The Dixie Chicks are one of music's biggest acts when the trio is together, but that has been the exception for the last five years outside of brief tours and one-off appearances. While between recordings, the group's two sisters, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, have launched a side project under the name Court Yard Hounds. Their performance Tuesday at the Foxwoods Casino's MGM Grand Theater in Mashantucket as part of the venue's summer series of free Tuesday concerts, was for the benefit of a couple of hundred people, but the small crowd was treated to a first-class show.
The sound of the new act ties in some Dixie Chicks threads, but is more firmly in the realm of hard-driving pop rock with roots accents. Robison showed a difference performance philosophy when she opened the show wielding an electric guitar, supporting the punch of "Delight "Something New Under the Sun"). She switched to banjo to complement her Maguire's chipper mandolin in the chugging, piano-lined honky-tonk pop of "It Didn't Make a Sound."
Robison is the primary vocal driver of the new enterprise. She showed a cool reading of the easygoing "See You in the Spring," and shaped the comely reverie of "Skyline." Maguire colored tunes with her fiddle, and added clean vocal harmonies that reinforced the breezy "The Coast."
A five-piece band built a rich hybrid of rock and bluegrass to power the hearty "Phoebe." Their pop backdrops sounded like throwbacks to the 1960s in one verse and something rumbling and contemporary in the next. BoDeans' keyboard player Bukka Allen splashed heavy doses of organ across most tunes, marking the cool roots-pop concoction "I Miss You."
Robison sharpened up her singing alongside the resonator steel guitar she worked into the punchy "Then Again." She finessed the understated contemplation of "Fear of Wasting Time." Her handling of songs was as distinctive as the arrangements in which she worked when it came to carving out sonic signatures separate from the Chicks, well known for . singer Natalie Maines' sassy yelps.
The sisters dug into the Chicks' catalog for the bluegrass workout "Lil' Jack Slade," then built a rowdy rock churn with fiddle and banjo accents in a closing trip through "Ain't No Son." Called back by the small but enthusiastic audience, the group filled its encore with more from the same springy vein.