London, England 2003

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Dixie Chicks
by Lisa Verrico
AT SOME point in the Dixie Chicks set the subject of Bush was bound to come up. The last time the Texan country-pop trio played in London, six months ago, the singer Natalie Maines made an off-the-cuff comment that almost brought her bands career to a halt.

With a third album, Home, selling in its millions in the US, they were basking in the glow of seven Grammy Award nominations. Maines referred to the war in Iraq and said she was ashamed that the President of the US came from Texas.

Overnight the Chicks reputation was in tatters. The American sweethearts chosen to sing the National Anthem at the Superbowl in January suddenly found their music banned from more than 40 country music stations back home. There were public burnings of their albums -- Missouri held a "chicken toss", when anyone with Chicks CDs or concert tickets was asked to bin them -- and acres of editorial condemned their unpatriotic attitude. So the Albert Hall audience was waiting for a statement from Maines, but for the first 20 minutes all they got was great music and surprisingly sexy outfits. The trio filed on stage in front of an eight-piece, all-male backing band, wearing tight, low-cut tops and lots of leather. Maines' outfit was the most risqué -- a tiny, velvet miniskirt, a top bearing what looked like a sparkly CND logo and high-heeled, thigh-length, black leather boots. The cute blonde singer, you suspect, rather enjoys being branded a bad girl.

The humorous Goodbye Earl from their multiplatinum Fly album opened the show, but it was the early hit There's Your Trouble -- think Crystal Gayle gone trailer-trash -- and the superb new number Long Time Gone that got the front rows up on their feet and everyone tapping their toes.

Then Maines stepped up to the mike and bowed her head. "Just so you know, we are ashamed," she began teasingly, "that weve never played the Albert Hall before."

Declaration made, it was back to the music, some saucy dancing and intermittent storytelling. The sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison -- the former on fiddle, the latter on banjo and dobro -- and Maines' stints on guitar and tambourine proved that while the Chicks may not write many of their own songs, they are excellent musicians. Meanwhile, their country and bluegrass-centred set, which included a cover of Bob Dylan's Mississippi and Stevie Nicks' Landslide, showed they are more Sheryl Crow than Shania Twain. A good job, girls, no matter what they think of you back home.

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