Madison Square Garden
New York, NY
August 1, 2006
Ever since the 2003 “incident”, it’s been nearly impossible to find discussion of the Dixie Chicks that doesn’t reference, if not completely revolve around, their political positions. It’s easy to forget that before that infamous remark, most discussions of the Chicks revolved around their remarkable musical talents, their cross-genre appeal and their deep catalog of great songs. Last night’s concert at Madison Square Garden was a welcome reminder that one of the greatest country acts of all-time is at a creative peak and show no signs of slowing down.
Playing to a near-capacity crowd, the Chicks performed a show that was focused solely on the music, with no visual distractions, special effects or overlong stage banter to distract the audience. Entering the stage with a countrified “Hail to the Chief”, the Chicks ripped right into “Lubbock or Leave It” to loud applause. They followed with the Patty Griffin song “Truth No. 2”, one of several older tracks which were performed with the added punch of a driving drum beat, while still preserving the original country arrangements. A clever lyric change elevated the song’s confidence – “You say that I lack the proof, baby that might be so” became “baby, that’s just not so”, receiving a roar of approval from the audience.
Things really kicked into high gear when the girls went right into “Goodbye Earl”, the first of many songs that had the entire audience singing along. Lead singer Natalie Maines discussed her wisdom of making a “good career choice” to segue into “The Long Way Around”, one of the tracks off the new album that the audience already seemed to know by heart. Cell phones were whipped out of pockets for the 21st century equivalent of holding up a Bic lighter during “Landslide.”
The girls tended to their country roots with spot-on performances of “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “White Trash Wedding”, the latter of which Maines dedicated to Mel Gibson. With a grin, she joked that “the day after my mouth got me in trouble, I should’ve just said I was drunk and checked myself into rehab to get us off the hook!”
Maines disappeared from the stage as the remaining Chicks performed a fiery version of “Lil Jack Slade”, an instrumental track from their Home album. When she reappeared, again without any fanfare, the ominous chords of “Not Ready to Make Nice” began, and a large majority of the audience jumped to their feet. As reviews of other shows have noted, the largest and most sustained applause of the night was at the conclusion of this song. There’s a raw energy to the track that builds up tension until there is an explosion of release, and the unity during that moment of the show was overwhelming. Many audience members held up signs saying “Thank You” to Natalie as she performed the song.
One of the funniest moments of the evening was the introduction to the heartbreaking “So Hard”, which was offset by Natalie’s comment: “You have no idea how surreal it was to write a song about infertility with a chorus it’s so hard when it doesn’t come easy.” Maines showed a quick wit during her limited dialogue with the audience, but communicated mostly through her vocals, which were surprisingly strong. She is a much better singer live than she even is on record, with perfect pitch and startling power, well-suited for the arena setting. When she performed “Top of the World”, chills ran over me as the song climaxed.
After the one-two punch of signature songs “Wide Open Spaces” and “Sin Wagon”, the Chicks left the stage, before resurfacing for a three-song encore. It was only Natalie, Martie and Emily on stage for the first encore song, “Travelin’ Soldier.” A review for an earlier show tried to draw “old audience” vs. “new audience” contrasts by noting a tepid response to the patriotic song, implying that their new, leftist fans are less moved by such things. Well, New York City is one of the most liberal cities in the world, and there was thunderous applause from the first note. The entire audience sang along in a low whisper, treating the song with the reverence it deserves. The girls demonstrated they could do an acoustic tour on their own and completely shine as they performed “Soldier” flawlessly.
The whole “old conservative fans” have been replaced by “new liberal fans” is flawed, anyway. The Chicks had a huge audience to begin with. More likely, they lost some conservative fans with their beliefs, but those who don’t care about their politics, or agree with them, stuck around. The fans around me at the concert new “Wide Open Spaces” just as well as “The Long Way Around”, so I doubt there were that many new converts there.
The band reappeared for the rocking pair of “Mississippi” and “Ready to Run”, the latter of which the crowd didn’t recognize until Martie kicked in with the trademark fiddle hook. After that, it was a group bow, a goodnight, and off into the darkness. Fans sitting on the side could see Natalie slip off her shoes before walking down the stairs and off to the backstage area.
After such a satisfying night focused on the music, my mind drifts again to all of the issues and drama that have surrounded the Dixie Chicks for the last three years, and have been brought back to the surface for the last three months as they launched their new album. Suddenly, these issues seem entirely irrelevant. The Chicks are a talented, versatile band at the top of their game, with a loyal fan base that is fully supportive of them. They may never sell diamond again, but last night, the audience sang along with songs off of the new album that were never played on the radio, as if those were their biggest hits. They no longer need radio exposure for their music to reach the fans.
Ever since they took some time off after the Fly tour and resurfaced with Home, the Chicks have been pushing hard against the boundaries and limitations of the country music genre. The beauty of the entire controversy is that in every sense, they are now truly liberated artists, able to produce the music that they want to without worrying about the conventions of radio or the country music industry. It’s a freedom that most artists never experience, and the Chicks have fully capitalized on it. Now that they’ve seen that they can succeed in this bold new world, their continued greatness seems fully assured.