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Natalie Maines wasn’t just whistlin’ Dixie, or singing many Dixie Chicks songs at all, as her solo tour hit the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. Tuesday night. The contrast between this show and her last officially advertised local gig, when she played Staples Center with the Chicks in 2006, was severe, not just in size but musical style and even level of physical expressiveness. All that was consistent was the excellence, as the artist formerly known as one of country’s all-time finest transitions to being one of our best rock singers, regardless of how hep a mass audience may be to the reinvention.
Her solo debut of a few months back, Mother, has fallen short of the recognition it deserves — though Maines hasn’t necessarily gone the extra mile to make it easy for all her old fans to jump over with her, between her still-controversial brunette quiff, the uninviting album cover, and her well-known ambivalence about even pursuing a career anymore. More’s the pity, since the only real problem with Mother is that, at an old-fashioned length of just 10 songs, it feels too short. That key drawback was rectified at the El Rey with an 85-minute set that embellished a full run-through of the album with three additional cover songs and three selections from the latter- days Chicks catalog.
References to the controversy that landed the Chicks in hot water with conservative country fans a decade ago were pretty much non-existent, at least until she wrapped up the main part of the set with the Chicks’ self-referential “Not Ready to Make Nice.” But during the opening number, her take on Pink Floyd’s “Mother,” the line “Mother, should I run for president?” drew a whooping cheer, perhaps representing the last remnants of a Bush-era “draft Natalie” movement. Early in the set, she began a rare bit of stage talk by saying “Just so you know…,” and for a moment, the crowd might have expected an echo of her legendary “Just so you know… we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas” patter. Instead, she said, “Just so you know, tonight’s show is gluten-free, dairy-free, fat-free, and sugar-free, so all are welcome.” Apparently she’s quite ready to make nutritious.
The dominant instrument by far among her five-man backing band was Ben Peeler’s constant and expressive lap steel guitar — not to be confused with the pedal steel, since there’s nary a trace of country in Maines’ sound nowadays. Peeler’s work (inspired by producer Ben Harper’s steel contributions on the album) lent a George Harrison-esque power pop feel to songs like Eddie Vedder’s “Without You” and the Jayhawks’ “I’d Run Away,” the latter of which had him doubling up with lesser-featured electric guitarist Jason Mozersky for a twin-lead part. When Peeler finally really let it rip with an extended solo at the end of Maines’ emotional encore ballad, “Take It on Faith,” it represented a quick, blissful trip to jam-band territory.
Maines spent a lot of years playing arenas in the round with the Chicks, gleefully traversing huge, 360-degree stages. So seeing her stationary behind a microphone all night, usually strumming a guitar, prompted some mixed feelings: A completely fixed Natalie Maines feels slightly reductionist, to the extent that it dampens the natural physicality and charisma we’ve seen before, but also pleasingly organic, now that she has no more choreographed marks to hit 50 times a night. She moved a little more as the set progressed, but it was all about showcasing a voice that by rights ought to be considered alongside Ann Wilson and Grace Slick in the rocker-chick annals.
Her version of Jeff Buckley’s “Lover You Should Have Come Over,” in particular, is one of the highlights of the musical year, live or on record. It’s a both tricky and epic song to sing, finding ever-increasing cascades of desire and lament over the course of seven gradually building minutes, and one that brings out all of Maines’ octave-spanning abilities, to the point of a falsetto, even, above her highest range. The experience of it is exhilarating and draining enough that it seemed inevitable when she jokingly said “Thank you, goodnight” after singing it, even though it was only the sixth number in her set.
The Mother disc peaks with that song, too, mid-album, which arguably represents a gaffe in sequencing. But if a fan thought there might not be any such further peaks to finish up with at the El Rey, that was before she transformed the angry “Not Ready to Make Nice” into more of a rock ballad than the Chicks were able to, with Maines accompanying herself on a Neil Young-ish distorted guitar before the band kicked in. This followed the equally rage-fueled “Lubbock or Leave It,” which stood out as the lone rocker on the Chicks’ Taking the Long Way album, and finally got the near-metal treatment it deserved here.
Although Maines is certainly capable of soulful delicacy, the night’s best moments had her as a fired-up hard rocker, including covers of two Patty Griffin songs in a row — “Please Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” and “Silver Bell” — and the Gossip’s “Dimestore Diamond,” as well as her own sassy “Trained.” If Maines would only go back and re-do a few more Chicks songs in this mode, too. Some of us, anyway, would welcome a “Long Time Gone” with slamming guitars replacing the fiddles and mandolins, as long as Maines is in this not-ready-to-make-soft mood.
Please Don’t Let Me Die in Florida
Lover You Should Have Come Over
I’d Run Away
Vein in Vain
Come Cryin’ to Me
Lubbock or Leave It
Not Ready to Make Nice
Take It on Faith
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