Dixie Chicks – Jobing.com Arena (Glendale, AZ)
It was a big day for Dixie Chicks fans at the stadium/arena mega-complex in Glendale, a suburb of Phoenix at the blood-red heart of crimson-state Arizona. Across the parking lot, the Chicks’ documentary, Shut Up And Sing, had opened the day before, giving hardcore fans an excuse to make a day of it.
Between watching the film and seeing the show, those fans were entertained by a live-remote country radio broadcast. Presumably the station had foresworn running a steamroller over piles of the Chicks’ releases when, with the U.S. poised to invade Iraq nearly four years ago, Natalie Maines told a London audience that the Chicks were ashamed to be from the same state as George W. Bush.
The Glendale concert originally had been scheduled for September 3, and despite whatever vindication may have accrued via the Democrats’ subsequent Congressional rout, the delay reportedly failed to improve sales of the tickets, which went for $50 to $70 a pop. Reasonably or not, Maines’ offhand, if not exactly thoughtless, remark and its repercussions seem to define the Chicks’ career these days, a fact that still has Maines confounded and at times hurt and outraged.
Those emotions, and more, inflected her performance of the single that tells it all, “Not Ready To Make Nice”, flooding the two-thirds-full arena with the strength of her passion and bringing the crowd to its feet for a standing ovation. The fans present were apparently of the thick-and-thin kind; the Chicks could hardly be making it plainer that it’s good riddance to the rest.
The surprising thing was that anyone was ever surprised by Maines’ outspokenness. The Dixie Chicks’ relationship with country music fans, and particularly fans of country music radio, seems always to have been tenuous. Profuse in thanking country radio stations whenever they accepted country music and Grammy awards, the trio was nevertheless indulged like wayward teenagers. Their ritual of tattooing chicken feet on their ankles for every million-seller was a low-impact scandal in Nashville; their peevishness about being asked to set aside their banjo made national news.
When they released the acoustic-oriented Home in 2003, it featured ace bluegrass session players instead of country-pop-flavored instrumentation, and it opened with a red flag: The intricate genre soup of “Long Time Gone” bore a poison pill in a stanza about country radio sounding tired but not Haggard, having money but not Cash. The song was a set standout in Glendale.
For their 2006 disc Taking The Long Way, the Chicks all but ran away from home, tapping Rick Rubin to produce, enlisting the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer, engaging songwriting collaborators from the country-rock fringe, and setting the mood to a more urbane pitch. The trio seemed intent on designing a new fan base to shore up the erosion in their old one, while using their website and every other medium at their disposal to stay close to fans who had stood by them.
It was those kinds of fans who sang along in the Glendale arena to the empowering anti-abuse anthem “Goodbye Earl” and danced in the aisles to the barrelhouse “Sin Wagon”, both from the 1999 album Fly. They shouted and nodded approval when Maines introduced “Wide Open Spaces”: “This is a song from the first album, and it has yet to get old.” They were also the ones who, at Maines’ suggestion, lifted thousands of cell phones in the air so their kids at home could listen to the Chicks’ performance of “Lullaby” from Long Way. Maines said the trio had written the song for the seven children they have between them. There is life beyond the political foofaraw.
Emily Robison and Martie Maguire crisscrossed the stage with Maines throughout the evening to give fans in the side seats a chance to see them all play and sing. Maguire was joined by another violinist and a cellist for “Top Of The World”, bringing the total number onstage to an even dozen. The rest of the evening, veteran guitarist and bandleader David Grissom guided an accomplished cast of touring pros including Larry Knechtel on keyboards, Sebastian Steinberg on bass, and Pete Finney on pedal steel.
Although the band hilariously took the stage to a recording of “Hail To The Chief”, Maines avoided political commentary entirely throughout the set. Even references to the fallout from her rash remark mostly found expression only in Long Way songs: “Not Ready To Make Nice”, “Taking The Long Way”, “Everybody Knows”, and the rousing, rumbling “Lubbock Or Leave It”.
As it turned out, her most radical act of the evening was to dedicate a song to Kevin Federline, the soon-to-be-ex Mr. Britney Spears. “I just bet nobody else has dedicated a song to him today,” Maines cracked, “and I like to go against the grain.” The song? “White Trash Wedding”.