Ottawa, Canada 2006
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For country Chicks, these gals really rock

By Allan Wigney for the Ottawa Sun

“Oh boy,” an excited youngster exclaimed as he sprinted from the elevator, anxious to reach one of thousands of lonely Scotiabank Place seats. “A real rock show!”

“There’s no rock, son,” Dad helpfully chided. “This is country.”

Both were referring to Friday’s Dixie Chicks concert, an occasion that promised high energy, screams from a cult-like following, we’re-not-gonna-take-it aggression and an overall atmosphere of anti-establishment subversion.

Let’s say they were both right.

In fact, a taste of each rock-show element was offered the moment likeable opening-act The Damwells left the stage Friday (and 30 minutes before The Dixie Chicks cheekily took the stage to the strains of Hail to the Chief). A screen above the stage beamed a conservationist message (to an enthusiastic response from concert-goers who were presumably saving those empty drink cups to place in their recycling bins at home later), and a trailer for Shut Up & Sing, the documentary now making the rounds of America’s arthouse cinemas.

Eight years ago, when sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison celebrated their 10th years as Dixie Chicks with a mega-selling album called Wide Open Spaces, bringing their radio-friendly young country sounds to arthouses must have seemed as unlikely as, oh, being on the receiving end of death threats over perceived unpatriotic sentiments.

That changed three years ago with what is now referred to in the trio’s camp as ‘the Incident’: to wit, third Chick Natalie Maines’ onstage declaration that, “We’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” That, too, drew enthusiastic applause from the audience (albeit a British audience) at the time. As it did last night, when heard during the Shut Up & Sing trailer.

And so, somewhat accidentally, The Dixie Chicks became the most unlikely of counterculture heroines – something that did not and does not sit well with certain God-fearing folk in the land of the free. (The group’s North American tour reached Capital City last night as part of a stepped-up string of Canadian dates designed to offset cancelled American bookings.) Any continuing backlash, significantly, could not stop the trio’s latest album, the Rick Rubin-produced Taking the Long Way Home, from heading straight to the top of the country charts, as had all Dixie Chicks albums since Wide Open Spaces.

Last night, the area’s faithful greeted a bloodied-but-unbowed, bold new Dixie Chicks. Women who still primp and pout for photographers, and whose music remains ill-suited to the ‘alternative’ crowd, but who wear their newfound outlaw status proudly. And stylishly (in a Bangles sort of way).

No more so than when belting out the post-Incident mission-statement Not Ready to Make Nice, from the new album. “I made my bed, and I sleep like a baby,” Maines sang with a sly smile. “It turned my whole world around / And I kinda like it.”

The number, which as our young boy no doubt informed Dad, is very much a rock song, seemed a long way from the carefree rootsy country sound of The Dixie Chicks’ 1990 debut album, Thank Heavens for Dale Evans. But it reflects a world-weary attitude tempered by road-tested confidence that enables these Chicks to present a misty-eyed cover of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide with the same conviction as the assertive tale of escaping an abusive relationship, Goodbye Earl.

Both sides, tender and tough, were well-represented Friday (all three are proud moms, after all), as the Chicks presented a fine-tuned two-hour show chock-full of disarming harmonies and abetted by a seasoned eight-piece backing band. “We are very happy to be back in Canada,” Maines said. And for once, you knew the comment was sincere.

And while the harmonies rang, the sisters flaunted their considerable musical skills – Maguire on fiddle, Robison alternating between banjo and mandolin, and lead vocalist Maines, when not offering a taste of the sort of dancing we’ll be seeing onstage at next month’s Guns 'n Roses show, on guitar.

The new album provided the bulk of the material, with the title track and the lovely Lullaby serving as standouts. The remainder of the set was essentially split between the two preceding albums, Home and Fly, the greatest response from the crowd coming with the arrival of White Trash Wedding. (Maines dedicated the rollicking song to Kid Rock and Canada’s own Pamela Anderson. During the trio’s Australian tour, she informed us, the tune went out to Mel Gibson.)

A choice cover of Bob Dylan’s Mississippi was a pleasant encore surprise. The pre-Home Dixie Chicks, meanwhile, were represented by a single selection ‑ Wide Open Spaces, a seminal song that must now seem to this trio to hail from another lifetime.

Which, of course, it does. It hails from a time when a Dixie Chicks concert was unlikely to be mistaken for a real rock show.

REVIEW: The Dixie Chicks w/ The Damwells
Scotiabank Place
Sun rating: 4 stars

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