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
"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
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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