Cleveland, OH 2003

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Trio Concentrates On Music, Supplies Free Parking To Boot

by John Soeder, Cleveland Plain Dealer

As far as Dixie Chicks gigs go, this one was relatively uneventful.

No heads of state were insulted. And the concert went on as planned last night at Gund Arena, with nobody too ill to perform.

The Chicks called off their sold-out June 1 show there at the last minute because singer-guitarist Natalie Maines, battling a cold and allergies, had lost her voice.

During yesterday's makeup date, Maines dropped to her knees and begged for mercy. "I'm so sorry!" she told 19,000 fans. Apology accepted, judging from the deafening cheers.

Concertgoers could park free at three lots. The Chicks picked up the tab as a goodwill gesture. Yes, they had laid an egg in Cleveland 10 days earlier - but give 'em credit for trying to turn it into an omelet.

Maines, Martie Maguire (fiddle, mandolin) and Emily Robison (banjo, Dobro) aren't looking to ruffle any more feathers. Six weeks into their "Top of the World Tour," they seem eager to put the focus back on their pop-savvy country music.

The show got off to a rollicking start with "Goodbye Earl." The tongue-in-cheek murder ballad rubbed some people the wrong way a few years back. But that flap was nothing compared to the uproar after a concert in London three months ago, when Maines said the anti-war Chicks were "ashamed" President Bush hails from their home state of Texas.

The trio's album sales plunged. Radio stations dropped the Chicks from playlists. And protesters destroyed their copies of the pinko-commie group's CDs.

The Chicks have some folks in a tizzy, while poor Marilyn Manson can't get arrested anymore. It's a funny old world, isn't it?

"Natalie has a right to speak her mind," die-hard Chicks fan Roma Smith of Burton said before last night's show. Her hand made sign read: STAND BY YOUR CHICKS.

Smith took the postponement in stride, too. "If Natalie can't sing, who would want to see the Chicks anyway?" she said.

The backlash against the Chicks only made Theresa Morris respect the group more. She and a friend drove from Toledo for the concert - on June 1 and last night. "We need more people who question authority," Morris said.

But enough about the sociopolitical subplot. The real razzle-dazzle unfolded on a multi-level, curvilinear stage in the middle of the arena. The Chicks aimed to please - and for the most part, they hit the mark.

Backed by a pickin'-and-grinnin' eight-piece band (as well as a string quartet on some songs), feisty Maines, 28, and sisters Maguire and Robison - 33 and 30, respectively - expertly worked every corner of the venue.

Maines sounded fully recovered, belting out "Hello Mr. Heartache," "Cold Day in July," a cover of Bob Dylan's "Mississippi" and other tunes with gusto. The group's three-part harmonies soared on "Travelin' Soldier," "Cowboy Take Me Away" and a twangy update of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," while "Lil' Jack Slade" showcased the trio's serious instrumental chops.

Imagine a high-octane hootenanny choreographed by Cecil B. DeMille, complete with confetti, blooming artificial flowers and a giant windmill.

The Chicks made nary a controversial peep, although there were passing references to their brouhaha. During "Truth No. 2," video screens showed images of suffragettes, civil-rights crusaders and Mohandis Gandhi along side footage of people stomping on Chicks CDs. It was a bit much.

Ditto a couple of sappy ballads. "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)" and "Top of the World" didn't just tug shamelessly at your heartstrings - they clumsily tried to lasso the lump in your throat, too.

Nearly two hours after the concert began, it climaxed with a giddy encore of "Sin Wagon." By then, any sins the Dixie Chicks had committed were forgiven.

Opening act Joan Osborne's gritty, soulful vocals served her well for "Only You Know and I Know" and her calling-card smash, "One of Us." She may be a one-hit wonder, but with a range of styles at her command - from R&B to rock 'n' roll - Osborne is no one-trick pony.

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