This ain’t your father’s country: With bigscreen projections, a giant inflatable fly buzzing the crowd pre-show a la Pink Floyd, a Web site as a tour sponsor and an arena full of largely female teens and twentysomethings rabidly proclaiming “Chicks rule!,” the winsome Dixie Chicks — Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Seidel — are a new breed of Music Row-by-way-of-Texas hitmakers in the process of successfully headlining their first tour.
The chord progressions and juke-joint themes (“Tonight the Heartache’s on Me,” “Hello Mr. Heartache,” “Heartbreak Town”) may echo Hank Williams, but these Chicks have enough contempo gloss, energy and attitude to rival boy bands and country crossovers alike. If Shania Twain can have a primetime special, these new millennium-model Mandrell sisters (Robison and Seidel are, in fact, banjo- and fiddle-playing singing sisters) deserve their own series. And with Twain and Garth Brooks not making the concert rounds this summer, this well-paced show will certainly garner the threesome worthy critical attention and packed houses.
First of two perfs at the Pond (oddly alternating with two nights of the Up in Smoke rapfest) began appropriately with “Ready to Run,” the perky first track from the 1999 Monument/Sony release “Fly,” after the stage curtain literally “unzipped” itself. Among other numerous production highlights were fake snowflakes cascading onto the Anaheim aud during the ballad “Cold Day in July”; a slide show featuring childhood pictures of the girls, with accompanying playful banter (more Mandrell-like moments); strategically placed fans of the wind-producing variety at the foot of the stage to provide dramatic hair-blowing during solos; and plenty of wholesome sass from lead singer Maines directed at the enthusiastic crowd.
While all three are able singers and musicians, that didn’t seem to preclude an occasional vocal or instrumental sweetening. (A spot-on dobro solo from Robison while dancing in a three-quarter length dress? Let’s see Clapton or Knopfler try that!) But they were definitely all playing during a “Hee Haw”-inspired jam that teased with Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken.”
Acoustic middle portion, rendered on a couch mid-stage, featured the return of opener Patty Griffin to help sing her self-penned “Let Him Fly,” a tune integral to the Chicks’ latest disc. Griffin has demonstrated pronounced artistic growth, having gone from her stark folk-demo debut to the varied moods of her second effort, “Flaming Red.” A strong singer and insightful songwriter, she shows the stylistic promise of fellow Interscope labelmate Sheryl Crow, who with ever-handy accordion and guitar also took a seat on the Chicks’ sofa to add her “Strong Enough” to the set.
Tight band, evidently needing no introduction, dressed all in black, apparently to blend even further into the background, but there was no hiding the pop- and rock-solid drumming of Jim Bogios and stellar pedal steel work of Tim Sergent (the only backing musician to make it to the big screens).
Rousing encore found Maines taking a position among the back floor rows while Robison and Seidel flanked high up in the venue’s cheap seats to provide essentially a live accompaniment to their cheeky domestic violence-themed “Goodbye Earl” video (featuring Dennis Franz, Jane Krakowski and Lauren Holly) that played out on the stage screens.