By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer
It took the Dixie Chicks a long time to directly address "the incident" Monday night at U.S. Bank Arena. First came the subliminal messages in the songs played before they hit the stage - "What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding," "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," "Our Lips Are Sealed," "Band on the Run" and, finally, "Born in the U.S.A."
Then came the T-shirts. Banjo picker Emily Robison's read "Free Natalie." Natalie Maines, whose anti-Bush comments at a London concert three months back sparked the firestorm of protests from conservative country fans, wore one that coyly said, "Who, me?"
Maines would refer to the incident a few times during the show, most directly during Patty Griffin's "Truth No. 2." The song was accompanied by a video showing Nazis burning books and right-wingers trashing Beatle albums in the '60s and Dixie Chicks CDs today, as well as images of the great freedom fighters Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Maines directed it to the "boo-ers" in the crowd, but it was a bit offensive, even to this liberal, that she would put herself in their company. They had a lot more to lose than just airplay and CD sales.
But the politics were kept to a minimum, which suited fans like Joy Creutzinger, of Mason. She brought her daughters Kate, 11, and Jenny, 7, along with her mom, Janet Davis. "She can say what she wants," said Creutzinger. "But I don't want to have to pay to hear her say it."
The vast majority of the sellout crowd of 16,000 was clearly on Maines' side. About 90 percent of the audience was female, and many of them were girls under 10, all of whom seemed to know the words to every song. It was a little disconcerting to see 5-year-olds knowing Stevie Knicks' "Landslide."
With so many first-time concertgoers in the crowd, the Chicks delivered the goods, providing a high-tech concert experience. There were elaborate lights (the starry effect during Radney Foster's "Godspeed" was particularly lovely), mirror balls, video projections (the multi-generational "Top of the World" clip, inspired by The Hours, was especially fine) and blizzards of confetti and streamers pouring down from the ceiling at key, dramatic moments.
And of course, there were the Chick's famous instrumental fireworks.
Fiddler Martie Maguire provided beautiful lead lines, notably in "Cowboy Take Me Away" and also joined the small string group occasionally augmenting the band.
Robison wore her Gibson banjos cocked on her right hip like a gunslinger, picking through such uptempo favorites as "Long Time Gone" and the second encore, "Sin Wagon." The playing was great, the tone awful. Unlike Ricky Skaggs and Allison Krauss, the Chicks have not figured out a way to make a banjo in an arena sound like a banjo. The same was true of her Scheerhorn resonator guitar. Though it's the finest available, the pickup made it sound like a tin can.
The arena sound was generally muddy, though the vocals usually shone through, from those incandescent trio harmonies to Maines' high, powerful lead.
Short and a bit stocky, she's become even more of a rocker since the controversy. Maines wore her hair pulled back and piled up in a punkish Mohawk/pompadour that made her look like a combination of Wendy O. Williams and Belinda Carlisle.
She and the other Chicks kept circulating the fan-friendly in-the-round stage (though its free-form, flowing river shape wasn't too round). There were runways jutting off the stage into the crowd, which made every section of the arena feel like a front-row seat.
The Chicks worked hard for the faithful, doing songs from all three of their albums as well as a spirited cover of Bob Dylan's "Mississippi." They mixed their patented pop-bluegrass-rock (including their opener, the crowd-pleasing, abusive husband killing anthem, "Goodbye Earl") with the straight country of Texas two-stepping "Hello, Mr. Heartache" and the rafter-rattling ballad, "Am I the Only One," the last a duet with opening act Joan Osborne.
As one might expect from a group that includes two great pickers and the daughter of Austin producer/steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, the Chicks' backup band was first rate. Led by former Bloomington guitarist David Grissom, the group included steel guitarist Robby Turner and mandolinist Brent Truitt.
If anything, the controversy has made the Chicks work harder, realizing that fans aren't guaranteed. "We loved you before," told the crowd. "We love you even more now."
Osborne was a good choice of opening act, her huge, bluesy, low voice a nice contract to Maines. Osborne did her biggest hit (and best song), "One of Us," recently resurrected for Bruce Almighty, as well as her version of Delaney & Bonnie's "Only You Know and I Know."
Perhaps, with the Chicks' recent travails in mind, Osborne's 35-minute set didn't include her recent cover of Edwin Starr's "War."
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