Chicago, IL 2006
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Chicago 2006
photo by Chicago Tribune

Proof: Chicago's a Chicks magnet

By Jim DeRogatis, Chicago Sun-Times

Branded with a scarlet letter for daring to speak their minds -- "B" for brains instead of "A" for adultery -- the Dixie Chicks have been shunned by many country radio stations and concert markets throughout Red State America.

During its spirited show at the United Center on Tuesday, the best-selling female group in history didn't directly address the controversy surrounding singer Natalie Maines' now infamous 2003 comment about President Bush. But the trio didn't have to: The music did the talking.

After cheekily taking the stage to the strains of "Hail to the Chief," the Chicks and their nine backing musicians launched into a rollicking version of "Lubbock or Leave It," a tune that condemns Southern hypocrisy -- "Dust bowl, Bible belt / Got more churches than trees / Raise me, praise me, couldn't save me / Couldn't keep me on my knees," Maines sang -- followed by the even more poignant "Truth No. 2," with a key line that has taken on new meaning since its release in 2002: "You don't like the sound of the truth / Coming from my mouth."

Crowd in their corner

These Chicks are clearly bloodied but unbowed. And while they may have had to cancel tour stops on their "Accidents and Accusations" jaunt because of poor sales in cities such as Houston, Memphis and Oklahoma City, they were greeted as conquering heroines in Chicago, performing for a nearly sold-out crowd that was firmly in their corner.

It was a goose bump-inducing moment when the group delivered "Not Ready to Make Nice," their most forthright comment about recent events, midway through a 22-song set. Already on its feet, the Chicago audience cheered, clapped wildly and sang along at full volume. Maines, guitar and banjo player Emily Robison and violin and fiddle player Martie Maguire seemed surprised at the intensity of the enthusiasm, and they stood for a moment basking in the sort of response they haven't witnessed very often of late.

The audience that turned on the Chicks did so at its own loss, because there isn't a better arena act in pop, rock or country today (and the group is all of the above). What's more, even if you disagree with their politics -- which, again, were never directly addressed onstage -- there was no denying that these three mothers of seven children were ultimately as American as apple pie, singing heartfelt songs about the joys of family ("Lullaby"), the romance of the American West ("Cowboy Take Me Away") and the cathartic power of music itself ("Some Days You Gotta Dance").

Maines is the powerhouse vocalist and obvious star, but the contributions of her partners can't be underestimated, with their soaring harmonies and impressive but rarely indulgent solos taking the material to new levels. Onstage, the Chicks inject a passion and immediacy that, if not punk-rock raw and ragged, is certainly more fiery than on album, where the overly glossy Nashville sheen can mask the underlying passion. (This is true even on their most recent, Rick Rubin-produced disc, "Taking the Long Way.")

They ain't rock 'n' roll

No, the Chicks haven't gone 100 percent rock 'n' roll, as some country critics have charged: Their bluegrass roots were still in evidence on "White Trash Wedding" (lovingly dedicated to Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock), the instrumental "Lil' Jack Slade" and a ferocious "Long Time Gone." There will never be any mistaking them for Satan-hailing, Rubin-produced death-metal mavens Slayer. But in the end, that just makes their vilification in certain quarters all the more ironic -- and distressing.

Joining the Dixie Chicks to perform "I Like It," a new tune that he co-wrote with them while on tour, was fellow Texan Bob Schneider, whose opening set was an eclectic but entertaining mix of hoedown ("Tarantula"), hokum ("You Can Call Me Bob," which finds Batman hitting on women at the disco) and loving homage to the headliners, via a surreal cover of the Aretha Franklin hit "(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman." Way to go, Bob: It's good to know that at least some Southern men aren't threatened by women who dare to express themselves.

Dixie Chicks take the long way through Chicago

The Dixie Chicks’ “Sin Wagon” might look more like a Porsche than a pickup for their Accidents & Accusations tour, but Chicago fans were riding shotgun at Tuesday night’s concert

Although lead singer Natalie Maines’ controversial comments about President Bush at a London concert in 2003 meant losses in their Southern fan base and a slightly re-routed tour, the United Center was packed - and there were even some cowboy hats in the mostly female audience.

After taking the stage to the tune of “Hail to the Chief” the band ripped into their 19-song set, hardly pausing for a breath. That didn’t stop them from delivering a strong political undercurrent through some subtle and other, more overt, innuendo.

The video backdrop for “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the single off their recently released album, “Taking the Long Way,” incorporated stylized smoke and explosions, and Maines wore a camouflage guitar strap for several of the songs.

Maines’ referenced her “wonderful career choices” with tongue in cheek, but “the incident” of 2003 heavily influenced the lyrics and look of this tour, their first in two years.

The Chicago audience was responsive to their citified look and politics; the Chicks’ outfits were more Oak Street than Ole Opry and video traffic montages melded with blossoming trees.

Country fans did get some use out of their boots during several rollicking numbers, like “White Trash Wedding,” which was dedicated to the love of Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson.

Overall, the Dixie Chicks’ polished style left the impression that the band wasn’t just a rebellious country girl group. There are few things more empowering than a woman wailing on a fiddle, and the Dixie Chicks have nailed it. Maines will continue to speak her mind, and she has a band and an audience willing to support her vocals.

Among them, the Chicks’ have seven children, and Maines said that, after they got all of that “mad as hell stuff out of their system,” they wrote a song that focused on the future. It’s “Lullaby,” and there’s nothing controversial about the way a mother can love.

Their encore performance of their Vietnam inspired “Travelin’ Soldier,” a country song that hit number one in 2003, proves that the Dixie Chicks drive to sing about love is the same that compels these Texas-bred women to sing about war.

The Dixie Chicks opened their show with the lament “Lubbock or Leave It,” asking “How will I ever get to heaven now.” On Tuesday night they found that the route to redemption passes through Chicago.

It's hail to the Chicks

No longer the darlings of Dixie, the trio's new direction is already paying dividends

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