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It's the Chicks, not Eagles who soar
Nashville collides with Palm Springs at Soldier Field as Frey and Henley stroll through the hits; Dixie Chicks rock with passion

The Eagles delivered the classics but the Dixie Chicks brought the genuine passion Saturday at Soldier Field, where the bands appeared headed in separate directions. For the headlining Eagles, the outing functioned as a professional exercise in maintaining fragile chemistry while playing note-perfect renditions of famous songs. The stakes were higher for the Dixie Chicks, touring for the first time in four years. And while two of the group's members recently teamed up on a side project, fans can breathe a sigh of relief. Nothing about the trio's edgy 60-minute set suggested that a farewell is in the offing.

A clear summer afternoon, as well as pop-country stud and Bon Jovi doppelganger Keith Urban, lured thousands of early-arriving concertgoers. Save for the empty 400 level at the top of the stadium, Soldier Field filled with people. Women wearing Stetson hats, cowboy boots and cut-off jeans stood alongside men outfitted in plaid shorts and golf shirts. It seemed as if Nashville collided with Palm Springs. The dozens of limousines lined up outside also hinted at the event's moneyed status, as expensive tickets and slow sales have been reported as reasons behind canceled dates in other cities.

Not that Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh should be blamed for any problems. The affable musician almost single-handedly prevented the first half of his group's two-hour performance from becoming an extended lullaby. Walsh's goofy facial expressions, gritty solos, nasal timbre and Ramones t-shirt injected colorful personality into an otherwise cardboard display. Unlike previous visits, the Eagles didn't even attempt to crack jokes or pretend they get along. Singer/guitarist Glenn Frey primarily stood still, and drummer/vocalist Don Henley had nothing to say. The focus stayed on the material, which, aside from occasional horn-section accompaniments, remained tied to tried-and-true arrangements.

Yes, the quartet still croons lovely harmonies, and Henley's falsetto is apparently immune to age. A host of midtempo numbers ("The Long Run," "Heartache Tonight") eventually caught fire. Still, there's no excuse for touring guitarist Steuart Smith (part of a nine-piece support band) possessing more soulfulness than a majority of the Eagles. Great songs only go so far. Thankfully, the Dixie Chicks got that message.

Dressed in black stiletto heels and a sleeveless vest, leader Natalie Maines exuded defiance. Her buzz-cut hair and soaring vocals added to her toughness. By comparison, wholesome mates Martie Maguire and Emily Robison looked as if they'd just returned from baking apple pies. In no way, however, were any of the three women ready to make nice.

Aided by a backing band, the Dixie Chicks went for broke on a rambunctious "Sin Wagon" and touted independence on "The Long Way Around." The group swayed on a spunky cover of Bob Dylan's "Mississippi" and, surprisingly, crafted Train's "Hey, Soul Sister" into a snappy piece of roots-oriented pop. Illuminated by banjo notes that sounded like logs crackling in a campfire, ballads resonated with mature grace. Yet it was the stomping "Goodbye Earl" that found the Dixie Chicks rocking out with gusto, and, after a long layover, again turning the tables on a male-dominated industry that's missed their presence.
Eagles, Dixie Chicks, Urban concert a sign of the times

Recession? What recession?

Depending on which side of the counter you stood, economic recovery fast forwarded or slid sharply in reverse at Soldier Field on Saturday when the Eagles headlined a triple bill that included the Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban.

Maxing out the ground level at those prices is bold considering the economic downturn, but what was particularly galling was the surprise Chicago fans encountered when they rolled into any Soldier Field parking lot: a $46 fee to park. Cash only, please.

The Eagles were the first band to break the $100 ticket barrier in the mid-1990s, proving a marketplace existed for premium access. With the U.S. Department of Justice approving the merging of Live Nation with Ticketmaster Entertainment in late January, the ceiling will likely rise due to a lockdown on almost every stage of the touring process.

Concert tickets obviously exist in a different league as reckless bank mortgages, but they both operate by the same principle: the market will expand according to the consumers willing to take the greatest risk. That commitment required the band's two-hour set to remain conservative at all cost. Unlike the Eagles' last tour cycle in 2008, songs from a recent double-album were shelved in favor of classic hits that were dutifully replicated by every guitar tone and harmony.

The strictly business approach is not one designed for rediscovery or even enthusiasm, and at times the personality of this musical franchise appeared quite grim. Core members Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Timothy B. Schmit looked weary in separate moments and together lacked the playful chemistry that typically engines big stadium shows.

Luckily there was Joe Walsh. Yet again saving this band with unhinged energy and a willingness to fail, Walsh was responsible for the set's biggest moments. The guitarist embraced his crazy uncle persona by duck-walking across stage, accosting his fellow band members and hauling focus to the furthest reaches of the stage where he demanded the audience to follow.

He also chewed his way through his hits -- "In the City," "Life's Been Good," "Funk #49" -- as if learning them, or remembering them, for the first time.

Despite how many tickets they sold, the Eagles, for all their vocal perfection and country-rock polish, largely performed as if they were in a theater, not Chicago's most massive venue. Walsh recognized the difference and at times elevated the show to fit the setting.

Like the headliner, the Dixie Chicks similarly ignored the latest chapter in their history -- a recent duo album by sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire -- and played catalog highlights. Lead singer Natalie Maines, her hair now buzzed to pixie fuzz, performed with an unusual mixture of bulldog energy and vocal grace. The Chicks, augmented by six additional musicians, proved more dynamic than their veteran peers. Their style of country pop was tailored with snug harmonies too, but there was also exuberance, an intangible factor these ladies spread into every pocket of the stadium with particular ease.

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