Something old. Something new… But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
That was the lesson learned Friday afternoon at The Taste of Chicago as Court Yard Hounds opened up for 76 year old country legend Loretta Lynn.
It’s an adage Lynn has clearly been wise to follow and one that her opening act would be wise to think more about.
Court Yard Hounds (fronted by sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire) played a predictable set of their pop-leaning take on country and bluegrass. The Hounds can really be more easily described as The Dixie Chicks minus the controversial Natalie Maynes. And it’s more interesting to describe them as “two thirds of the Dixie Chicks” because there was very little else that was interesting or entertaining about them on Friday. If I had closed my eyes, I would’ve assumed I was at a Sheryl Crow concert. The songs were that derivative.
Like them or not, at least the The Dixie Chicks had interesting moments. They could be controversial or thought-provoking and were never afraid to express an opinion. Court Yard Hounds do none of that. And that would be fine if they were content to just let good music speak for them. But despite the instrumentation (violin, mandolin and banjo alongside guitar, bass and drums), their songs were merely formulaic pop with a tad of bluegrass thrown on top to give it remote country appeal. This was a band who clearly went through the motions when choosing songs for their eponymous 2010 debut album and who went through the motions playing those songs live on Friday.
Loretta Lynn took the stage (fronting a nine piece band featuring several of her family members) as the polar opposite of the utterly inauthentic Court Yard Hounds. Lynn remains in career resurgence after 2004′s Jack White produced comeback album Van Lear Rose. 2011 even saw her headline the Bonnaroo festival to tremendous acclaim. She was clearly passionate about the songs that she was about to sing and performed them in a professional manner that was a welcome departure from the opening set. She was in outstanding voice (a voice on full display during a medley of Patsy Cline hits), was sharp as a tack and was engaging throughout her set (her performance of “They Just Don’t Make ‘Em Like My Daddy Anymore” was particulary charming).
Put simply in a word, she was impressive. And she would’ve been impressive on Friday whether she was 76 or 26. She was that good.
My only complaint with her set is one that often plagues veteran acts. To be fair, Lynn’s band was solid. They were tight and they accompanied her well. The problem was that the show opened with fifteen or twenty minutes of that band covering bad contemporary country songs like Toby Keith’s “As Good as I Once Was.” And this is a tactic that many older acts employ. They allow their band to do the heavy lifting in order to stretch out the length of the set. This way, instead of Loretta Lynn just playing for thirty minutes, they deliver a full hour set, in the process allowing the 76 year old star to rest a bit and stay at the top of her game during all of her parts. I get that. But the band could’ve chosen a bit more wisely than covering Toby Keith and The Eagles (The Eagles’ 2007 hit “How Long” immediately preceded Lynn’s 1969 classic “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and was the second to last song played that day… which continues to boggle my mind).
All of that being said, Lynn ran that band like it was a well oiled machine, dictating what songs would be played and keeping the band in check (She admonished one band member as he tried to regale the crowd with a lengthy bad joke by repeatedly yelling at him to “Come on now, get on with it!”). This is clearly a no-nonsense woman making the most of the time she’s got left who’s not about to take anybody’s shit.
I attended the show with friend and colleague Greg Alexander. Greg and I attend many concerts together and from here out, Greg will offer his opinion for any show that the two of us attend. (Full disclosure: Greg is a huge Loretta Lynn fan… so much so that he named his car “Loretta” upon hearing her 2004 hit “Van Lear Rose” on the radio while driving the new car off of the lot having spent all day at the dealer). GREG’S TWO CENTS… “Never say ‘too old.’ It is possible to age gracefully.” Amen to that.