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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

October 13, 2003


I re-purchased Their latest album, "Home," because they're now including a bonus in-concert DVD with it.

Having already been knocked out by Allison Moorer's "Show," which showed how even a limited budget for a concert DVD is more than enough if the musicians can actually play, it was without hesitation that I bought "Home" again. They do the entire set live, in order, and the follow it with an encore of 4 of their older songs. You can't knock it.

Sorry to sound snooty, but I've seen enough rock bands and artists in concert to know how very poor it can all be. Start with the bad sound and work your way through the laziness and drunkenness, and even the so-called greatest rock and roll bands in the world are rubbish when you see them live.

Anyway, the thing about both the Chicks and Patty Loveless, and I would guess all "bluegrass" type acts is that they play live with acoustic instruments in front of proper condenser microphones. There's none of that awful-sounding electro-acoustic rubbish. And there's something really quite moving about hearing people play that way. What I always disdained about MTV's so-called unplugged series is that it wasn't, it was a bunch of electro-acoustic guitars plugged into amps and sounding as horrible as they always do. And the problem for rock artists trying to sound acoustic was always that they don't really have the chops or the experience to consistently get the best out of acoustic instruments. Even a band known for their acoustic guitars, like Turin Brakes, just sound like rank amateurs compared to some of these bluegrass guys. I know it's a different kind of music, but it just sounds wishy washy and vague to me.

Now Bluegrass, as you know, suffers from the authenticity fallacy. As a musical form, it came into being in the 1940s, and developed alongside and in parallel with the more electrified kind of country. The problem for many bluegrass musicians is that they insist on treating it as an authentic traditional folk form, fol de rol, and they restrict both their techniques and the material they play to stuff that sounds authentic to their ears. Alison Krauss has pioneered a more forward-looking approach, and she's played both contemporary songs and pop hits of the past, bluegrass style.

But it's when you hear a hybrid form, such as on Loveless' latest, where you can hear all of the original bluegrass instruments and styles played along with telecasters and loud rock drums, that you can hear the possibilities of combining superb musicians with well-honed songs and a great vocalist. And the Dixie Chicks, with "Home," more or less abandoned the drums themselves, and the electric guitars, to play their brand of vocal harmony country pop with a bluegrass backing. And it sounds great.

It's all good, but it's not until you see them do it live that you appreciate how very good they all are. Natalie Maines is a kind of fashion disaster FBP, but you forgive her appearance the moment you hear her sing. And the backing musicians, as you'd expect, simply take your breath away.

It's a strange thing, but seeing this kind of music done live brings tears to my eyes, every time. It happened with Allison Moorer, and Patty Loveless (bonus DVD also included with her latest), and then with the Dixies. I can't contain the emotion. I was in tears throughout. And another wondrous thing is to see the audience, which though mixed, is predominantly made up of young women. And this gives you pause. Because here is this amazingly young audience, incredibly enthusiastic, and they're listening to close vocal harmonies and what is basically bluegrass music, if bluegrass had remembered to forget that it wasn't ever an authentic folk form and took advantage of some decent, contemporary songwriters.

And in spite of the fact that we have difficulties with US foreign policy, and the Dixies themselves have been victims of violence, threats of violence, and the traditional heartland Amerika record-and-poster burnings for speaking out against the war in Iraq; in spite of all that, you can't help wishing you could be in such an audience occasionally - in the USA - because if you went to a Dixie Chicks concert in the UK, you'd be surrounded by old blokes dressed in cowboy gear and Guardian-reading insecure trendies. Why is that?


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