Since the Dixie Chicks began the American leg of their DCX MMXVI Tour on June 1st in Cincinnati, the Texas trio have been covering three Patti Griffin songs during each show. First they would follow “Lubbock or Leave It” with Griffin’s “Truth No. 2,” and shortly thereafter, they would draw out “Top of the World” to prep the crowd for “Goodbye Earl.” Later, during an acoustic interlude, they would make the temperature drop with “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida,” a chilly blues cut from Griffin’s recent American Kid LP.
Last night at Madison Square Garden, playing their first show since Sunday’s Orlando nightclub shooting, they only did the first two, skipping “Florida” for respectful reasons and addressing the killings after hitting “Not Ready to Make Nice” in the encore.
“A real asshole did something real bad this week and made us not ready to make nice,” singer Natalie Maines told the audience, “but we cannot let the hatred and the anger win out. We can’t leave you guys not ready to make nice.” With a rainbow heart in the background and a rainbow flag on the stage, they ended on Ben Harper’s “Better Way,” all three band-members pounding on an upside-down trashcan while insisting that the audience recite the song’s optimistic refrain.
So, ladies and gentlemen, the 2016 Dixie Chicks: nearly as sharp and slightly wiser, still picking plenty of battles but also picking (and re-picking) the kind of set list that remains just in bounds, just out of trouble. DCX MMXVI may have been billed as a reunion tour, but rather than run through their greatest hits, the group — backed by a drummer, keyboardist, two guitarists and a bassist — picked up almost exactly where they left off, favoring their last release, 2006’s Taking the Long Way, while playing only the title track from Wide Open Spaces, their spectacular 1998 debut.
If this meant no “There’s Your Trouble,” it also allowed for ballads like “Easy Silence” and “Favorite Year” to be played back-to-back. Maines never sounded less than excellent: On the latter song, her voice was completely clear, and nimble enough to pick a lock. Just as she let it crack over the switched pronoun in the song’s nostalgic last line, she nearly growled during the final chorus of “Sin Wagon,” which closed the main set. When the group jumped over “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” to a cover of Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons,” Maines sang the Lemonade stand-out as if there were something that she couldn’t quite forgive. (Earlier she had worn an Erykah Badu T-shirt; later, Kanye West.)
The most peculiar moment of the show came when the Chicks performed “Ready to Run” in front of animation mocking the candidates in the 2016 presidential primaries. Unfortunately, the montage was too silly — too harmless — to land. Was it a joke about running from this country and its sorry candidates? Perhaps. But more than anything, its style and content recalled the JibJab-style animation that Toby Keith, the Dixie Chicks’ old nemesis, used to play while he performed “American Ride” at concerts of his own. Both artists were once provocateurs on opposite sides of the genre. They’ve since been pulled close enough to the middle that they can occasionally overlap.
On the flipside, a standout moment came with “Long Time Gone,” which doesn’t get enough credit for its early incarnation of the No Jobs/No Hope/No Cash meme. In New York, the trio played it like a funk song, leaning back on the fiddle-and-banjo groove before slowing down to cover “Nothing Compares 2 U” in honor of Prince. Even before they showed off with light-speed bluegrass, it was clear that this band could once again become the best in Nashville — all they’d need is three plane tickets. Their choice of covers suggests that they haven’t been listening to much contemporary country. In the age of Sturgill Simpson and Thomas Rhett, that means they’ll fit right in.