Portland, OR 2003

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By John Foyston, The Oregonian

The Rose Garden Arena on Sunday night was definitely not the place to look for evidence of some career-damaging consequences from Natalie Maines' remark four months ago about being ashamed of the president. For one thing, the place was jammed to the joists with fans who believed the Dixie Chicks could do no wrong -- and they were right.

Well, there was that one guy wearing the T-shirt with a not-so-subtle message expressing contempt for Maines. She recently wore a similar T-shirt highlighting her feud with Toby Keith. Maines pointed out the T-shirt guy before about 20,000 fans just before the band launched into a scathing Truth No. 2.

"That's OK -- we allow free speech at Dixie Chicks concerts," she said as the house lights went up and the crowd stood and cheered. "I will mention just a couple of things, however: It's always most effective to be the first to make a statement and, second -- I've got your 65 bucks!"

The crowd loved it, and even the guy in the T-shirt likely left feeling he got his money's worth.

Right from the Chicks' triumphant entrance -- side-by-side, black-clad and booted, aboard a hydraulic stage that led into the galloping groove of "Goodbye Earl" -- to their raucous encore in a blizzard of red and yellow confetti, the band showed why it's one of the brightest success stories in modern country music. It's a success story that seems certain to continue, thanks to the Chicks' Grammy-winning new album, "Home," which further solidifies the band's ability to balance tradition and technology, sentiment and snarkiness.

The Chicks -- Maines on vocals and guitar (and bass on "Goodbye Earl") and sisters Martie Maguire on fiddle and Emily Robison on banjo -- have found a sound that manages to be commercial without selling out. At the heart of it all is a cheerfully subversive sense of humor that could be seen even in the choice of topical background music preceding the concert: "Band on the Run," "Your Good Girls Gonna Go Bad," "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)" and -- just before the band's entrance, a full-volume version of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

The stage, too, was a marvel: an uneven, stair-stepped oval enclosing the band and a couple of viewing areas and apparently tiled in some sort of video screens. The thing was awash in color and pattern all night, often echoing the ceiling-mounted video screens and getting downright psychedelic at times, especially during "Landslide" when it sprouted big plastic flowers around the periphery.

Then there was the tree that appeared onstage for one song, the disco balls and then the full-size windmill in the middle of "Wide Open Spaces."

All of which would've been so many parlor tricks were it not for the talent and musicianship of the Chicks -- especially Maines' torchy voice and firecracker persona -- and that of their fine, big band.

They played nearly 20 songs during more than 90 minutes: "There's Your Trouble," "Mississippi Song," "Ready to Run," "Hello, Mr. Heartache" and most of the new album, "Top of the World," "Godspeed," " Cowboy Take Me Away," " A Home," "Tangled, Tortured Hearts," " Travelin Soldier," "Long Time Gone" and "White Trash Wedding."

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