Atlanta, GA 2006
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Dixie Chicks rock Philips

Bon Jovi earlier this year had a big country hit asking the question, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?”

For the Dixie Chicks, the answer is, “They can’t go home and at this point, they don’t want to.”

In one of the most acrimonious music divorces in recent history, the Chicks have mutually split from their original home base, the country music business. The separation was clearly in force Saturday night at the act’s Philips Arena stop.

Kicks 101.5 and Eagle 106.7, stations that once embraced the Chicks as a top act on their playlists, have not touched a single Chicks song since March 2003 when lead singer Natalie Maines set off a maelstrom with her anti-Bush comments on the eve of the Iraq War. At the concert, Kicks and Eagle were nowhere in sight. The only station promoting the Chicks outside with a promotions tent was top 40 station Star 94, which had played the trio’s middle-finger salute to their critics “Not Ready to Make Nice” from their current release “Taking a Long Way.”

While there were a few cowboy hats dotting the crowd, they were relatively sparse compared to the Chicks’ last visit to Philips in 2003. Even the music preceding the concert was rock with nary a twang. No to Toby Keith. Yes to fellow overtly anti-war musicians Green Day. And singer-songwriter Pete Yorn opened, not some up-and-coming country act. (The post concert song was the Elton John classic “The Bitch is Back.” Hmm… who were they referencing there?)

The Chicks have had to cancel shows in Red State cities such as Oklahoma City and Memphis while struggling to fill arenas in Nashville and Atlanta. Since neither Kicks nor Eagle would even support advertising for the group, the Chicks had to resort to billboards.

“Thank you!” Maines said after an extended standing ovation by a respectable crowd of around 10,000 but far short of a sell out. “Wow! Thanks for showing up. I remember back when the tour went on sale. We thought we might have to cancel this one. We were wrong.”

Regardless, the trio focused on the music, not politics, with stripped down staging that was a far cry from the extravagant in-the-round stage in 2003 shaped like the United States. The most extended commentary Maines made was about Kevin Federline and nasty photos of Britney Spears leading into “White Trash Wedding.” George Bush’s name was never uttered though they did enter the stage to a recorded “Hail to the Chief.”

And while Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison wore somber black, the concert was far from funereal. The three were in fine form, Maines hitting all her notes, Maguire stylishly caressing her fiddle and Robison muscling through her gutar. The 22-song set balanced emotional ballads (the spare “Lullaby” featuring Maines on the Omnichord and the audience waving their cel phones instead of the old standby of lighters), blues (a spirited “I Hope”) and pure rabble rousing, hoop-hollerin’ party songs (the always reliable “Goodbye Earl”). And they traded off the old (sing-along special “Wide Open Spaces”) and the new (a lovely version of “Everybody Knows”).

Many in the rapt crowd not only sang along to the hits, but they knew the words from non-singles off the new CD. Seven of the best were cherrypicked from “Taking the Long Way,” thankfully omitting a few dull clunkers. And they added a wonderful new song inspired by the documentary on their travails “Shut Up and Sing” called “The Neighbor.”

“You try to shut me out,” Maines sang over and over, “and I’ll still be here.”

Encores featured their last hit before the 2003 “incident,” “Travelin’ Soldier,” which is about a 60s era gal who pines for her soldier boyfriend who is stuck in Vietnam. And after a spirited cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi, the Chicks finished up with one of those songs that used to rank at the top of Kicks’ “gotta play” list “Ready to Run.” And as they finished up, these fans were nowhere ready to divorce the Chicks, giving them a long, loud applause.

“They didn’t make it political, didn’t make any issue of it,” said Carrie Nowak, a 30-year-old Duluth office manager who wore a huge pink felt hat and jubilantly waved a tiny American flag from the fourth row during “Long Time Gone.” “They played to their fans.” (Here she is below with her friend Clay Miller, 39, from Midtown)

Many of those fans before the concert said they became bigger fans after the 2003 controversy. “I want to support them as much as I can,” said Will Rumfelt, a 24-year-old Georgia State student who heard about the concert through the Chicks’ myspace page and purchased a ticket that same day. “They are true Americans. They said what they did out of concern for America and they stood up for what they said even after sacrificing a lot of their fans.” He also bought a $35 concert T-shirt and stuck a “Natalie for President” sticker on his jacket. (see Will below)

“They’re strong women who aren’t afraid to speak up and it helps that I agree with them,” said Holly Cooper, a 39 year old mom who lives in East Cobb where she said only a handful in her neighborhood would admit being Democrats. She’s not a country music fan or regular listener of Kicks or Eagle. Rather, a friend had passed along one of the Chicks CDs to her in 2002 and she fell in love. She heard about the concert through a special promotion in the “Taking the Long Way” CD from Target enabling her to buy tickets early.

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