The mantra of the annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, which returned to Manchester, Tennessee, this weekend after a forced two-year absence, is “radiate positivity.” For the group formerly known as the Dixie Chicks — queens of the scorched-earth, fiddle-and-banjo-tinged, stick-a-pin-in-your-voodoo-doll revenge-fantasy rallying call — those posi vibes came by way of killing Russian president Vladimir Putin in effigy. On Friday, the Chicks debuted as both the festival’s first-ever country and female-fronted headliner. And just like Earl, Vlad had to die.
Putin’s figurative demise came during a mid-set performance of “Tights on My Boat” — a playfully savage ditty about karma and how it’s a bitch, with a repeating chorus of “you’re gonna get what’s comin’ to ya” and a deliciously hateful, brutally unambiguous opening couplet of: “I hope you die peacefully in your sleep / just kidding / I hope it hurts like you hurt me.” On a widescreen behind the band, an animated image of Putin grimaced in horror when struck by a construction-paper missile that plunged his sinking ship into the shark-infested crimson tide of an ocean made of lava, triggering the eruption of a volcano, along with an explosion of cheers in the audience. Another verse featured a similar depiction of Ted Cruz, but the Chicks graciously let him live (though it’s reasonable to assume they’re ashamed that the senator is from Texas).
“You guys see how we killed Putin in that song?” a chipper Natalie Maines bantered, radiating positivity while holding for applause. “It’s not so hard!”
For some, music festivals like Bonnaroo (which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year) are a vehicle for escapism. Like Tool singer Maynard James Keenan who, during his band’s headlining set Saturday said: “We’ve been through a lot; we’ll get through a lot. Today, we deserve a break.” For others, robbed of these grand communal events indefinitely during the Covid-19 pandemic, they are about catharsis.
The Chicks — rounded out by multi-instrumentalist/vocalists Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire — satisfied both camps at Bonnaroo. The notoriety Maines & co. garnered in the mid-2000s as mainstream country music’s most outspoken (or, at the time,2 only outspoken) liberals is the band’s brand in 2022. This was evidenced by the group taking the stage to the sounds of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” And if Chicks hits like “Wide Open Spaces,” “Not Ready to Make Nice,” “Goodbye Earl,” and “Landslide” (the latter of which got an encore performance during Stevie Nicks’ festival-closing headline set on Sunday) didn’t resonate with Bonnaroo’s target demographic of twentysomethings when they first heard them in their parents’ minivans during the group’s salad days, they sure strike a chord now. A Gen-Z and Millennial hoe-down kicked up dust on the farm during the back-catalog bangers.
“Tights” was one of five songs the Chicks played off their 2020 comeback album Gaslighter, at Bonnaroo, only the second show of the group’s first tour in five years. And where the hits brought on the nostalgia feels, the newer material — like “March March,” or a cover of Patty Griffin’s “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” — kept the crowds’ attention by reflecting the zeitgeist. The band broadcast messages supporting racial justice, body autonomy, and gun control across the stage’s video walls too, earning cheers from the tens-of-thousands festivalgoers.
In the end, Maines, a dynamic, all-in performer, may have left too much on the stage Friday night: The Chicks were forced to cut short their next concert Sunday night in Indianapolis after the singer lost her voice.