Speaking out against her fellow Texan’s presidential policies earned her binders full of haters, and it maybe even put the kibosh on her once hugely famous group the Dixie Chicks. However, Natalie Maines’ voice is still her greatest attribute, and she used it in new and potent ways during her coming-out showcase as a solo artist Wednesday at the “Austin City Limits” theater.
Now an Austin resident with a newly shortened and punky hairdo, the 38-year-old country singer – or is it “ex-country singer?” – debuted a rockier new sound with a large band, which included hippie-rock stalwart Ben Harper on lap-steel guitar. All the songs they played appear on her solo album due out May 7, including two tracks originally written by Minnesota artists: “I’d Run Away” by the Jayhawks and “Free Life” by Dan Wilson (both Wilson and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris also co-wrote tunes for the Chicks’ last album). She reshaped the latter tune into a darker and stormier showpiece. She also dedicated "Free Life" to the newly freed West Memphis Three, whose overturned murder conviction championed alongside other celebs such as Eddie Vedder (the Pearl Jam frontman’s “Without You” is also part of her new song arsenal, as are two of Harper’s cuts).
Despite a nearly eight-year hiatus from regularly performing, Maines didn’t seem to lose one iota of power in her voice, and her musical transition sounded equally effortless and natural. She often sounded more in line with Ann Wilson of Heart than Anne Murray of Nashville in the Chicks, anyway, a point reiterated by the chilling rendition of Pink Floyd’s lonely classic “Mother,” which became the pinnacle of Wednesday’s set. Also the title track of her album, the Roger Waters-penned classic reflected Maines’ title at home in recent years as well as the figurative walls that went up after the Dixie Chicks political dust-up. It was a bold song choice, and at least in this case her gutsiness paid off.
LATER ON WEDNESDAY: We knew it would be a gamble exiting Stubb’s after Nick Cave to go catch Maines, given that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were on a few bands after Cave at the NPR showcase. Sure enough, the line outside Stubb’s screamed, “No, no no.”
Our frustration doubled when we bounced to a boat-shed-turned-nightclub called Viceland to catch the Joy Formidable, only to find the venue operating an hour behind schedule. That meant waiting through two nearly unbearable acts: Austra, an ethereal, classical-meets-trip-hop Toronto band fronted by three women sang like whales mating, and who could go home with this year’s Most Pretentious trophy; and Icona Pop, a duo of hip Swedish songstresses who acted like cheerleaders onstage and played to an equally hyper pop-dance backing tracks that sounded like Robyn produced by Will.I.Am.
The wait paid off, though. A SXSW discovery for many attendees in 2011, Welch trio the Joy Formidable returned to the fest a louder, faster, bigger-sounding band. Most of the songs in their strobe-laden set came off of the new sophomore album, “Wolf’s Law,” including the brooding but burning gem “The Ladder Is Ours” early in the set and the repetitious rattler “Bats” toward the end. While she had a little help with pre-recorded augmentation, frontwoman Ritzy Bryan still wringed an impressive amount of noise out of her guitar. Even the finale “Whirring” -- a staple of the band’s earlier live shows – had sharper fangs Wednesday. Too bad the hour or two beforehand bit so bad, but so goes SXSW.