St. Paul, MN 2003

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New Edge Makes Dixie Chicks Sharper
by Jon Bream, Star Tribune

Controversy becomes the Dixie Chicks.

Ever since country music's wildly popular trio hit the concert circuit in 1999, they've been full of spunk, pizazz and personality. But ever since they became controversial -- at a London concert in March, lead singer Natalie Maines dissed President Bush just before the start of the war in Iraq -- they've gotten an edge, which makes their concerts even better. In fact, the whole brouhaha helped redefine -- and define -- their current concert tour.

The Chicks fired up the sold-out crowd of 19,754 at Xcel Energy Center on Friday by broadcasting Bruce Springsteen's protest anthem "Born in the U.S.A." before they hit the stage. And then they attacked with "Goodbye Earl," the song about an abused wife killing her husband, which got the Chicks in hot water three years ago. But Maines delivered it on Friday as if it were an anthem of female empowerment. And the female-dominated crowd sang along, pumping their fists in the air.

While Maines' big mouth got her in trouble in London, she opted for a different method to broadcast her message in St. Paul. Her necklace, in 2-inch old-English letters, read: BUSH. She let Chicks fiddler Martie Maguire be the mouthpiece and make her point by praising the Texas trio's followers.

"The thing I like about our fans is that they are smart, they are good-looking and we can agree to disagree" and still get along. Indeed, the message of tolerance -- and free speech -- was the theme of the song "Truth No. 2," during which historical films of Martin Luther King, suffragettes, Gandhi and other freedom fighters were shown on the large video screens.

Visuals were an integral ingredient of the show as much as the trio's outstanding harmonies, musicianship and versatile repertoire. Throughout the 105-minute performance, images were shown on the floor of the theater-in-the-round stage -- everything from artsy abstracts to closeups of the fans themselves. Flowers popped up along the edge of the stage during "Landslide," and a windmill rose in the center of the stage during "Wide Open Spaces."

And the Chicks' hairdos were part of the eye-candy -- from Maguire's long bouffant circa "Dallas" to Emily Robison's cornrows-meet-Cindy Crawford 'do to Maines' swept-up rooster-meets-mohawk. Somehow the image was perfect for her -- part punk, part Dixie Chick.

If the image and free-speech campaigning were a bit in-your-face, the Chicks' music was at turns gentle and honky-tonkin'. The encore encapsulated the Chicks' range of music and emotions as "Top of the World" ended with a string-quartet passage and then the Chicks tore it up with the rip-roaring, kick-up-your-heels "Sin Wagon."

Highlights included the aching "Hello Mr. Heartache," the bluegrass boogie "White Trash Wedding," the graceful "Godspeed" and " Truth No. 2," the night's emotional high point. The musical high point was arguably the mournful Irish fiddle-and-marching-drum coda to "Travelin' Soldier," the patriotic lament that Maines was introducing in London when she found her edge.

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