Oakland, CA 2006
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Dixie Chicks enjoy last laugh as backlash over singer's political comments recedes. The band's music can speak for itself.

by Neva Chonin for the San Francisco Chronicle

An hour into the Dixie Chicks' concert Friday, vocalist Natalie Maines paused to take in the scene at Oracle Arena in Oakland. "Those empty seats," she drawled, "I'm sure belong to the people who went to see our movie, 'cause it opened here tonight."

The audience laughed -- uneasily. Maines' quip touched on several hot topics at once: While the Chicks' latest album, "Taking the Long Way," has topped the charts, ticket sales are still hurting from a certain "incident" three years ago. And the trio now has chronicled said "incident" in the documentary "Shut Up and Sing," which has received critical raves while renewing debate over the confluence of entertainment and politics.

"I just heard we've been nominated to be nominated for an Academy Award," Maines cheerfully told the large but less than capacity crowd. "But I just saw 'Jesus Camp,' and I think I'd vote for it, instead. It was very eye-opening." With that, she led the band into "The Neighbor," a song from the Chicks' flick that spits cool defiance at the band's detractors.

"Jesus Camp," of course, is a documentary about the political clout of the religious right. The Dixie Chicks learned about that firsthand when, at a London concert on the eve of the Iraq invasion, Maines admitted she was ashamed to be from the same state as President Bush. What followed is well known: Many conservative country fans disowned the Chicks, and some even sent death threats; zealots burned their CDs; radio stations blacklisted their music; concerts were canceled.

Even now, the group's Accidents & Accusations Tour has had to be overhauled because of boycotts in some of the Southern states. So it goes when a little gal from Texas is naive enough to believe free speech remains a constitutional right.

The Chicks are soldiering on, however. If they're not at the pinnacle of the music world anymore, they're still huge stars, and they still put on one of the best live shows in any genre. And on Friday they justified their fans' love with a performance that was short on politics, long on passion and ripe with playful virtuosity.

After a set by singer-songwriter Bob Schneider (including a no-irony rendition of "Natural Woman," bless his heart), the Chicks launched their two-hour set by drolly sashaying onstage to "Hail to the Chief." They quickly kicked into a rocking "Lubbock or Leave It" before switching to a country vibe for the Patty Griffin-penned "Truth No. 2." Then, grinning, they set the largely female audience stomping with their hit about vigilante sisterhood, "Goodbye Earl."

The repertoire showcased songs from the new album as well as older material from "Home," "Fly" and "Wide Open Spaces." Change was definitely afoot, despite the nostalgic touches: In their sleek black-and-white ensembles, Maines (vocals and guitar), Martie Maguire (fiddle and mandolin) and Emily Robison (banjo, dobro and lap steel guitar) were no longer the ebullient good-time gals of earlier tours. They've grown into an equally riveting and energetic band with a broader emotional range and more diverse musical palette. To be cute about it (and I must), the Chicks have become swans.

This evolution came through in a somber, elegiac twist on Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," informed, one suspects, by the trio's experiences during the past three years. By contrast, the night's high point came with Maines' raging delivery of the single "Not Ready to Make Nice," during which the audience roared nonstop while waving homemade signs thanking Maines for speaking her mind about the Iraq war.

If Maines is the trio's lightning rod, Maguire and Robison are talented multi-instrumentalists who make switching from banjo to violin to electric guitar look as easy as trying on shoes. Throughout the show, they alternated between harmonizing with Maines, strutting the stage like lovely, long-legged storks and pulling back to jam with their equally skilled backup band. Robison went wild on her banjo for "White Trash Wedding" (dedicated to Britney Spears' blighted ex, Kevin Federline), and Maguire's fiddle led the charge on "Long Time Gone."

Maines was no musical slouch either, playing rhythm guitar on some of the night's up-tempo numbers and showcasing her vocals on a gorgeous rendition of "Top of the World."

After closing their set with "Wide Open Spaces" and the ripped-up hootenanny of "Sin Wagon," the Chicks returned for an encore that included a cover of Bob Dylan's "Mississippi." The sight of Maines, America's accidental activist, singing lyrics by one of history's greatest protest poets offered a sweet reminder that, in the long run, talent outlives politics. If the Chicks' popularity is down right now, so is President Bush's. The difference being, of course, that two years from now, the Chicks'll still be in the saddle.

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