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'Chicks' top pecking order

By Scott Galupo, The Washington Times

There were no protests, no riots. No burnings in effigy or at the stake.

Those itching for a fight Friday night at Verizon Center went home with their "Vote for Natalie" T-shirts stained only with sweat. 

Over the last three years, the Dixie Chicks have accumulated the kind of political baggage that you pay extra to check. Still, as much as she grumbles about the weight, Natalie Maines, the pop-country trio's feisty lead singer, seems to fancy herself as a courageous controversialist.

On Friday, she couldn't resist at least one dig at President Bush, mock-welcoming him as she pointed to the nosebleeds.

Yet, for all the posturing, the Dixie Chicks know how to deliver what's important -- a hootenanny.

Miss Maines and principal Chicks Martie Maguire and Emily Robison were supported Friday by a spectacular wall of sound. To give you an idea of the talent the group had to spare: Among the nine auxiliary musicians sharing the stage with the Chicks was guitarist Audley Freed, who, during a brief stint with the Black Crowes, traded licks with the great Jimmy Page. Yet on Friday he was barely audible.

Who needs so much backup when the Chicks can slay an audience on their own merits, as they did on a poignant acoustic rendition of "Travelin' Soldier" and the delightfully show-offy jams of "Sin Wagon" and "Lil' Jack Slade"?

Miss Maines can't match the instrumental prowess of Miss Maguire on fiddle or Miss Robison on guitar/banjo (her switch from acoustic guitar to bass on "Goodbye Earl" is a tired gesture), but her soprano is the most powerful instrument of all: Miss Maines' voice soars enough to spit nails.

Really, though, if your goal is to burn down the barn, it helps to bring a big box of matches. And with "Lubbock or Leave It," a ferocious detuned stomp that not-so-gently mocks Bible Belt piety, the Dixie Chicks and Co. kicked off the show on an aggressive note. "Truth No. 2," with its smoldering staccato bluegrass arrangement, came next, followed by the anti-domestic violence rah-rah of "Goodbye Earl."

Over the next two hours, the Chicks focused on cuts from their latest album, "Taking the Long Way," interspersing fan favorites such as their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" (a ballad so achingly perfect that even the Smashing Pumpkins couldn't ruin it) and the irresistible romantic ballad "Cowboy Take Me Away."

"Easy Silence" and the enthusiastically-received "Not Ready to Make Nice," both from the Rick Rubin-produced new album, were tinged with references to current events; the latter angrily referred to a death threat Miss Maines received after her anti-Bush remarks of 2003.

But the sweetly-rendered "Lullaby" and "So Hard" -- about, respectively, the inexhaustible love for a new child and the difficulty of conceiving one -- fit nicely alongside such pre-2003 hits as "Wide Open Spaces" and "Ready to Run," with their celebration of young wanderlust.

Forget the storm-in-a-teacup that was the Dixie Chicks' banishment from the Nashville mainstream: The most compelling story of the Dixie Chicks -- in 1998, when they found national fame, and now -- is that of women negotiating the pitfalls of maturity, marriage and motherhood.

This is why a song such as "White Trash Wedding," from 2002's "Home," seemed a bit preposterous Friday night. If we've learned anything about Natalie Maines in the last few years, it's that she never would allow herself to be bullied into a marriage.

The Dixie Chicks have a tough choice to make. They need to nurture the Starbucks Coffee crowd while doing what they do so superbly: play country music.

The risk is that they'll end up one day looking like redneck minstrels.

Dixie Chicks make nice on Bush's turf -- almost
Controversial country trio has evolved along with their audience

BY MELISSA RUGGIERI, Richmond Times-Dispatch

WASHINGTON The Dixie Chicks were perfect houseguests last night in Dubya town.

OK, so singer Natalie Maines -- the one behind the presidential crack heard round the world three years ago -- pointed to the rafters three songs in and said with a grin, "I'd like to say hi to President Bush's family up there."

The comment was greeted with a roar of cheers and boos, but it wasn't clear who they were directed at -- we'll just guess the cheers were for the Chicks and the boos for the other team, considering the outpouring of affection thrown at the trio.

But enough about the career-changing incident. Yes, it's affected some dates on their cleverly titled "Accidents & Accusations" tour -- though the Verizon Center audience was just shy of a sellout at about 15,000, hardly numbers to suggest the girls soon will be working at Dairy Queen to pay the bills.

And judging from the singalongs that accompanied most of the new songs, some in this crowd helped their fantastic "Taking the Long Way" disc sell more than 1 million copies in only 10 weeks on the charts.

If anything, the incident has only strengthened them as songwriters and musicians. Whether you love 'em, hate 'em or disowned 'em, don't deny their abilities.

Taking the stage to the strains of "Hail to the Chief," as they've done all tour, the plucky Maines, fiddler Martie Maguire and banjo player Emily Robison dove into "Lubbock or Leave It" with the fervor of a rock band.

There's something inherently cool about a girl playing the banjo, evidenced by Robison's strobe-light-flashing solo on the song.

But even cooler is hearing the threesome harmonize like a pack of street-smart angels, as they did on a defiant "Truth No. 2," which also received a cheer for its opening line, "You don't like the sound of truth coming from my mouth."

Obviously, the Chicks' audience has changed since they were spanked publicly by country radio, and most of their deeply personal new material is more Sheryl Crow/Eagles-styled mellow rock than obvious twang.

That doesn't mean Maguire can't turn out a sizzling fiddle solo, as she did on the sublime "Taking the Long Way," or that the girls, with a black-clad, ponytailed Maines on bass, aren't interested in revisiting their catalog, which they did for about half of the briskly paced two-hour show.

The 1999 country radio smash "Cowboy Take Me Away" still rang crisp and fresh, even when trailing the current "I Like It," a casual hoist-a-beer strummer coated with groovy organ touches, and the rambunctious "Sin Wagon" is an eternal, fiery hoot that gave the nine backup musicians a workout.

But as light and summery as the beloved "Wide Open Spaces" felt, it sounded like the work of 1,000 years ago when compared with the significant words and layered instruments beneath "Not Ready to Make Nice," the Chicks' defining song of late.

Maybe the Chicks and their audience haven't changed so much after all. Maybe they've just evolved.

Dixie Chicks: more edge to their roots

Texas trio brings musical criticism to Bush's front door

Three songs into the Dixie Chicks' high-energy show at Washington's Verizon Center on Friday night, no-nonsense Natalie Maines, the country trio's lead singer, delivered the anticipated swipe at President Bush. Pointing to her right up in the stands of the packed arena, she said with a smirk, "I'd like to say 'Hi' to President Bush's family up there." Already on its feet, the audience erupted with applause, hoots and hollers. The Bushes, of course, were nowhere in sight. But Maines continued: "You guys know how it feels since he spends 50 percent of his time here," an apparent crack at his plentiful vacation time.

The comment was more benign than the one she made on a London stage in 2003 when the singer told the audience she was "ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." That sparked a backlash against one of the biggest-selling groups of any genre. And it continues today as many country stations refuse to support the trio's latest album, the polished, pop-rock-oriented Taking the Long Way.

But as they showed Friday night in their exhilarating two-hour set, the Dixie Chicks have moved on. Their music has evolved well beyond its traditional country roots, taking on an appropriate rock edge. And folks in Washington, of all places, were enthusiastically receptive of the displaced Texas group.

After a tongue-in-cheek entrance to a recording of "Hail to the Chief," the Chicks and their excellent nine-piece backing band kicked off the show with a hard-hitting take of "Lubbock or Leave It," a highlight from the new album. That easily segued into Patty Griffin's "Truth No. 2." As Maines belted the line, "You don't like the truth coming from my mouth," the song took on a new sense of defiance, the aggressive groove bolstering the sentiment. Even "Goodbye, Earl," the 1999 smash about two women killing an abusive husband, felt more biting and vengeful with the pronounced rock edge the Chicks added Friday night.

The music (and sentiments) eventually softened as the trio slid into Stevie Nicks' "Landslide." The reflective ballad glowed with the airtight harmonies of Maines and her bandmates, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. "Everybody Knows" continued the golden harmonies, which were nicely shadowed by Pete Finney's pedal steel guitar. "After we got all the mad-as-hell songs out of our system, we were able to write this nice, motherly tune for our children," Maines said, introducing the lovely "Lullaby." On the soothing tune, she played the Omnichord, an electronic instrument that added plucky touches.

Then the Chicks revved back up with "White Trash Wedding" and "Lil' Jack Slade," two mostly instrumental bluegrass numbers that showed they haven't forgotten their roots.

But on "Not Ready to Make Nice," the first single from Taking the Long Way, the Chicks returned to the angst-ridden stance that kicked off the show. As Maines sang, "Forgive, sounds good/Forget, I'm not sure I could/They say time heals everything/But I'm still waiting," many in the house (mostly women) pumped their fists in the air. Afterward, the Dixie Chicks received a long, thunderous ovation. Maines and the other women smiled and bowed as they were warmly received in the city where the target of their derision lives.

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