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photo by Robert Spencer / Newsday

Controversy Is Incidental At Dixie Chicks Concert

by Lisa Rose, Star-Ledger Staff

The Dixie Chicks concentrated on picking rather than political sermonizing during their capacity show at Madison Square Garden in New York on Friday, the first of two back-to-back dates at the venue.

The country trio said little about the controversy sparked by their comments scorning President Bush at a London concert in March, days before the war with Iraq. Their rant ruffled Nashville feathers, getting them banned on many airwaves, causing sales of their latest collection, "Home," to take a tumble and prompting some radio stations to stage burnings of their CDs.

But New York doesn't even have a country music station, and there were few signs of the group's recent strife at the Garden. Nary a picketer marched the city streets outside the arena and banners hoisted mid-show expressed support for the band rather than outrage. "Jersey girls love the Dixie Chicks" read one placard in the lower tier.

Only once did lead Chick Natalie Maines address the turmoil. While introducing the free speech anthem, "Truth No. 2," she said that the message of the Patty Griffin-penned song didn't become clear to the band until after that scandalous London show, which she called "the incident."

Rather than taking potshots at their detractors, Maines encouraged audience members to vote, stressing, "It's the only way we can voice our opinions." She dedicated "Truth No. 2" to loose-cannon documentarian Michael Moore, who was booed at this year's Oscars with his finger-pointing, anti-war tirade.

There were other traces of social commentary mixed in with their blockbuster twang. "Truth No. 2" was accompanied by video images of peace marches, Nazi book-burnings and protesters stamping on Dixie Chicks CDs. Before the band took the stage, the house speakers blared such pointed selections as "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears, "Our Lips are Sealed" by the Go-Go's, and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" by Sly and the Family Stone.

Ever democratic, the trio rocked in the round at the Garden, on a labyrinthine stage of catwalks, mirrored stairwells and winding paths lined with color-burst video monitors. Four jumbo-screens offered views of the Chicks as they played to different sides of the room. While the trio strutted the perimeters, an eight-piece backing band jammed on a platform in the center. Two lucky clusters of fans were corralled within the network of performance perches.

Decked in tattered black ensembles, with hair sprayed up towards the cosmos, the Chicks looked like Mowhawked CBGB disciples rather than coy Southern belles. They opened the show with their morbidly comical hoe-down, "Goodbye Earl," about dispatching an abusive husband. They followed with "Some Days You Gotta Dance," another liberating boot-tapper from the "Fly" album. Their recent hit, "Long Time Gone," had mini-Chicks singing along with the "na-na" chorus and kicking up arena dirt.

Maines' voice was more intoxicating than moonshine throughout the two-hour performance, whether she was roughhousing on "Sin Wagon" or hushing the arena with the lullaby, "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)." Her smudged eye makeup grew smudgier as she welled up while singing "Traveling Soldier," about a doomed wartime romance. Maguire and her sister, banjoist Emily Robison, offered maple-sweet harmonies on numbers like "There's Your Trouble" and "Cold Day in July."

They showcased their bluegrass chops, assembling in a string band configuration for "White Trash Wedding" and the instrumental "Lil' Jack Slade." Fans skip-stepped in the aisles, twirled bandannas and tossed ten-gallon hats, making the Garden resemble a Kentucky hootennany.

The trio shifted over to rhinestone rock with "If I Fall You're Going Down With Me" and a cover of Sheryl Crow's "Mississippi," which peaked with a rebel yell guitar solo. Their string-heavy cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" spurred a euphoric sway all around the arena.

A towering turbine stage prop added a touch of Vegas-meets-Ozarks glitz to early fave "Wide Open Spaces." Their free spirit rally cry, "Ready to Run," was layered with drum-and-fife backing, as the Chicks marched the stage in high-heeled defiance.

It's a crying shame that the hubbub over their Bush-barbs has eclipsed talk of the Chicks' musical merits because, simply put, they are one of the strongest live acts on today's touring circuit. Not only do they sing and play their instruments sans pre-recorded cushioning, but they sing and play their instruments with skill and panache.

Opening act Michelle Branch could learn a lesson or two from the headliners about stage presence. Although she announced that the Garden was a dream gig for her, she slouched through hits like "Everywhere" and "The Game of Love" with all the enthusiasm of a bored clock-puncher.

Debate's Over - Dixie Chicks Rock On
Unapologetically, they move past 'The Incident'

By Glenn Gamboa

The Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines has taken to calling it "The Incident" - making an offhand remark at a London concert about being embarrassed to share a home state with President Bush. Her comment touched off a firestorm of death threats, radio station bans and CD burnings. Conservatives tarred them with every negative stereotype possible, looking to bully The Chicks into apologizing for having an opinion that didn't match theirs.

The Chicks - Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire - refused.

Now, on their sold-out American tour, they go on the offensive. "The Incident" has made The Chicks stronger. It gives the tour a focus, bringing an even higher purpose than usual to their tales of the brokenhearted, small-town underdogs, and dreamers who believe in the power of love.

Their campaign began long before their 105-minute set started, with warm-up music that included Tammy Wynette's "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad" and R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It," building to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." as they entered. Any question as to whether The Chicks would tone down their act was answered with their opening song, "Goodbye Earl," the joyous sing-along about murdering an abusive husband.

There was little direct talk about "The Incident," but it was as much a part of the concert as the country trio or the 12-piece band. The ovation for "Travelin' Soldier," the poignant pro-troops ballad yanked by radio after "The Incident," was enormous - in part because Maines' delivery was so strikingly beautiful, in part because The Chicks' faithful wanted to show their support. That support never wavered as The Chicks turned out one magnificent performance after another. The crowd kicked up its heels during "Some Days You Gotta Dance." It reveled in joint defiance during "Long Time Gone" and "There's Your Trouble" and shared dreams during "Cowboy Take Me Away" and, of course, "Wide Open Spaces," which ended with The Chicks doing a victory lap around the huge stage.

"I have no idea what is PC and what isn't - I would've thought that 'Crack Whore Barbie' [an early description of Maguire's leather-heavy outfit] would've gotten us banned, but no. It was politics," said Maines, who added that Rock the Vote was present to help register people to vote because "it is the only way we can make our opinion known." She then dedicated the lovely "Truth No. 2" to controversial liberal filmmaker Michael Moore.

The Chicks would love to put "The Incident" behind them and focus again on making impressive country albums such as last year's "Home." However, if President Bush's conservative cronies continue to demonize them, The Dixie Chicks understand. The rousing concert served as a response: Bush better get ready, ready, ready to run, because The Chicks sure are.

Down-Home and Defiant Again

By Jon Pareles, New York Times

On the tour that brought them to Madison Square Garden last weekend, the Dixie Chicks aren't ignoring what their lead singer, Natalie Maines, called ''the incident'': the firestorm of condemnation and the withdrawal of radio play after Ms. Maines said, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, that she was ashamed to be from the same state as President Bush.

Before the group performed on Friday night, chosen songs were played, among them ''(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,'' ''Our Lips Are Sealed,'' ''Band on the Run,'' ''Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)'' and ''Born in the U.S.A.'' During the set Ms. Maines mentioned ''the incident'' as she introduced ''Truth No. 2,'' which begins, ''You don't like the sound of the truth coming from my mouth.'' She dedicated it to Michael Moore, who made an antiwar speech at the Academy Awards.

As the Dixie Chicks played ''Truth No. 2,'' video screens showed protest marches for civil rights and abortion rights, followed by book and record burnings and the destruction of Dixie Chicks CD's. Its final image showed the words ''Seek the Truth.'' There were cheers when Ms. Maines sang, ''I don't think I'm afraid anymore.''

Maverick defiance has always been the best part of the Dixie Chicks' appeal, along with the determination to hold onto something down-home as they reach for a mass audience. Their show was a video-era extravaganza with a stage at the center of the arena that enclosed knots of standing fans (an idea borrowed from Metallica). Walkways lighted up; video screens provided missing views. Although the Chicks' glitter-and-black outfits made them look like extras in a 1980's Billy Idol video, they still stamped their high-heeled boots and harmonized like a country band.

Ms. Maines makes her voice leap and break in honky-tonk style, and the other two Dixie Chicks are not only singers but something rare among country hitmakers, female instrumentalists. Martie Maguire's fiddle and Emily Robison's banjo put a bluegrass streak into the band's arrangements, one reason they have been able to conquer the country mainstream without succumbing to its formulas.

Their 2002 album, ''Home,'' (Open Wide/Monument/Columbia) puts aside the twangy soft-rock of current country for acoustic string-band arrangements (though it hedged its bets with a remake of Stevie Nicks's Fleetwood Mac hit ''Landslide''). And while the Dixie Chicks sing their share of songs about good times and heartaches, they also sing about independence: poisoning an abusive husband in ''Goodbye Earl,'' leaving home in ''Wide Open Spaces.'' At Madison Square Garden, women outnumbered men by at least three to one.

The Dixie Chicks are not prim. One of the few songs they wrote themselves, ''White Trash Wedding,'' is a bluegrass number with lines like ''Say 'I do' and kiss me quick/'Cause baby's on the way.''And they are not predictable; in ''Top of the World,'' their new single, they sing about a dead man's irreparable regrets. They made a video clip for it, Ms. Maines announced, adding, ''We haven't been banned from television yet.''

Opening the concert was Michelle Branch, who turns 20 on July 2. Her songs start with chiming mid-1970's soft-rock and add an occasional grunge power chord or Britpop keyboard as she sings about infatuations and breakups. She has a knack for melody, and her songs should improve as she loses the adolescent whine in her voice.

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