March 19, 2010 at 03:05 PM EDT

“It was mellow until about 5 minutes ago,” said a man to my left, mid-jostle, as the wide floor of Antone’s became a no-moving zone late last night. The spectacular Americana Music Association SXSW showcase had been rolling since 8 p.m., with expert sets from Jim Lauderdale, Elizabeth Cook, and Hayes Carll, plus special guests Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller — all of whom deserve posts of their own. But when the clock struck 11, the walls began to split at their seams as half of Austin packed in to see the debut of the Court Yard Hounds, a.k.a. Emily Robison and Martie Maguire of the Dixie Chicks.

It’s the most anyone’s really seen of the sisters since Taking the Long Way swept the Grammys in 2007; the pair said they’ve embarked on the project after getting restless waiting for third Chick Natalie Maines to be ready to run again. Their self-titled debut doesn’t hit stores until May 4, but when Robison and Maguire took the stage in front of a five-piece band, flashed calm, confident smiles, and began the harmony-soaked “Delight (Something New Under the Sun)” without ceremony, their music already felt broken in, and the room swelled with attentive joy. “We only have an hour, so we’re going to try and get as much music in as we can,” said Robison. Besides a quick San Antonio joke later on, it was almost all the talking she’d do.

Robison handles most of the frontwoman duties in this new iteration, and her voice shares a frequency with Sheryl Crow circa Globe Sessions. The songs also share Crow’s laid-back California vibe, with a thick helping of Texas kick in crabby rocker “Ain’t No Son” (whose kiss-off lyrics led Robison to joke, “We’ll let y’all figure that one out later”), and road-trippin’ first single “The Coast” (not East or West: Texas Gulf). The sisters grew up as bluegrass prodigies, and can handle pretty much any stringed instrument with ease: Maguire has added viola to her repertoire, and its thick, mournful drone filled “Skyline” with sadness; Robison’s dobro appeared for set closer “It Didn’t Make a Sound.” Jakob Dylan joined the ladies on stage for “See You in the Spring,” the duet he sings with Robison on the record, then stuck around for a hilarious/awesome cover of Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well,” needing a gaff-taped scrap of crib sheet to make it through the third verse. But despite the Son of Bob’s behatted presence, the mesmerizing part of “See You in the Spring” was hearing Robison’s simple fingerpicked banjo at the top, then watching Maguire effortlessly toggle between violin and mandolin through the verses, the same placid smile she wore during Chicks shows never leaving her face.

Honestly, the word that kept coming to mind for the entire hour was “effortless”: if Robison and Maguire are nervous to leave their sidewoman safety, they barely betrayed it. Maguire takes lead vocals on a ballad called “Gracefully,” and there may have been a quiver in her voice until her sister came in behind her with the harmonies. Robison tends to close her eyes when she sings, but that seems more out of peace than fear. Despite years of playing sold-out arenas, the pair seemed thoroughly content to be on the tiny Antone’s stage, with amateur photographers at their feet snapping away for the entire hour, and drunks yapping through the quiet parts. The set finished with what looked to be a unison exhale, then a hug and a proud rub on the back from Maguire to Robison, who bid the crowd farewell with “Thanks. Y’all made us feel so welcome.” The happy room shouted back its thanks in return.

A deeper assessment of the void created by the hysterical ostracization of the Dixie Chicks can be tackled by someone on more than five hours of sleep; all I know is that Maguire and Robison are powerfully talented women, and what they do — to borrow an album title — feels like home to me. I’m pretty sure most of the folks squeezed around me at Antone’s last night would agree, but I’m just basing that on their sloppy smiles. When the AMA emcee reclaimed the mic, he repeated the evening’s catchphrase: “Writers who can write, singers who can sing, players who can play. That’s Americana.” Whatever it is, it felt necessary, like something that’s in short supply. And between this newly minted (lifetime-in-the-making) duo and the just-announced Chicks mini-tour, it’s nice to know the universe will soon be getting a bunch of whatever it is back.

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