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Dixie Chicks forge ahead

Review: The boldly reinvented band lets its music do the talking at superb show.

If you’ve taken to the Dixie Chicks song “Not Ready to Make Nice,” you probably love its peak moment. For those who have missed the dramatic single, seeing as country radio instantly snubbed it in May and mainstream rock outlets like Star 98 have only recently picked up on its crossover potential, permit me to spell it out.

The four-minute track, as fans who nearly filled Staples Center Friday night to see the resilient, remarkably talented trio are aware, is a gripping piece of pop defiance, one of the most powerful this politically divided decade has produced. Perfectly embodying a that-which-does-not-kill-me-makes-me-stronger ethos, it’s a response to the hostile reaction that followed the March 2003 “incident” involving Natalie Maines, a cheering British audience and 15 disapproving words about the president on the eve of the Iraq War.

A little more than a minute and a half into the song, the crescendo begins: “I made my bed and I sleep like a baby with no regrets,” Maines sings like a hurricane rapidly gathering gale force, adding without pause that “it’s a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger.”

Then the wails of disbelief really kick in: “And how in the world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge that they’d write me a letter sayin’ that I better shut up and sing or my life will be over?”

Strings swell, then crash down. Maines, whose anger reaches a fever-pitch on the phrase that has become the title of a new documentary about the Chicks’ challenging past three years, enters the chorus as if having wrenched a bucket of pain out of her guts.

And this Staples audience – donning far fewer cowboy hats and other bits of Western wear since the last time the group played here – roared so loudly you could still hear cries of support as the song began its resolution. Once it was over, the crowd continued with a prolonged standing ovation, the longest of the night by far.

It was an undeniably stirring moment, no matter where your political sympathies lie. Yet here’s the interesting thing: It was just about the only such moment the Chicks offered during this two-hour performance.

Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s flick may be mockingly called “Shut Up & Sing,” but that’s exactly what Maines and sisters Martie Maguire (fiddle) and Emily Robison (banjo) did during this stop on their Accidents & Accusations Tour.

There were no speeches, no rallying remarks – heck, there was hardly much between-song banter, though Maines did let out a few choice quips. “Please, no heckling,” she said at the outset. “I think we all know what happens.” That, however, was a dig at Michael Richards, while the dedication of “White Trash Wedding” was a sarcastic slap at K-Fed.

Maguire and Robison, meanwhile, didn’t say a word. “It’s because they said something bad once,” Maines joked.

That line, plus using “Hail to the Chief” as entrance music and airing the trailer for “Shut Up & Sing” just after Pete Yorn’s appealing opening set were the only overt mentions of the pointless controversy that hounded, fueled and eventually transformed the biggest-selling female act of all-time.

Yet anyone with even scant concentration could hear that the ordeal has strengthened this sisterhood’s resolve, so much so that they now wisely, and superbly, let their music do the talking for them.

Even old songs took on deeper resonance here. Note the way “Truth No. 2” (“you don’t like the sound of the truth coming from my mouth”) added to the kiss-off of the storming opening “Lubbock or Leave It,” or how the ebullience of “Top of the World” now packs a bittersweet aftertaste.

Better still, this striking show enhanced the precedent set by their best album, the new “Taking the Long Way,” proving just how unflinchingly the Dixie Chicks have forged into rock territory without sacrificing country roots or downplaying either their Heartland instrumentation or heavenly harmonies. Deftly appealing to both old and new fans, the trio positioned a handful of exuberant fresh cuts amid a healthy smattering of expertly updated favorites.

It helps that they’ve assembled a first-rate band to revitalize their material, featuring several standout players: guitarist Audley Freed, formerly of the Black Crowes; bassist Sebastian Steinberg, late of the eccentric outfit Soul Coughing; most crucially, master keysman Larry Knechtel, of whom Maines rightly noted, “Think of a song and Larry has played on it.” (That’s his bass on the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and he can also be heard on records from Simon & Garfunkel, the Beach Boys and Bread.)

Placed within a nine-piece sprawl that included pedal steel and cello, those vets helped bring a tart roots-rock sheen to heretofore strictly country tunes like “Goodbye Earl,” “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Wide Open Spaces.” All of them were now pitched somewhere between Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow, though with vocal prowess that would shame the latter. Indeed, had the great ’80s cowpunk band Lone Justice survived, it very well might have sounded like this by now.

Not that true country has been stripped entirely from the Chicks’ sound, nor should it be. A bluegrass segment lifted from 2002’s transitional “Home” was a welcome change of pace, as was the lovely “Lullaby,” while a rollicking “Sin Wagon” took the ladies back a few years near the evening’s end.

But even during those moments – to say nothing of the minimal staging, which was so very un-country – you could sense that they have left Nashville formula far behind and have no inclination to look back.

As well they shouldn’t. Boldly breaking away from a music machine that tends to stifle creativity, they have become a vastly superior group, one that just happens to have cut one of the best albums this year. The incident, Maines sings, “turned my whole world around – and I kinda like it.”

Seems like a whole new wave of fans does, too.

    Please take note of this before emailing me. I have no affiliation with the Dixie Chicks and/or their website, Court Yard Hounds and/or their website, Natalie Maines Music and/or her website, their management, publicists, record label or anyone else they may come in contact with on a regular basis. This is just a fan owned site. I do not have an email address for them. Your message cannot be passed on to them.
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