They were the biggest-selling girl band and country group in the USA, with the hottest song in the country – until one sentence cost them everything. Now, twenty years after criticising George Bush and the imminent Iraq War at a London concert, which resulted in perhaps the biggest blacklisting in music history, The (Dixie) Chicks are back in the UK.
Opening the show was contemporary country artist Maren Morris. She wore a sparkly, multicoloured bodycon; she might be a country singer but she’s got pop princess energy. Whilst she and the woman in her band looked slick and stylish, the three guys were quite the contrast. They were all dressed very casually, in unironed t-shirts. It was quite endearing. But for what they lack in fashion, they make up for in talent.
Maren’s second song was her second single, ’80s Mercedes’, which I used to be obsessed with; I played it all the damn time. Seeing it performed live took me back to my teenage years. Maren has great stage presence, and her energy in this number was electric. For the bridge, she marched her way over to her backing singer and faced her as she sang and shook; she slowed things down before turning to the audience for the final chorus and owning the stage.
She sang some older songs and some newer ones. Her penultimate song was her second biggest hit, ‘The Bones’, a version of which is a collaboration with Hozier. This song is even more beautiful sang live.
Sadly, Maren did not sing her biggest hit (and her only UK hit), ‘The Middle’, a collaboration with Zedd and Grey. I’m not sure why she neglected to sing it. It’s got over a billion streams on Spotify. There will have been plenty of people in attendance who had no idea who she was but will have been familiar with that song. Perhaps she only wanted to sing songs she wrote herself; songs that mean more to her. Maybe she wanted to show off her lesser-known material. Either way, I think she should have ended her set with it, rather than her debut single, ‘My Church’.
That said, Maren is incredibly talented, and I enjoyed all of her songs. She was the perfect opening act for The Chicks, and a lot of people in the audience were familiar with her. “For those of you who don’t know, I’m Maren Morris,” she said humbly, which was quickly followed by a huge cheer which could be translated to “We know who you are!”
Previously known as Dixie Chicks (a nod to Lowell George‘s Dixie Chicken album), the band dropped “Dixie” in 2020, citing negative connotations – and probably a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, which pushed the arts into a cultural reckoning. Their eighth album, Gaslighter, is the first, and to date only, album released under the new name.
During the interval, a series of music videos were played, all by female rockers, from Annie Lennox to The Go-Go’s. The Chicks were a little late on, resulting in the Lennox track being played twice. It was cut mid-way through as the lights went down and another track played, which was followed by an overture, featuring a few of The Chicks’ songs.
The band opened the show with the lead single and title track from ‘Gaslighter’, which is my favourite song of theirs. I first heard it during the pandemic, and I have loved it ever since. It’s a bit more pop-oriented than their older stuff so it was a great, groovy opening. They began singing ‘Gaslighter’ behind a curtain, which suddenly fell from the sky, revealing the girls and their touring band. Lead singer Natalie Maines stood at the back of the stage whilst sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer stood at the stage left and right, respectively, before all coming together for the final chorus.
After a series of lesser-known songs, they performed ‘Ready to Run’. Whilst it was their third biggest UK chart hit, it only reached no. 53; The Chicks had far, far more success in their native US than the UK (not many country singers make it big over here), yet they still sell out arenas. Their fan base, though not huge, is loyal.
Weirdly, like Maren, The Chicks did not perform their only UK hit, ‘There’s Your Trouble’ (no. 26).
‘Ready to Run’ was followed by a series of US hits: ‘Travelin’ Soldier’ (their successful cover of a non-single track written and recorded by Bruce Robison and first covered by Ty England), ‘Wide Open Spaces’ (a single from the band’s fourth album and the first to feature Natalie), and a medley of ‘Daddy Lessons’ and ‘Long Time Gone’, two songs which address a fictional “daddy”. The former, originally a solo track on Beyoncé‘s Lemonade, was released as a promotional single featuring The Chicks. It charted well for a promo single: no. 41 in the US, 40 in the UK, and 25 in Scotland. It’s their second-biggest UK chart hit.
Natalie really got to show off her vocals with the beautiful ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’ and the band’s more successful cover of Fleetwood Mac‘s ‘Landslide’. The latter is the band’s joint highest-charting US hit (both it and ‘Long Time Gone’ reached no. 7), but when Natalie criticised George Bush and the Iraq War, it dropped from no. 10 to 43 in one week and left the chart a week later. It was quite poignant seeing them sing this song live.
Before singing ‘Landslide’, Natalie introduced us to her son, Slade, who plays in the touring band. She told us that they recorded the song shortly after he was born. The song’s lyrics about “children” make the performance even more touching. I’m glad Natalie has something positive to associate the song with and not just the band’s blacklisting, which was a consequence of her words.
The band then sang a series of lesser-known songs, beginning with two covers. First, they covered Miley Cyrus‘ ‘Rainbowland’ featuring Dolly Parton.
“Pride Month is sadly over but we celebrate it 365 days a year ’cause everybody should be free to be themselves and love who they chose,” Natalie said passionately, to applause from the audience. The performance was accompanied by multicoloured lights.
After this, Natalie told us that we should come to the US and try their air-conditioning, a polite dig at the UK’s abysmal air-con.
“Speaking of being sweaty and hot, here’s one about Florida – that’s one of its best qualities,” she joked, which was the second dig at Florida of the night; a previous song had seen caricatures of Florida resident Donald Trump (flying on Vladimir Putin) and Florida Governor Ron Desantis on the back screen. The band then offered a rendition of Patty Griffin‘s ‘Don’t Let Me Die in Florida’, which they have performed previously.
Speaking of the screens, I liked that the screens at either side of the stage often featured a sister each before switching to Natalie.
The penultimate song of the night was ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’. Whilst The Chicks were blacklisted in 2003, and Natalie promptly apologised for criticising Bush and his illegal war, who back then was universally popular, she rescinded that apology in 2006, saying Bush deserved no respect. That same year, the band released the aforementioned song, which was a response to the unprecedented backlash. The song initially peaked at no. 23, their first hit since the blacklisting, and went on to win a whopping three Grammys, which led to the song re-entering the charts and peaking at no. 4, making it the band’s biggest hit – poetic, right?
Whilst there was no encore, The Chicks closed the concert with an electrifying performance of ‘Goodbye Earl’, a murder ballad that tells the story of a victim of domestic abuse who murders her husband with the help of her best friend – for that’s what friends are for!
Sadly, I had to leave just after the first chorus so I could make the 11pm bus back to Burnley but I heard them sing the brilliant lyric, “It turns out he was a missing person who nobody missed at all.”
The Chicks are all middle-aged mothers now but they have not lost their edge; they’re three of the coolest moms out there. They’re multi-instrumentalist masters of country, with gorgeous voices and pretty faces to match.
I must also comment on their outfits: Natalie wore a sparkly black hoodie; Martie wore a black blazer, crop top and shorts; and Emily wore a funky white top.
Martie and Emily did not say a word all night; Natalie not only sings lead but also does all the talking. I get the impression that the sisters are there just to make music; the fame and renown is never what they were interested in. That said, Natalie is the only member without social media.
The Chicks were “cancelled” for something that would not even make the news today. They broke barriers for country artists who, for so long, kept their noses out of politics, knowing they’d alienate half of their fan base. Even Taylor Swift waited until she became a music icon before finally coming out as a liberal. Shania Twain, the Queen of Country, made a vague comment about Canada not being involved in war a couple of decades ago, before admitting she would have supported Trump a few years back, quickly apologising and eventually evolving into an all-out drag queen-loving queer ally with pronouns in her bio. The Chicks walked so that others, even country legends, could run!