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A Return To The Scene Of The Crime

By Nick Hasted for The Independent

"The Bush we trust - the Shepherds Bush," says the Dixie Chicks singer, Natalie Maines. This venue almost proved the end of the band when, in March 2003, she blurted out on its stage: "I'm ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." It seemed a harmless comment, made a long way from home, but when word got back to an America gearing up to invade Iraq, Dixie Chicks CDs were publicly dumped and ploughed under, as though they were infected, and their songs were wiped from the airwaves.

A band who had lived in the heart of the conservative country-pop mainstream, selling tens of millions, were suddenly threatened with commercial oblivion. In a climate of vengeful patriotism, death threats even forced Maines to leave her native Texas for LA.

Maines' initial reaction was to apologise. But now, with the new album, Taking the Long Way, produced in slick rock style by the doyen of reinvention Rick Rubin, the band's enforced radicalisation is presented as their point. The single "Not Ready to Make Nice" describes their battles, with its video presenting them as Salem witches. This Shepherds Bush gig, which Maines says returns them "to the scene of the crime", pointedly starts their world tour. Like much of liberal America, they may have lost a painful battle on their last visit here, but the devastation in Iraq has helped them to win the argument, and Taking the Long Way is now the No 1 album in America.

The intimacy of this small theatre is an affectation now, as the five extra guitarists and platoons of roadies attest. The beaming smiles of the banjoist, Emily Robinson, and the fiddler, Martie Maguire, sisters who grew up in the country and showbiz traditions, have also strayed in from a world far removed from their new, "alternative" rock peers. Any thought that cynicism is behind the rebranding campaign of which this gig forms the heart seems harsh when you watch the Dixie Chicks close up. These are forthright women, radicalised by frightening experience, and also exciting musicians deeply rooted in bluegrass tradition.

As the band come on to a thick, garage-band sound, "Truth" and "The Long Way Around" immediately address the controversy. In between, Maines simply repeats her comment on her President, to approving cheers. These become raucously triumphant when they sing the old-fashioned ballad of a GI's wife, "Travellin' Soldier", which was the US No1 when their world fell in.

They end that with a fife and drum roll, and all the real pleasures come tonight not from political statements but from the moments when Robinson and Maguire lose themselves in old-time bluegrass solos, or the three women join in high, lonesome harmonies. Tough, funny hoedown songs, such as "White Trash", show how the Dixie Chicks have always kept a female strength, and genuine country ways, in a mainstream country climate deeply hostile to both.

"Not Ready to Make Nice" is then introduced by Maines as not a triumphant riposte but a cause for dejection. "We're not mad as hell any more," she says, sounding tired. And even if they tip into too much big, blustering pop-rock toward the end, their bluegrass heart still beats hard enough for you to warm to them.

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