Dixie Chicks/ Thorns, Royal Albert Hall, London<br></br>Jayhawks, Shepherds Bush Empire, London

The Bananarama of bluegrass
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The Independent Culture

If they'd changed their name from the Dixie Chicks to the Chicks With Dix, they could not have caused more of a stir deep in the dark heart of Texas. After singer Nathalie Maines declared from a London stage last March that she was "ashamed" to come from the same state as George Bush, DC fans (that's Dixie Chicks and Washington) all over "patriotic" redneckville decided to burn their records and trample them with tractors (really).

None of which would have mattered had the Dixie Chicks not been the seven Grammy-nominated, multi-million-unit-shifting sensation they were. Back in London, they are chastened but unapologetic. They bound on to the stage to the sound of Costello blasting "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?". Three songs in and Maines is teasing us with: "You know we are ashamed... we have never played the Royal Albert Hall before." Later, fiddle player Martie Maguire asks, "Do you know what makes me proud to be American? It's the fact we invented the banjo."

Which is all well and good and the Chicks positively burst with energy and good-natured bravura, but it's difficult to understand their enormous popularity. As they switch from Shania-style stadium pleasers to small-scale country hoedowns, their lively performance reveals them to be little more than the Bananarama or Busted of bluegrass - a sexed-up and over-egged machine built to energetically perform other people's songs and spin the public into believing they are the real deal.

Earlier in the evening, support had come from a different kind of machine altogether. The Thorns are three semi-successful American singer-songwriters - Matthew Sweet, Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins - who tired of waiting in the wings and decided to pool their considerable resources in an astute musical merger. A year ago, sitting on a porch writing songs (as you do), Sweet told Droge, "I bet in a year's time we'll be on CMT [Country Music Television] and supporting the Dixie Chicks." At some point on this tour, Droge said: "You know Matthew, when you said that I thought you were joking." Sweet's reply? "I was fucking joking."

So this is second chance time, and boy do these dudes deserve one. Critics have been trotting out the Crosby Stills Nash comparisons and, sure, they are worthy. But the Thorns sound is actually more that of a countrified Bee Gees - and when you're talking vocal harmonies, compliments come no higher.

The Thorns own songs are sweet, pure and true, but they also give great cover. As the sound of the Jayhawks' "Blue" rang round the Albert Hall, one could only wonder whether the Thorns could achieve what that group has never been able to: appeal to the kind of people who buy Dixie Chicks records without turning into performing puppets.

Later in the week, as the Jayhawks trot out miss after glorious miss, it becomes even more astonishing that this group - with a back catalogue of songs any band would sell their souls for - missed out on the kind of sales the Dixie Chicks and their ilk garner so effortlessly. Nearly 20 years on - and with their brilliant recent album Rainy Day Music again failing to give them the breakthrough they deserve - it is increasingly looking as if they may forever fall through the net of public consciousness.

Or maybe, in years to come, the Jayhawks will be revered as only a group who never received what was rightfully theirs can be. Right now, it's all feeling a little last-chance saloon and the band are reduced to selling self-produced bootlegs in the foyer to augment ever-diminishing returns. Heavy sigh... What the Jayhawks would only give to have someone, anyone, publicly burn their records.

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