Columbus, OH 2003

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Music, Not Controversy, Stars

By Aaron Beck, Columbus Dispatch

The so-called "controversy'' surrounding the Dixie Chicks -- the fallout of a glib statement regarding President Bush, Texas, war and peace made in March in London by singer Natalie Maines -- essentially is a dead issue.

But the band and a few right-leaning souls milling about outside the band's recent sold-out "Top of the World'' concerts, including the one last night in Nationwide Arena, are refusing to tap that final coffin nail.

One of Us singer Joan Osborne, the opening act, was the first to broach the subject: "Unless you've been living under a rock the past few months, you know what the Dixie Chicks have been going through. Here's your chance to show them how you feel tonight.''

If the audience needed any more prodding, the coy public-address system playlist between Osborne and the Chicks' sets included: (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?, Our Lips Are Sealed and Band on the Run and the not-so-subtle fist-pumping version of Born in the USA.

Commentary by the Chicks themselves was pushed aside for the moment until after they and their expert eight-piece band had gorgeously replicated several songs from their first three major-label albums.

Rising from the center of an "in-the-round'' stage plopped in the middle of the arena floor, Maines, fiddler Martie Maguire and Dobro and banjo player Emily Robison started the set with the rambunctious Goodbye Earl, which deals with a subject more controversial than those comments in Great Britain: taking the law into one's own hands and murdering a sinner.

What followed was 90 minutes of the best country-leaning pop music on the road. Some Days You Gotta Dance bled into the pedal-steel-stoked lite-'70s rocking There's Your Trouble, which segued into the superb death letter to "today's-hot-young-country'' country music, Long Time Gone, a tune from the new, superb all-acoustic album Home.

Another new one, Travelin' Soldier, said more about the Chicks' stance on global affairs than anything Maines has or will say. Maines sang the song of a young love extinguished by war in an aching, touchingly mournful voice.

Decked out in combat boots, scraps of plaid patchwork and black leather, and garish street-punk makeup circa London 1977, these new-old-timey music makers suggested they were in a fightin' mood.

But Maines -- sporting a bizarre, fauxhawk pompadour -- and company stuck mostly to the usual performer-addresses-the-audience pleasantries.

They didn't mention anything about the topic everyone knew they were going to address until they'd played nine songs.

Before playing Patty Griffin's Truth No. 2, from Home, Maines said, "Back before I put my size-five foot in mouth we didn't know if we wanted to put this next song on the album. But now we understand every single word of this song.''

With that introduction, video of Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., human-rights activists, Muhammad Ali and freedom-of-speech supporters and protesters and Beatles record burners and Dixie Chicks CD smashers -- played on screens above the Chicks' heads. Maines sang the strident lines, "You don't like the sound of the truth / coming from my mouth.''

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