Oakland, CA 2003

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photos by Kat Wade / Chronicle

The Sound of the Truth Comin' From The Dixie Chicks on 'Top Of The World Tour'

By Neva Cronin, San Francisco Chronincle

The Dixie Chicks didn't mention "the incident" until halfway through their show at the Arena in Oakland.

"I guess you've all heard about the incident that occurred about four months ago," singer-guitarist Natalie Maines drawled to the cheering crowd while introducing Patty Griffin's "Truth No. 2," off the group's latest Grammy- winning album, "Home."

She was referring, of course, to the controversy after her remark that she was ashamed of fellow Texan George W. Bush because of his policy on Iraq. She had apologized for her bluntness, but many country stations nonetheless denounced Maines and banned the trio's music.

"We recorded this song before all that happened," she continued, ". . . and then we realized we understood every single word." Maines then launched into the song's prescient opening verse: "You don't like the sound of the truth/ Comin' from my mouth/ You say that I lack the proof/ Well baby that might be so/ I might get to the end of my line/ Find out everyone was lying/ I don't think that I'm afraid anymore/ Say that I would rather die trying."

As the group performed, a montage of civil-rights scenes ranging from desegregation marches to suffragist protests to gay activist pickets flashed across the overhead video screens.

"Truth No. 2" and a sly selection of preshow music that included the Go Gos' "Our Lips Are Sealed" and Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" were the night's only references to the controversy that some predicted would derail the career of the biggest act in country music. In truth, nothing more needed to be said. If living well is the best revenge, the Dixie Chicks are high on the hog.

"Home" remains a top seller, and its "Top of the World Tour," which reaches Sacramento's Arco Arena tonight, has played to sold-out venues. The reason is simple: Even those who don't agree with the Chicks' political views can't deny their musical chops. And judging from the tiny smattering of boos lost in a sea of applause that greeted Maines' "Truth No. 2" statements, there were precious few detractors in Oakland. For all the political subtext and lavish stage sets, Tuesday's show was all about the music.

Rising from the center of a huge circular stage to perform the anti- domestic-abuse anthem "Goodbye Earl," the Chicks -- Maines and sisters Martie Maguire on fiddle and Emily Robison on banjo and guitar -- showed that they have learned how to balance their earthy music with sophisticated production values. It isn't easy to convey homey immediacy while performing on an elaborate, multitiered set surrounded by video screens.

Yet they managed, grinning and scampering around a revolving environment that sprouted everything from a giant tree to a windmill. A winding path of lights morphed from a river during a cover of Bob Dylan's "Mississippi" to a yellow brick road for "Ready to Run."

The 110-minute set covered the trio's three albums, with special attention paid to the hyped-up bluegrass pop of "Home." Backed by an eight-piece band featuring guitarist David Grissom, the Chicks, decked out in black and leather ("My inspiration was S&M Barbie," quipped Martie Maguire) easily switched moods from the giddy hootenanny instrumental "Lil' Jack Slade" to the acoustic sorrow of "Travelin' Soldier."

Maines -- looking like a saucy punkette with her hair tied back to resemble a long mohawk -- knows when to belt out a song and to emote, whether crooning about motherhood in "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)" or spitting sass "Am I the Only One (Who's Ever Felt This Way)."

Robison spotlighted her versatile playing with chilling slide-guitar work on "Cold Day in July"; Maguire fiddled with such passion that she even managed to rend strings from her bow during the slow ballad "Cowboy Take Me Away."

Despite the glitz, the Chicks' version of country isn't some rhinestone artifact frozen in time; it's a living, breathing tradition that doesn't shy away from politics, technology or any other modern pitfall. The confetti that blanketed the audience during the closing hoedown of "Sin Wagon" signaled a celebration -- not just of the Chicks' endurance and talent but also of the joy that comes from playing and hearing music that just makes a body glad to be alive.

Current It Girl Michelle Branch and her four-piece band opened the evening with a competent set that included her latest single, "Are You Happy Now?," and other palatable midtempo rock (including "Goodbye to You" and her collaboration with Santana, "The Game of Love"). She did fine but lacked that ineffable Dixie talent for transcending the mainstream through sheer, gleeful star power. Maybe she just needs time -- and a little controversy.

The Dixie Chicks prove they still rule the roost


Contra Costa Times

IN CASE no one's noticed, the Dixie Chicks are full of surprises.

Who knew that, of the hundreds of potentially political music acts, three country girls from Texas would become a rallying cry among anti-war entertainers? Who knew that one remark uttered during a London concert would overshadow years of hard work? And despite the furor, who knew the band would remain mostly unaffected a few months later?

And maybe the biggest surprise: Who knew a group known for radio-friendly country crossover music could be so likable live?

That was really the big issue Tuesday at the Oakland Arena, where the Chicks opened the first of two Bay Area shows. Though there was a brief reference to singer Natalie Maines' now famous comment -- "We're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas" -- the Chicks have moved on, as if the whole thing were a mere speed bump.

They fill arenas with a fan-friendly, upbeat approach that heightens their country-pop crossover appeal. One doesn't have to be a fan of the music to appreciate the show.

It's a simple formula. The Chicks brought a massive, midarena stage setup allowing everyone to feel close to the action, then spent the whole 22-song set on the move, making sure no side of the arena went too long without the attention of a Dixie Chick.

The approach takes away opportunities for a group to physically come together unless the musicians work hard at catching up with each other, which they did.

Meanwhile, it seemed the dust has all but settled from the Maines/Bush controversy, which at one point had led to the group's receiving death threats and being boycotted on country radio. Maines made one midconcert comment showing that, while the band has moved on, it won't back down, either.

"I'm not sure if anyone is aware of the incident that occurred four months ago," she said, smiling and raising her fingers in quote marks around "incident." She gave the screaming crowd some room to react, then turned to bandmates Emily Erwin and Martie Seidel. "I heard four boos. That's not too bad."

She introduced new song "Truth No. 2," saying "The next song, when we put it on the album, we didn't understand. About four months ago, we understood every single word." Iconic clips appeared on the video screens during the song, including Malcolm X and women campaigning for voting and abortion rights.

Maybe it was overly dramatic to suggest that the Chicks have become liberal icons. Then again, maybe not. Maines had it right in saying only about four people openly disagreed. And the band has reportedly seen few pre-show protests during its tour. Maines' comments on Tuesday were a humorous yet iron-clad response to the millions of critics who burned their records and returned concert tickets. But while it was a peak moment, it wasn't what made the show.

Again, even if you're not a fan of the music, it was difficult not to appreciate the delivery. Maines' vocal power comes through onstage and Seidel, whose leather outfit and blond hair prompted her to call herself "S&M Barbie," is a borderline virtuoso fiddler. The trio's harmonies were sweet and impressively rendered, considering they were often delivered while all three hurried around the stage for maximum exposure.

The set covered most of last year's album, "Home." "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)" with its big string accompaniment, was even more potent than the hit cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." Both were smack-dab in the middle of the final third of the show, when the focus shifted from stage mobility to smooth harmonies and tight musicianship from the 11-piece backing band, rooted firmly at center stage. There was still enough twang to satisfy the country fans, though clearly the band's focus has shifted to pop ballads such as "Wide Open Spaces." Maines introduced their first encore, the dramatic family tale "Top of the World," as a new single and video, saying "We haven't been banned from television yet, so maybe you'll see it." They got jumpy, going back to their country basics for show-ender "Sin Wagon," rounding out a night of surprising potency and fan-friendly resiliency. The best live acts are always able to change people's minds, to a degree.

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