Court Yard Hounds @ Oakville, CA

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Robert Mondavi Winery

Court Yard Hounds’ country charms festival crowd
By L. Pierce Carson, Napa Valley Register

Formed in 1989, the super country music trio, the Dixie Chicks, has sold more than 30 million recordings and gained favor all over the world.

With sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison as well as lead singer Natalie Maines, the talented trio put its recording and touring efforts on hold late last year at Maines’ request. 

That decision prompted sisters Maguire and Robison to team up on another performance project they call the Court Yard Hounds, a name they took from a fictional book within author David Benioff’s “City of Thieves.” 

Although officially on hiatus, the Dixie Chicks did regroup last month to play a few gigs on the current Eagles summer tour.

Other than listening to and enjoying some of the trio’s CDs, that’s all I know about the Dixie Chicks — oh, other than that Maines got the trio into hot water a few years back by bashing Bush and the Iraq war from the concert stage.

So, I showed up along with another 650 or so souls at the Robert Mondavi Summer Festival Saturday night eager to be charmed by the singing/songwriting sisters calling themselves Court Yard Hounds.

Let me say at the outset, all of us were roundly impressed by the musicianship displayed by Maguire and Robison and a hard-working backup quintet. We noticed even before their hour and 20 minute set began that an arsenal of stringed instruments flanked the outdoor stage. The sisters not only played them all, they played them extremely well.

Musicianship aside, this listener, for one, was not as moved by the songwriting talents on display Saturday night.

The sisters included 10 of the 12 cuts from their first Hounds recording on Saturday night’s menu, serving up innocuous rhyme-time material for the better part of an hour, before giving us more honest, heartfelt material to round out the show. I couldn’t help but think the other evening that some of the song lyrics could be compared to freshly cooked spaghetti.

Throw ’em up against a wall of faces and a few stick — others don’t. Asked after the conclusion of Saturday’s concert what they recalled about the show, several in the audience raved about outstanding bluegrass, terrific turns on fiddle and banjo and Emily Robison’s ode to the rewards and joys of motherhood in “Fear of Wasted Time.” And, without a doubt, we were impressed that daughter Juliana joined her mom on stage to add a percussive flavor to the final encore.

There was something poignantly touching when Robison sang: “I hold my babies tight, sneak into their beds at night, I’ll just stay and watch them breathing, next thing I know the alarm clock’s ringing ...”, compared to “‘I Miss You’, I can’ wait to kiss you.”

 Now, Maguire and Robison are quite capable of crafting upbeat, catchy choruses for such songs as “The Coast,” the current single about the Texas coast with its breezy hook, and the fiery outrage of “Ain’t No Son,” a song about an angry, disapproving father. 

There’s also a Texas theme to “See You in the Spring” —  which Robison performed with guitarist/fellow songwriter Martin Strayer the other night — a wry tale of a star-crossed couple from the northernmost and southernmost parts of the country who find their biggest obstacle is accepting each other’s climate change. “Then Again,” another faster-paced song of some substance, incorporated self-doubting feminine levity.

Attired in knee-high leather boots and glittery/frilly cowgirl tops and jeans, Martie Maguire fiddled up a proverbial storm while sister Emily Robison beguiled us on the banjo and a whole slew of guitars. Backing them up were a couple of outstanding guitarists, Audley Freed and Martin Strayer, keyboardist Daniel Clarke (who also wailed on a Hammond B-3 organ), bassist George Reiff and drummer Fred Eltringham.

It was a fun evening, even if some of the material was forgettable. The sisters are a great team and I, for one, enjoyed spending time with them.

Will the Court Yard Hounds continue? What about the future of the Dixie Chicks? “When that presents itself, we’ll figure out how to marry the two,” says Robison. “Natalie will be the first one to tell you that she’s very supportive; she just doesn’t want to be in the studio and going through the whole process right now. Martie and I love to work and create and be making something, so being off was difficult for us. Just to be able to fulfill that and not have to dismantle the Dixie Chicks — why can’t we do both? We’re going to push to make it a complete entity and have fun with it.”

That they did.

A stellar opener

There was a most appealing opening act Saturday night. Armed with guitar and harmonica, 27-year-old Ohio native Griffin House presented intensely personal, richly detailed vignettes of the highs and lows of his own life, and we were moved.

House’s existence, it seems, mirrors that of a lot of us, from missing one’s sweetheart (reflected in “River City Lights” from the new CD, “The Learner,” as well as “Standing at the Station,” which was offered in both French and English) to the search for one’s place in the world (“A Long Way to Go”).

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