Philadelphia, PA 2003

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On Stage, Dixie Chicks Are On 'Top of the World'

By Mathew Schwartz, The NewsJournal Staff reporter

Don't strain yourself trying to pin down what gives the Dixie Chicks their massive crossover appeal. You'll only wind up scratching your head.

It's not like they sold out their bluegrass roots to get into the promised land of multiplatinum sales. They play what they always have: a traditional, bluegrassy version of country. And while they combine it with a dash of rock 'n' roll flair, they never go nearly as far toward the pop end of the spectrum as Shania Twain or Faith Hill.

So what's the secret to Chick chic? Maybe it's how they make feelin' bad feel so darn good.

The Dixie Chicks ripped open their first night at Philadelphia's packed First Union Center with a charming little favorite called "Goodbye Earl," one which gave them justifiable notoriety in that it describes killing a wife-beater and dumping the body. It's all in fun, though - wink, wink.

The Chicks have created a superb new stage for their Top of the World tour, a NASCAR-like racetrack that enables them to perform their musical theatrics in the not-quite-round. With massive video screens in all four directions, even when the Chicks weren't facing a section of the audience, there was always a good view for everyone. The energetic women made the most of the platform, working the crowd constantly from all angles, even signing autographs for fans during the songs.

When asked if they were ready to have a good time, the crowd responded with a rousing affirmative, and a long roll of top-notch performing began.

With so many hits in their act, they wasted little time cranking it up on the wonderful "There's Your Trouble."

Natalie Maines was on virtuoso level all night, her voice like a shot of Southern Comfort - a smooth burn that counters its sweetness with a sharp edge, perfect for the bittersweet lyrics she sings.

But it wasn't just about the Dixie Chicks' groovy country sound. It takes more than a banjo, a dobro and taste of Texas twang in the vocals to make a music act country. It takes a depth of understanding of gritty, everyday, never-ordinary life.

The Chicks provided all that and then some over the course of their nearly two-dozen-song set.

"Travelin' Soldier" was the first of many songs to pull the best of the Chicks' harmonies into view.

The lyrics to "Travelin' Soldier" also put the absolute lie to any claim that the Chicks aren't patriots. This song, with its sad tale of the love and death of a young soldier, is not a tune for a group that doesn't support the troops.

The violin virtuosity of Martie Seidel could be felt throughout on songs like "White Trash Wedding" and "Lil' Jack Slade," an instrumental jam session that showed off the whole band.

When the Chicks first covered Patti Griffin's song, "Truth No. 2," they had no idea how appropriate it would become to their situation. The opening line, "You don't like the sound of the truth coming from my mouth," is all the reply Maines requires to her detractors relative to her comments vis-a-vis President Bush. But the group adds to it with video of great protests and activists through history - from Malcolm X to the suffragettes to the gay rights movement. A little heavy-handed? Maybe, but only in retrospect. At the moment, it seemed like the perfect answer to people who think speech can be too free.

It was late in the show before the crowd showed the true level of its enthusiasm. On "Cowboy," as the Chicks walked out on a bridge to within feet of their seats, they sang along wholeheartedly. And while I've complimented Seidel's virtuoso fiddle playing already, it bears repeating, because on this song, she outdid herself. And lest anyone think I might have reason to neglect praising Emily Robison, not so. "Cowboy" was only one moment when her banjo playing lit up the stage.

As mothers, the three say, they now have a renewed appreciation for the song "Godspeed." This haunting "lullaballad" dedicated to a son far away was played exquisitely. In such capable hands and voices, it could bring a tear to the eye and a lump to the throat of even the most jaded listener.

And it was an ideal lead-in to their megahit "Landslide," and then it was a race to the finish with "Ready to Run" and "Wide Open Spaces," played with only a hint of extra live rockin' out. But that was more than enough to drive the crowd into a wild, screaming, foot-stomping frenzy as the band left the stage before the encore.

And then the real end arrived, with "Sin Wagon," which rocked harder than any other song of the night.

I may never understand exactly why so many people who don't know a dobro from their elbow love the Dixie Chicks. But I know why I do. And I know I'm glad I was there when they came to town.

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