Toronto, ON 2003

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Arena Roars For Chic Chicks

by Vit Wagner
Toronto Star

"The good thing about being here," Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines announced to a sold-out Air Canada Centre, "is that you all understand freedom of speech and freedom of expression."

The unspoken subtext of her remarks was that the same could no longer be said for many of her fellow Americans.

The popular Texas country trio -- also including fiddler Martie Maguire and banjo specialist Emily Robison -- became the unofficial poster band for free speech this spring when Maines confided to a London audience that she was ashamed to share the same home state with U.S. President George W. Bush. That led to a boycott of Dixie Chicks music by two large U.S. radio conglomerates, including disciplinary action against DJs who refused to toe the line.

Record sales dipped as a result, although the group is still projected to finish the year as country music's most lucrative touring act.

"It becomes a freedom of speech issue when you get banned at the corporate level," said Maines during a press conference after Wednesday night's concert. "Media consolidation is a real problem.

"People kept saying that we were just whining about freedom of speech because these consequences happened as far as (reduced) record sales and (radio stations) not playing us. And that wasn't it at all. It felt very un-American and confusing to see an entire media corporation put a ban on your music because you do not think the same way they think. That's when freedom of speech is in jeopardy."

Maines and her mates also jumped to the defence of country legend Merle Haggard, who is facing his own radio fatwa after recording "That's The News," a song about how big media firms are compliantly dishing out whatever they are fed by the Bush administration. "(Haggard) is a mainstay of country music," Robison said. "To ban Merle Haggard is just not right."

"They've turned what happened to us into a verb," added Maguire. "You can get `Dixie Chicked.' If we had to be the example, that's fine. But I hate that it's happened to other people.

"People think they believe in freedom of speech, but they don't realize that in order to believe in it you have to exercise tolerance," she later added. "You can't just believe in it when people agree with you."

The Toronto show, postponed in June because of SARS, was a large-scale arena extravaganza that leaned more heavily toward frivolity than politics. The most notable exception came during the performance of "Truth No. 2" from the band's current disc, Home, which was accompanied by a video reel of people marching for peace and various forms of civil rights.

Maines and company including eight other country players, led by band leader David Grissom, as well as a string quartet kept the audience fully lathered during a 100-minute set that opened with roof-raiser "Goodbye Earl" and ended 21 songs later with an equally unbridled "Sin Wagon." An attempt to quieten the house during the low-key lullaby "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)" proved futile.

Performed in the round on a ramp-encircled stage that allowed the Chicks to range freely, the concert didn't stint on video, lighting and other effects, with large props periodically popping up out of nowhere. This wasn't your granny's country show. And there were moments when the music, especially the lighter colorations provided by traditional instruments such as mandolin and dobro, was completely submerged in the swirl.

None of which bothered the band or its audience in the least.

The Dixie Chicks have generally been received warmly during recent U.S. shows. But they've also been greeted by booing and even death threats.

The most they had to fear on this side of the border was the reputed reserve of Canadian audiences.

"People are always scared us about going into Canada," Maguire said after the show. "They always said that the audience is going to be really well educated about your music and they're going to clap very politely, but don't expect a big, uproarious crowd ...

"But that myth is just wrong. This was one of the loudest crowds we've had. It was really fun."
 

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