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A T.O. lovefest for the Dixie Chicks

By Jane Stevenson for the Toronto Sun

Do the Dixie Chicks have a sense of humour about the whole Bush comment brou-ha-ha?

You'd better believe it.

The Texas trio took to the stage at the Air Canada Centre last night to the sounds of Hail To The Chief during the first of two sold-out shows in Toronto.

In case you were asleep, Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines created a firestorm three years ago at a London concert when she questioned President George W. Bush's intentions on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"Just so you know, we're ashamed that the president is from Texas," Maines said at the time.

Those are words that still haunt Maines.

In fact, the Chicks' arrival in Toronto comes just as their new documentary, Shut Up & Sing, opened locally in theatres on Friday.

The film, co-directed by two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, chronicles the group's three-year career struggle in the face of Maines' infamous dis of Bush.

Country music radio stations in the U.S. stopped playing their records, fans destroyed their albums and protested at their concerts, and Maines even got a serious death threat during a concert in Dallas.

But Shut Up & Sing shows that Toronto was the hottest market when tickets for the Chicks' Accidents and Accusations tour initially went on sale with a second date added immediately. Since then, additional dates were added in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary.

Naturally, then, it was a Chicks' lovefest last night as the three women kicked off their concert with Lubbock Or Leave It from their latest album, Taking The Long Way.

But it was the third song of the night, Goodbye Earl, a controversial song about killing a wife-beater named Earl from an earlier album Fly, that sparked the first real sing-along and clap-along of the night.

Maines, banjo player Emily Robison and fiddler Martie Maguire, along with a seven-piece band, easily led the sold-out audience through the spirited song and into the next two, The Long Way Around and a cover of Landslide.

"You might be the best Canadian crowd yet," said Maines during a brief pause in the proceedings. "That's why it's so perfect that we're having a little technical difficulty tonight."

Whatever that was, however, wasn't obvious.

And just in case the Chicks' continued position on Bush hasn't been made abundantly clear, Taking The Long Way contains the defiant first single, Not Ready To Make Nice.

In fact, the latest Dixie Chicks controversy erupted Friday when NBC apparently refused to accept an national ad for Shut Up & Sing although the U.S. network is claiming the whole thing is a film company publicity stunt.

The Chicks play their second sold-out date at the Air Canda Centre tonight.
Dixie Chicks stay defiant for their loyal Canuck fans
Buffeted by U.S. backlash, Texans bask in a warm reception at the ACC

By Vit Wagner for Toronto Star

In TV interviews last week with Oprah and Larry King, the Dixie Chicks were up front about the fact that audiences for the group's current tour have dwindled in some U.S. markets, particularly in the south where sales were so poor that shows were cancelled.

But lead singer Natalie Maines, violinist Martie Maguire and banjo player Emily Robison argued the heightened enthusiasm of the fans who are turning up more than compensates for the disgruntled no-shows.

Mind you, selling tickets hasn't been a problem on this side of the border, especially in Toronto where the Dixie Chicks played the first of two packed shows at the Air Canada Centre last night.

"You might be the best Canadian crowd yet," said Maines, further buttering up the audience by adding, "You look lovely. I love what you're wearing."

The extra flattery wasn't necessary. A half-hour before the Dixie Chicks took the stage, the clearly pumped house was on its feet to cheer a trailer for Shut Up and Sing, the newly released documentary about the band's travails since that now infamous night in 2003 when Maines told a London audience she was ashamed that both she and U.S. President George W. Bush were from Texas.

Even with the president's approval ratings swirling the drain, the negative fallout has persisted, with some U.S. TV networks refusing to air ads for the movie.

Further proof that the biggest-selling female group of all time has not quite turned the corner commercially was evident in the scale of the ACC show, a much more modest affair in terms of production values than the band's 2003 appearance at the same venue. On that occasion, Maines and company performed in the round, making a spectacular entrance by spiralling up from beneath the stage.

The trickery has been kept to a minimum this time, the stage more conventionally located at one end of the arena and backed by a screen that flashed psychedelic images.

Not that the audience minded or that the music suffered. Backed by a full-band that featured as many as eight accompanists, the Dixie Chicks entered to a recording of "Hail to the Chief" and then jumped right into "Lubbock or Leave It," one of several defiant tracks from this year's Taking the Long Way, an album that topped the Toronto chart for the first month after its release in May.

By the time they hit the older favourite "Goodbye Earl" two songs later, much of the audience was on its feet, singing along. About the only time the crowd didn't join in vocally was when Maines introduced "The Neighbor," an unfamiliar new song written out of the experience of filming the documentary.

The response to "Not Ready to Make Nice," the band's rejoinder to those who would have had them apologize to Bush, was so raucous that the famously outspoken Maines was left somewhat speechless.

"I'm normally a people pleaser," she had said earlier. "But I've yet to figure out how to shut up and sing."

Mostly, however, the focus was musical rather than political. Despite some early technical glitches, the set hit several highs, including a bluegrass section that allowed sisters Maguire and Robison to steal the spotlight for a moment, as well as the band's always popular cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide."

The Dixie Chicks might have lost more than a few supporters along the way, but they are probably right in assuming that the fans they have now are sure to stand by them for as long as they want to continue making music.

Not a bad reward for sticking to your guns.

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