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Fiery Dixie Chicks let music do their talking

By Nick Cristiano for the Philadelphia Inquirer

The Dixie Chicks wasted no time kicking into high gear at the Wachovia Center on Tuesday night.

The three singer-instrumentalists and their band took the stage to the strains of "Hail to the Chief" and immediately tore into "Lubbock or Leave It," one of several songs on their new album that allude to the controversy surrounding the trio.

It's a rip-snorter of a rocker that bristles with in-your-face attitude, even though it turns on an image of Lubbock native Buddy Holly that is less than historically accurate.

"I hear they hate me now, just like they hated you," Natalie Maines snarled, even though there is no evidence that Lubbock native Holly was ever reviled in his Texas hometown or anywhere else.

Oh, well, maybe all the abuse heaped on the Texas threesome of Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire over Maines' 2003 comment about President Bush gave the Chicks a persecution complex that warped their artistic judgment.

If so, it's certainly an aberration. On the rest of their new CD, Taking the Long Way, their aim is unerringly true, and the same can be said for their briskly paced and well-rounded two-hour show.

Maines, the lead singer, made reference only once to the political firestorm surrounding the band. Introducing "Lullabye," she said that the gentle ballad was about the Chicks' children, and that "we were mad as hell, so it was hard to get to a point where we could write this song."

Otherwise, they let their music do the talking. And while they were still pretty defiant - the biggest applause of the night came for their backhander to Chicks bashers, "Not Ready to Make Nice" - they also addressed their current state in more eloquent and reflective new numbers like "The Long Way Around" and "Easy Silence."

(Although the album has been rejected by country radio, it is No. 2 on the Billboard country chart and No. 4 on the pop chart. The backlash, however, has hurt ticket sales. Just about all available seats looked filled on Tuesday night, but 10 sections at the back of the upper level, facing the stage, were closed off. The Chicks will also perform at the Borgata in Atlantic City on Aug. 5.)

The backup band numbered up to nine members, including Austin guitar firebrand David Grissom, but the music was crisp and uncluttered even as it moved from soft to hard, leaving plenty of room for Robison's banjo and Maguire's fiddle. That was especially true on rootsier older favorites like "Wide Open Spaces" and the rollicking "Sin Wagon," which predate the Chicks' move to a sleeker pop sound on Taking the Long Way.

Unlike other superstar country acts such as Chicks nemesis Toby Keith or even Alan Jackson, the stage setup was surprisingly low-tech, with just one overhead video screen and some remarkably cheesy lighting effects on the stage backdrop. But the music more than compensated.

The Chicks opened the encore with one of their old hits, "Travelin' Soldier," and it was the only time the three played and harmonized alone, without the band. It made you wish they had done a little more of that.

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