Proof: Chicago's a Chicks magnet


August 17, 2006


Branded with a scarlet letter for daring to speak their minds -- "B" for brains instead of "A" for adultery -- the Dixie Chicks have been shunned by many country radio stations and concert markets throughout Red State America.

During its spirited show at the United Center on Tuesday, the best-selling female group in history didn't directly address the controversy surrounding singer Natalie Maines' now infamous 2003 comment about President Bush. But the trio didn't have to: The music did the talking.

After cheekily taking the stage to the strains of "Hail to the Chief," the Chicks and their nine backing musicians launched into a rollicking version of "Lubbock or Leave It," a tune that condemns Southern hypocrisy -- "Dust bowl, Bible belt / Got more churches than trees / Raise me, praise me, couldn't save me / Couldn't keep me on my knees," Maines sang -- followed by the even more poignant "Truth No. 2," with a key line that has taken on new meaning since its release in 2002: "You don't like the sound of the truth / Coming from my mouth."

Crowd in their corner

These Chicks are clearly bloodied but unbowed. And while they may have had to cancel tour stops on their "Accidents and Accusations" jaunt because of poor sales in cities such as Houston, Memphis and Oklahoma City, they were greeted as conquering heroines in Chicago, performing for a nearly sold-out crowd that was firmly in their corner.

It was a goose bump-inducing moment when the group delivered "Not Ready to Make Nice," their most forthright comment about recent events, midway through a 22-song set. Already on its feet, the Chicago audience cheered, clapped wildly and sang along at full volume. Maines, guitar and banjo player Emily Robison and violin and fiddle player Martie Maguire seemed surprised at the intensity of the enthusiasm, and they stood for a moment basking in the sort of response they haven't witnessed very often of late.

The audience that turned on the Chicks did so at its own loss, because there isn't a better arena act in pop, rock or country today (and the group is all of the above). What's more, even if you disagree with their politics -- which, again, were never directly addressed onstage -- there was no denying that these three mothers of seven children were ultimately as American as apple pie, singing heartfelt songs about the joys of family ("Lullaby"), the romance of the American West ("Cowboy Take Me Away") and the cathartic power of music itself ("Some Days You Gotta Dance").

Maines is the powerhouse vocalist and obvious star, but the contributions of her partners can't be underestimated, with their soaring harmonies and impressive but rarely indulgent solos taking the material to new levels. Onstage, the Chicks inject a passion and immediacy that, if not punk-rock raw and ragged, is certainly more fiery than on album, where the overly glossy Nashville sheen can mask the underlying passion. (This is true even on their most recent, Rick Rubin-produced disc, "Taking the Long Way.")

They ain't rock 'n' roll

No, the Chicks haven't gone 100 percent rock 'n' roll, as some country critics have charged: Their bluegrass roots were still in evidence on "White Trash Wedding" (lovingly dedicated to Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock), the instrumental "Lil' Jack Slade" and a ferocious "Long Time Gone." There will never be any mistaking them for Satan-hailing, Rubin-produced death-metal mavens Slayer. But in the end, that just makes their vilification in certain quarters all the more ironic -- and distressing.

Joining the Dixie Chicks to perform "I Like It," a new tune that he co-wrote with them while on tour, was fellow Texan Bob Schneider, whose opening set was an eclectic but entertaining mix of hoedown ("Tarantula"), hokum ("You Can Call Me Bob," which finds Batman hitting on women at the disco) and loving homage to the headliners, via a surreal cover of the Aretha Franklin hit "(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman." Way to go, Bob: It's good to know that at least some Southern men aren't threatened by women who dare to express themselves.