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Court Yard Hounds deliver quietly riveting bluegrass sounds

By Emily Yahr, The Washington Post

For the majority of Thursday night’s Court Yard Hounds concert, the only sound made by the audience at sixth & I Historic Synagogue was boisterous, between-song applause. Otherwise, the 200-plus crowd watched with rapt attention, but in virtual silence, as sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison blended their gorgeous vocals for an array of country and bluegrass tunes.

The duo, most famously known as two out of three Dixie Chicks, played mostly slow, folksy songs that don’t make for a dynamic listening experience on CD — but in live performance, the women brought a riveting, quiet strength to the material.

A quieter life appears just fine for this band — it’s the polar opposite of the Dixie Chicks, the chart-topping country trio forever associated with lead singer Natalie Maines’s 2003 remark to a London concert crowd about being ashamed that President George W. Bush was from Texas. The controversial comment sparked boycotts, worldwide attention and a brilliantly angry 2006 album, “Taking The Long Way,” that swept the Grammy awards.

Maines took a singing hiatus, which led to this duo — they are careful to note that this is just a side project, and the Chicks are still alive and well — which has much less bite. Even the more upbeat songs from their only album, which came out last spring, are tinged with sadness, probably because the album was written while Robison was in the middle of a divorce.

“These songs were telling me all the gossip I needed to know,” Maguire said. And while introducing the more hopeful-themed “I Miss You,” Maguire said, “This was the song that let me know she wasn’t going to slit her wrists.”

Most of the night’s tunes focused on love and loss, such as the heartbreaking “It Didn’t Make a Sound,” “Skyline” and “See You in the Spring.” Plus, there was the quintessential easy-listening song “The Coast,” their first single — though Robison wondered out loud if you can call something a single if it’s only been played on a couple of radio stations.

Robison took the lead-singer role, and Maguire joined in on harmonies and showed off some incredible fiddle skills, as both singers switched among instruments every song. The audience broke into its loudest reaction at the end of the 90-minute set, stomping and clapping through the rollicking “Ain’t No Son.”

The hushed tone of the concert didn’t seem to bother anyone, least of all Robison, who gushed over Sixth & I and said they enjoy performing in similar venues.

“I feel like sometimes people feel like God is watching, so they can’t get too loud,” Robison joked. “But we love playing here.”

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