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Dixie Chicks' Impish Fun Endears Crowd

by Mikel Toombs, For The News Tribune

When it comes to courting controversy, the Dixie Chicks don't beat around the bush.

The fun began even before the Chicks launched into their generous, high-energy set at KeyArena Saturday night. Making sport of what lead singer Natalie Maines would later refer to as "the incident," the trio warmed up the crowd with recorded versions of 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 (and I Feel Fine)," finally setting the stage with Bruce Springsteen's thunderingly ambivalent "Born in the U.S.A."

Impishly, the Chicks opened with what was previously their most controversial offering, "Goodbye Earl." The brash exercise in abusive-husband bashing proved downright tame next to reaction to the moment "four months and two days ago" when Maines editorialized on-stage in London that she was ashamed President Bush was from Texas.

There was little else tame about the Chicks' performance, a 100-minute combination of rock vitality, Nashville enthusiasm and a Texas-size pride in traditional country music. Led by the spiked-heel stomping Maines, who brought a welcome intensity even to the group's ballads, the Chicks roared through crowd-rousers such as "Long Time Gone" and "Sin Wagon" as they navigated the wide open spaces of their stage set.

The roots-conscious "Long Time Gone," with its shoutouts to country legends Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, was matched by "White Trash Wedding," a breakneck bluegrass breakdown that emphasized the instrumental talents of Emily Robison on banjo and, especially, Martie Maguire on fiddle.

Robison and Maguire's sterling vocal harmonies were prominent throughout the night, but they shone most brightly in the trio's quieter moments. Stevie Nicks' "Landslide" became a wonder of three-part harmony, and particularly poignant was "Travelin' Soldier," a Vietnam-era tale written by Bruce Robison (Emily's brother-in-law) that has found new resonance.

Equally relevant was Patty Griffin's stand-taking "Truth No. 2," accompanied Saturday by a video montage of what might be termed "great moments in protest history."

Aided by a superb band led by Texas guitarist David Grissom, the Dixie Chicks' other song choices ranged from the jukebox-friendly "Tonight the Heartache's on Me" to the liberating, girl-power anthem "Wide Open Spaces."

Michelle Branch, a new girl-power talent whose pout-pop has made her an MTV staple, opened with a surprisingly arena-ready set. Branch's songs were less an attraction than is her leading role as an "anti-Britney," an often-affecting young singer who plays guitar and can write her own material.

Branch's casual presence contrasts sharply with the market-driven "punk" antics of Avril Lavigne, another "anti-Britney," but she could use a lot more lyrics with the emotional edge of her "Goodbye to You."
Ambitious Chicks Test Performance Limits

By Bill White, Post-Intelligencer

On the biggest set this side of "Miss Saigon," the Dixie Chicks turned Key Arena into a futuristic hay ride that looked more like a runway fashion show than a country music concert.

Opening with their first crossover hit, "Goodbye Earl," a humorous approach to the slaying of an abusive husband, lead vocalist Natalie Maines and sisters Martie Maguire (fiddle) and Emily Robison (dobro, banjo, guitar), along with an eight-piece band led by guitarist David Grissom, sang, strutted, posed and picked their way through nearly two dozen selections from their three albums.

The stage took up most of the Key's floor space. With the action spread out over the length of a basketball court, it was impossible for Saturday night's sold-out crowd to see everything happening on stage. The perpetual repositioning of the band members kept them all intermittently visible, but favoring spectacle over focused performance undermined the show's continuity.

Some intimately effective moments managed to cut through the glitz.

When the Chicks huddled together for a moving rendition of "Travelin' Soldier," they were triple dynamite. Robison and Maguire are terrific musicians, and their tight harmonies had the audience, many of whom could personally relate to the lyrics in this day of perilous overseas military duty, by the heartstrings.

"Seems like people have been questioning our patriotism lately," Maguire said, referring to Maines' recent comment that she was ashamed that President Bush came from Texas, "so I bought a $2.50 American flag sticker from a 7-Eleven and put it on my car. Now nobody questions my patriotism."

Later, "Truth No. 2" was introduced as a song whose meaning became clear after their music was banned in some markets after the comment about Bush.

The song was artfully accompanied by archival footage of several historical protests.

The show's ambitious lighting design was often too elaborate for the intended effects.

On "A Home," the leafy greenery was more New Age than down-home, and "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)" was accompanied by planetarium lighting that simulated a newly discovered galaxy.

The concert came to a close with three of their strongest tunes. A string section augmented the plaintive "Landslide," and confetti fell during a raging "Ready to Run." The audience picked up the chorus of "Wide Open Spaces" as the Chicks left the arena.

They returned to encore with their new hit, "Top of the World."

The young Michelle Branch opened with 45 minutes of baby-face soul, beginning with her first single, "Everywhere," and ending with her new one, "Are You Happy Now?" Her voice was strong, and she did her best to play to the audience on that huge contraption of a stage.

Although often compared to Vanessa Carlton, her real antecedent is Cher.

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