'Get it out of your system -- we
welcome free speech here," said Natalie Maines, midway through the Dixie Chicks' triumphant sold-out concert Wednesday night
at Cox Arena.
The Texas trio's lead singer then playfully added: "You know, two of us have
been through childbirth; you can't hurt us!"
Maines needn't have worried about any lingering fallout over the national
controversy that enveloped the Chicks earlier this year.
Any scattered boos -- and none were audible from this listener's vantage point
--would have been soundly overwhelmed by the 11,899-strong audience's near-deafening cheers.
Her comments came in the introduction to "Truth No. 2," a no-nonsense ballad
by Patty Griffin. The song, a standout track from the Chicks' "Home" album last year, has taken on new meaning for the group
and its fans in this war-torn, free-speech-challenged year.
Maines proved as much when, in a voice that exuded quiet strength and grace
under fire, she intoned:
You don't like the sound of the truth /
Coming from my mouth / Well baby that might be so / I might get to the end of my life / Find out everyone was lying / I don't
think that I'm afraid anymore / Say that I would rather die trying.
Such powerful musical sentiments spoke volumes about how Maines, violinist-singer
Martie Maguire and banjo, dobro and mandolin player-singer Emily Robison have weathered the storm with their dignity intact.
But in the only overtly political segment of the 22-song concert, the Chicks
performed "Truth No. 2" while a series of images flashed on the four video screens suspended above the stage.
They included shots of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., pro-choice marchers,
gay-rights advocates and -- perhaps more aptly -- people burning Beatles' records in the mid-1960s (following John Lennon's
widely misinterpreted declaration that the Fab Four was "more popular than Jesus Christ right now"). These images were interspersed
with such words as "tolerance," "shut up," "censorship" and, finally, "seek the truth."
It may have seemed a bit melodramatic, but not when you consider the frenzied
backlash the Chicks experienced only a few months ago. The ensuing threats against them no doubt prompted the group's decision
to use two bomb-sniffing dogs at each stop on their ongoing tour. The cross-country trek saw the trio sell out 51 of its 59
shows, San Diego included, the day they went on sale March 1. Ticket sales, barely a week before the controversy erupted,
generated a record $49 million.
Equally effective, if more subtle, was the trio's next selection Wednesday,
the Warren Zevon-flavored "If I Fall You're Going Down With Me."
The song was originally about the heady highs of passion and the emotional
plunge that can follow. Its sequencing directly after "Truth No. 2" lent it a fresh new meaning -- that to suppress the right
to free speech of even a few creates a slippery slope that can threaten all Americans.
A similar sense of independence infused much of the 104-minute performance,
which began with the infectious female empowerment anthem "Goodbye Earl" and ended with the rollicking country-swing of "Sin
The concert, the Chicks' first here since performing the national anthem at
the Super Bowl in January, was almost flawless. The trio was backed by a superb eight-man band, led by former Joe Ely guitar
ace David Grissom. On some selections, including the show's penultimate song, the stirring "Top of the World," a string quartet
There were few surprises or spontaneous moments, but the polished precision
was matched by the Chicks' soulful fire, solid musicianship and impassioned vocals. Performing in the round on a state-of-the-art
stage allowed Maines, Robison and Maguire to play to different sections of the audience on virtually every selection, and
the audio quality was exemplary in a venue usually noted for its wretched acoustics.
The trio rocked with fervor on "Some Days You Gotta Dance" and the bluegrass-tinged "Tortured, Tangled Hearts." But the
most memorable moments came with the heartfelt lament "Travelin' Soldier" (now more timely than ever); the charged "White
Trash Wedding"; the sparkling instrumental "Lil' Jack Slade"; and two ballads, "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)" and "Truth No. 2,"
that perfectly captured the Chicks' ability to make their most powerful musical statements when performing at a near-hush.
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