Albany, NY 2006
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photo by James Goolsby / Times Union

Dixie Chicks let the songs speak for themselves

By GREG HAYMES, Times Union

ALBANY -- It's been more than three years since Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines' criticized President Bush as the United States was preparing to invade Iraq. The off-hand, on-stage remark ("We're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas") set off a political firestorm that cost the band much of its conservative fan base and nearly all of its country radio air play.

But when the band pulled into the Pepsi Arena on Friday evening -- just a week into the U.S. leg of their Accidents and Accusations Tour -- it was clear that they were sticking to their guns.

It was also quite clear that the Chicks came to town to play music, not to engage in political debate. Other than their wry choice of intro music -- the iconic presidential theme "Hail to the Chief" -- the Dixie Chicks let their music do the talking for them, and what sparkling, vibrant, passionate music it was.

Maines and her Chicks-mates Emily Robison (banjo, guitar, dobro) and Martie Maguire (fiddle, mandolin) launched the show in high gear with the feisty, defiant "Lubbock or Leave It," and they didn't look back.

The songs from their new album, "Taking the Long Way," leaned heavily toward the '70s-era, southern California hybrid rock-pop that made bands like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac superstars. With the nine-piece backing band led by ace guitarslinger David Grissom, the Chicks conjured up a sound that's just great American music, a thought-provoking blend of pop, rock, country, bluegrass and a bit of gospel that doesn't quite settle into any one genre.

Maines was clearly the focus onstage, both musically and emotionally. She spoke only infrequently between songs, but her singing voice was ferocious, especially during the scorching, unapologetic "Not Ready to Make Nice," which proved to be the crowd favorite, as well as the dramatic, emotional centerpiece of the nearly two-hour concert.

Maines wasn't always belting out anthems of defiance, however, and some of her best singing came during quiet ballads like "Travelin' Soldier," "Lullaby" and "Easy Silence," a tender song of refuge (something that's certainly been in short supply for the Dixie Chicks during the past three years).

While the new album was at the heart of Friday's performance, the Chicks delivered plenty of their back-catalog hits, and the crowd loudly roared its approval for the murderous "Goodbye, Earl," the sweet, harmony-laden take on Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" and the soaring "Cowboy Take Me Away."

The Dixie Chicks are clearly in a transition period right now, stepping out beyond the borders of country music and into the realm of anything goes. Only time will tell just where the Chicks go from here, but judging by their stellar performance at the Pepsi Arena, they're likely to go just as far as they like.

Young singer-songwriter Anna Nalick and her tight, three-piece band opened the show with a 35-minute set featuring a handful of Tori Amos-meets-Fiona Apple-styled rock songs with a considerably tougher sound than she presented on her hit single, "Breathe (2 AM)."
 The crowd: Nearly sold out with about 7,000 predominantly female fans, although because the upper level was curtained off, attendance was less than half of what the Chicks drew for their last Pepsi Arena show in June 2003.

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