Court Yard Hounds @ Buffalo

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buffcyh.jpg
photo by Bill Wippert

Court Yard Hounds fill void

Whether you’re an actor or a musician, if you gain renown as the master of supporting roles, making the jump to center stage can be a tall order. And in 2010, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire of the Dixie Chicks did just that, releasing their first record as Court Yard Hounds. By stepping into the void left by lead singer Natalie Maines’ extended sabbatical, the sisters made it clear that they weren’t interested in being typecast.

Like a character actor who suddenly landed the role of a superhero, it was easy to be skeptical about how the duo would fare without the polarizing presence of their band-leader to hide behind. But during their set on Thursday evening in an idyllic Erie Canal Harbor setting, they absolutely deserved the spotlight.

The Hounds have a humbler, sweeter sound than the Dixie Chicks, largely because of Robison, who handles the lion’s share of the songwriting and lead vocals. The instrumental formula is much the same (ingratiating pop melodies with light country inflections) but unlike the belting Maines, Robison’s vocal style is straightforward, reminiscent of an artist who sounded great at Darien Lake on the previous night — Sheryl Crow. With a dependable five-piece ensemble rounding out her compositions, and her sister providing tasteful fiddle runs and beautiful, tried-and-true vocal harmonies, Robison had plenty of reasons to feel comfortable in her new role at the center of things.

Still, this wasn’t challenging stuff; these easygoing melodies are made to drift along waterfronts while people kick back after a hard day’s work. But if you were in the mood to listen closer on Thursday, you would’ve discovered a darker streak among all the sonic pleasantries. The duo’s self-titled 2010 album was deeply informed by Robison’s divorce, resulting in songs like “It Didn’t Make a Sound,” a bit of blues-pop that is as lighthearted as can be, until you realize that the “it” in the song is the narrator’s heart. This was followed by a new tune, a bit of moody bluegrass marked by the lament, “It’s too hot today,” and “See You in the Spring” about a woman who leaves her man because the winters in his hometown are unbearable. It resonated for obvious reasons.

Do Robison and Maguire have what it takes to become world-conquering superstars on their own? Probably not, but like most supporting players who strike out on their own, they possess a palpable appreciation to be out there performing. The A-listers might be more entertaining, but they’re usually much harder to believe.

Opening act Alison Pipitone continued her long-running reign as our scene’s Chrissie Hynde, ripping through a set of well-worn, bluesy rock.

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