Nashville, TN 2003

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photo by P. Casey Daley / The Tennessean

Dixie Chicks Rev Up Gaylord

by Craig Havighurst, The Tennessean

The best rebuttal to those who think country music would be better off without the Dixie Chicks is a Dixie Chicks concert. For an inspiring balance between subtlety and energy and between arena rock and woodshed twang, it is an event without peer in the format today.

The multiplatinum-selling Texas trio dogged by more controversy than it deserved since lead singer Natalie Maines casually insulted President Bush in London in March entertained without incident or respite for more than an hour and a half Monday night at the Gaylord Entertainment Center on the last U.S. date of its Top of the World tour.

Even if the show felt painstakingly rehearsed and polished to make use of its elaborate set, the individual band members Maines, fiddler Martie Maguire and dobro/banjo whiz Emily Robison never seemed to be merely hitting cues. Not only do they love playing music for its own sake, they appeared to take an extra measure of satisfaction from playing difficult instruments and nailing complex harmonies just inches from legions of young women and girls who may well have been thinking, ''Cool I could do that.''

The band's hot-wired set belied the acoustic intimacy of its most recent album, Home. A winding walkway completely surrounded the elevated (and elevator-heavy) bandstand dead in the center of the GEC. The arena's lower seats took advantage of close-up views of the Chicks as the three cycled around from song to song. Higher seats got to see the elaborate video display at play on the catwalk floor. The sound was quite good for a cavernous space, letting acoustic instruments such as mandolins and fiddles cut through a bossy electric mix.

Goodbye Earl, with its improbably cheerful sing-along chorus of revenge against a wife-beater (and a song that used to be an encore for the band) came first. Four songs in, the band shifted to songs from Home. Tortured, Tangled Hearts and Travelin' Soldier felt the trio's signature vocal harmonies find a real pocket.

Hello Mr. Heartache, the band's one traditional country shuffle, featured a fine twin fiddle solo while Maines and Robison two-stepped. White Trash Wedding and the sharp, fiddle-driven instrumental Lil' Jack Slade pushed the bluegrass button hard and without any cheesy compromises, featuring superb mandolin from sideman Brent Truitt and flat-picked guitar from Keith Sewell. Later, John Dederick's fat organ was at the heart of If I Fall You're Going Down With Me, marking a return to full-tilt energy.

The one set-list curve ball (and there might well have been more) was Bob Dylan's recently recorded Mississippi arranged in a churning, zydeco sort of groove and featuring the most intense fiddle jam of the night.

The set got very busy late in the evening. Landslide (the band's hit Fleetwood Mac cover) produced large sprouting flowers and floating petal-like confetti from on high. During Wide Open Spaces, the set closer, a convincing prairie windmill emerged.

Encores Top of the World and Sin Wagon showed how rapidly the Dixie Chicks can steer from elegant, involved symphonic country to bratty, funny over-the-top slam-grass.

Because of its vast scale, this set was not as extraordinary musically as when the group premiered the material from Home at the Ryman Auditorium a year ago, but for substantive entertainment, it's a wonder to have a group of such range and bite in a genre too prone to get trapped by formulas and rank sentimentality.

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