Los Angeles, CA 2003

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photo by Lawrence K. Ho / LA Times

A Stellar Night Of Country-Pop
During a pleasing, spectacle-heavy show, Dixie Chicks steer clear of politics - mostly.


The Orange County Register

Let's dispense as quickly as possible with unavoidable discussion of how the Dixie Chicks dealt with what Natalie Maines refers to as "the incident" - the Bush-bashing in London, perhaps the biggest mountain made out of a molehill since John glibly remarked that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

Saturday night at Staples Center - where the still resoundingly (and justly) adored trio made its first of four sold-out SoCal stops, including two nights at Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim - "the incident" seemingly had become a dead issue. There was no protest outside, and no fans were prepped to make a stink inside; they were too busy queuing up to buy tour T-shirts and bumper stickers proclaiming "FREE NATALIE" in red, white and blue lettering.

For a while, it appeared the matter might not be addressed at all, which would have been just fine, frankly. Given the ridiculous furor raised over Maines' spontaneous, frustrated comment - and that it was followed by the Chicks' unnecessary contrition in a "Prime Time Live" interview and a pot-stirring, nearly naked Entertainment Weekly cover - well, really, hasn't everything that need be said about "the incident" been overstated as it is?

More than halfway through the group's 22-song show, however, Maines finally made mention.

"I'm not sure if anyone's aware what occurred four months ago," she said sarcastically but gently, with country class. The crowd erupted in supportive applause. Near where I was sitting, at least a half-dozen people shouted out, "We love you, Natalie!"

"We were called lots of things," she continued. "But the one we never understood was when they said we were like those crazy liberal Californians."

That brought laughter, and tons more cheering, though I couldn't help but wonder how that quip would go down in Orange County.

She then explained how "Truth No. 2," one of the best cuts on the Chicks' outstanding, bluegrass-heavy "Home" album, has taken on deeper meaning because of recent events.

"You don't like the sound of the truth coming from my mouth," it begins, and here it was accompanied by video of people (famous and ordinary) facing the consequences of flexing First Amendment muscle. Interspersed with silent-movie dialogue cards alternating between words like "Truth" and "Freedom" and commands like "Shut Up" were shots of Gandhi, Muhammad Ali, the Dalai Lama, activists marching for women's and gay rights - and then footage of ban-the-Chicks rallies.

The most stingingly incisive image: a woman, her fist raised, with the words "Patriot Act" taping her mouth shut, followed by a shot of someone toting a banner reading "Censorship is un-American."

It was a potent yet tasteful way to address "the incident" without making too big a deal about it. And, ultimately, it was just one more piece of reflective entertainment in the Dixie Chicks' spectacle.

Calling it massive is almost an understatement. The mechanics of their in-the-round show, centered on a sprawling stage with catwalks leading away from either side of center court, is one of the more impressive arena displays I've ever seen.

Can't say it didn't have drawbacks, of course. As with any such configuration, at any given time a large portion of the audience is stuck viewing the act from behind, inevitably watching the action on monitors - and only twice, during Radney Foster's touching parent-child ode "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)" and a lovely "Landslide," did the group really make the most of its setup.

That aside, wailin' Maines and sisters Martie Maguire (fiddle) and Emily Robison (banjo) worked this arrangement as ideally as could be expected. Decked out in punkish black duds, that in the case of boot-stomping spitfire Maines complemented her platinum pompadour with ponytail, the ladies often split up to saunter and strut across every corner and crevice of the stage, ensuring that the entire audience had at least one Chick to ogle.

Almost as often, though, they'd come together to sharply focus their sumptuous harmonies and tighten interaction with an otherwise unobtrusive eight-man backing band. It was during moments like those - notably the big-fun realism of "White Trash Wedding" and the heartache of "Travelin' Soldier" - when I wished I was seeing these superb strings-slingers and vibrant vocalists as they are on their live DVD captured at the Kodak Theatre. After a while, chasing their every move became tiresome, distracting from the music rather than enlivening it.

But the excitable crowd didn't seem to mind much. They were too busy singing along to favorites - nearly all of "Home," more than half of "Fly" ("Goodbye Earl" the opener and "Sin Wagon" the closer) and a clutch from "Wide Open Spaces," including a terrific rendition of Maria McKee's "Am I the Only One (Who's Ever Felt This Way?)"

All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable performance of high-grade country-pop, more like primo Mellencamp mixed with Dolly Parton and Sheryl Crow than anything out of Nashville these days, and with virtually no twang. If the Dixie Chicks' one-of-a-kind greatness wasn't already apparent, this gig made it glaringly obvious.

Decades from now, that's all anyone really will care about - their exceptional, distinctly American music. And "the incident" will have become a footnote.

Dixie Chicks once again rule the roost
Save for one overdone number that referenced the controversy, the women were their old warm, spirited selves.
 
By Robert Hilburn,
LA Times Staff Writer
 
Natalie Maines, the Dixie Chicks' often outspoken lead singer, paused near the end of the country music trio's fast-paced, high-tech concert Saturday at Staples Center for a warm, personal aside.

Looking like a warrior in punkette attire more suitable for one of the Osbournes and with her hair shaped in a defiant Mohawk style, Maines recalled how the Chicks were riding high with a No. 1 album a few months ago when they came up with "Top of the World" as the name for their current tour.

But after the public outcry over her much publicized anti-Bush remark and country radio's sudden cold shoulder, Maines said she wondered whether "farewell" wouldn't have been a more accurate tour title.

It was a funny but also warm, convincing reflection a way of thanking the fans for their support without reopening old wounds, and the capacity crowd cheered mightily, just as attendees had done for most of the nearly two-hour concert.

The moment was all the more welcome because the Chicks hadn't always responded to this pop culture flap with the same intelligence and confidence that established them in the late '90s as the most rewarding mainstream country arrival in years.

One of history's lessons is that we aren't often as much judged by perceived misstatements or misdeeds as by how we respond to them. In politics and the corporate world, it's the attempted cover-up that often does you in. In show biz, the biggest danger can often be looking like you are trying to milk the situation.

The whole Chicks affair started in March when, on the eve of the war in Iraq, Texas native Maines outraged some fans by telling a London concert audience that she was "ashamed" to be from the same state as President Bush.

The comment might have been too much under any circumstance for some of the trio's conservative fans, but it seemed particularly inflammatory at the time because radio stations were playing the Chicks' recording of "Travelin' Soldier" around the clock.

Written by Bruce Robison, it's a deeply sentimental tale of a lonely young man who goes off to Vietnam and the young woman who waits in vain for his return.

So it's not surprising that thousands of country fans phoned radio stations, demanding they stop playing the tune and, apparently, any other Chicks song.

Maines quickly apologized, saying her remarks were disrespectful. But when country radio dropped the song, the Chicks reacted like a deer in the headlights.

Maines and fellow Chicks Martie Maguire and Emily Robison came across as whiny and self-absorbed in a prime-time TV interview with Diane Sawyer, and they appeared gimmicky when they posed for a cheesecake cover photo for Entertainment Weekly.

With one exception, however, the Chicks were their old selves again Saturday --frisky and challenging, certainly, but also gracious and warm-spirited.

The "Free Natalie" T-shirts at the souvenir stands were not only cute but also a bargain (just $17 versus the $25 to $30 for regular tour T-shirts).

During intermission, after young pop singer Michelle Branch's mostly anonymous opening set, the Chicks showed some good-natured spunk by entertaining the crowd with recordings that offered wry observations on the post-Bush comments.

The tunes ranged from Elvis Costello's rambunctious "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and the Go-Go's teasing "Our Lips Are Sealed" to Bruce Springsteen's questioning "Born in the U.S.A."

When the trio and their band finally took the stage, which was set up theater-in-the-round-style in the middle of the arena, they concentrated on music.

The Chicks have been interested in music that entertains as well as makes a point, a combination that has worked spectacularly well in their lively interpretations of such tunes as Dennis Linde's "Goodbye Earl," a revenge fantasy about an abuse victim who plots to kill her husband, and Darrell Scott's "Long Time Gone," which chides country music's drift toward a soulless embrace with pop.

Eventually, however, everyone knew Maines had to address what she refers to as the "incident."

It came about a dozen numbers into the set -- and it was the evening's only false note.

Introducing Patty Griffin's "Truth No. 2," Maines said she didn't fully understand the song, which is about standing up for yourself, until after the March uproar.

The lyrics, in part:

You don't like the sound of the truth

Coming from my mouth

The rendition itself felt a bit pretentious under the circumstances, but the accompanying video made matters worse. It would have been OK to merely show the scenes of people destroying Beatles records and Sinead O'Connor records because you can see how the Chicks identified with that.

But things felt a bit ludicrous when words such as "tolerance, " "speak the truth" and "censorship" flashed on the screen between scenes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Whatever their intent, the Chicks seemed to be putting their minor league pop struggle on a level with some of mankind's great civil rights movements.

As the video kept rolling, you wondered who would be next: Mother Teresa? But the whole "Truth No. 2" segment took up only about three minutes. For most of the night, the Chicks showed they were back on course.

The enthusiasm of the audience at Staples Center (and reportedly all other stops on the tour) should give the Chicks the confidence to move on with their music. It's much more attractive than martyrdom. That enthusiasm should also serve as a nightly reminder to country radio programmers that they overreacted when they stopped playing the Chicks.
 
Dixie Chicks Rule The L.A. Roost
Maines and company play riveting 22-song set, joke about 'liberal Californians'
By Sandra Barrera
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin


If the Dixie Chicks were at all humbled by what singer Natalie Maines referred to on Saturday night at Staples Center as "the incident," there wasn't much evidence of it.

Their look, their self-possession, even tracks of their music played before the first of their three sold-out L.A.-area shows were all signs that the Chicks remain sassy, confident entertainers devoted to the attitude that energizes their fans, who by the way, were very energized. It wasn't "Girls Gone Wild"; it was chicks letting loose but with a strong under current of traditional values like re silience, independence, love of family and home.

While those are not overtly patriotic themes, they converged nicely with the ultimate American West symbol worn by seemingly every third person in this predominately white, over-30 crowd of women -- the cowboy hat, not unlike those worn by President George W. Bush while at home in Texas.

It was Maines' comment about being ashamed of coming from the same state as the president that sparked a backlash four months ago among country music fans, which resulted in radio boycotts and public demonstrations, including the destruction of their CDs.

In fact, they showed a montage of sequences during the show that put their experience at the tail end of other examples of censorship, such as the Nazi book-burnings and pro tests against the Beatles. It included footage of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, suffragettes and other figures who have fought to overcome oppression and to guarantee the right to have a voice.

The Chicks did not, however, elaborate on their controversy or turn the concert into a political demonstration (although the Chicks are joining forces with Rock the Vote, the nonprofit voter participation organization, to motivate young people -- especially women -- to speak out, register and vote).

But that's not to say they didn't make a statement. Speaking sarcastically, Maines said the one thing she didn't get was that "we were like those crazy, liberal Californians."

Everything else was left open to interpretation. And it wasn't hard to figure out judging by appearances alone. For a band that's always embraced trends that mix country and urban influences, this time they came out in full rebellion, attired in black leather and sporting punk-inspired 'dos. Maines' hair had aspects of both a mullet and Mohawk.

It was a proud mane that was a little bit Ziggy Stardust, a little bit Wendy O. Williams of Plasmatics fame.

The look was defiant, but the music style was the same if not at times a little more centered on the hearth.

As guitarist Emily Robison told the audience between songs, in the three years the Chicks have been away, they've become wives and mothers. Even Robison's sister, fiddle player Martie Maguire, has "pulled the goalie" in the hopes of getting pregnant.

And so, the Chicks came out swinging. The show opened with "Goodbye Earl," a song that solidified the group's appeal among women fed up with male brutality.

The spirit appeared again in "Hello Mr. Heartache," in which Maines and Robison danced in the arms of one another. At one point, Maguire even made a comment about how some of their male fans five rows from the stage were using "duck- hunting binoculars" to watch the show. Raising her arm overhead, she asked, "Did I shave my pits tonight?" to the approving audience shouts of "You go, girl" and "Tell it like it is."

And they did just that as only the Chicks knew how -- through 22 songs that included "Travelin' Soldier," "A Home," "If I Fall You're Going Down With Me," "Wide Open Spaces" and "Top of the World."

The politics were left to other peoples' songs, such as Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," Wings' "Band on the Run" and Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" that piped through the sound-system before the show even started.

Just as people began asking them selves if there was a message in the track selections, Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." started to play. Before the song's end, the lights would go out and the Dixie Chicks would be on stage.

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