even though we do hope they enjoyed seeing how long this would go on and for how loud. So they come back out, just the three of them, guitar, Dobro, and violin, and they stand close together and sing "Travelin' Soldier." No time for dry eyes, this song, these days.
"We only know one song by ourselves," jokes Natalie, helping us up out of that war casualty mood, "so we'll bring the band back out." Maines is introducing the band and telling a story about how right before the show, but later than they were supposed to be, the Chicks asked to see "Pete" and instead of Pete Yorn being returned to them, they got their own band member back, the wrong "Pete." Okay, at least she doesn't go for the Peter joke, it's so rude to make fun of people's names that way.
Then Maines announces that they're going to do some Bob Dylan. I should have known this was possible, but I didn't, which made it even better. They put a bounce in the tempo and Maines fired the lyrics in semi-automatic bursts: "The emptiness is endless, gold is gray / You can always go back, but you can't go back all the way / Well there's only one thing that I did wrong / I stayed in Mississippi a day too long."
And finally, of course, the Dixie Chicks were, "Ready to Run." They sang it, then they did it, and it was perfect time to think about baby sitters and Tuesday morning, so the crowd broke quickly this time. But we just want y'all to know, things would have gone on differently had it been a Friday or Saturday night.
"Thank you so much Austin, we'll see you next time." Yes ma'am you sure will. On that Grammy victory lap, perhaps.
But one more thing before we find a bus home. Outside in the chilly air is an organizer, and this brilliant young white man is handing out little flyers for the Barak Obama campaign for President. You pundits who have written off the white vote in the South? Go back and read the beginning of this article. There's a word up there for you.