Dixie Chicks – Savvis Center (St. Louis, MO)
At any given arena, from Greenville, South Carolina, to Vancouver, British Columbia, the credentialed reporter arrives for the Lipton-sponsored Dixie Chicks summer tour with press materials in hand and two tickets for seats so good he will sit in front of the band’s sons and their au pairs. The press kit identifies the pounds of potatoes cooked (120 per day), the number of candles exhausted (45 per day), the number of yoga instructors (one), the number of bomb-sniffing dogs (two), and the electrical resources (2000 amps) needed to power what remains the most dazzling, challenging, surprising, and elegant arena tour on the mainstream country circuit.
When John Lennon came to America and proclaimed that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ, he met a predictable shitstorm from predictable sources. When Natalie Maines went to London and proclaimed that the band was ashamed George Bush was from Texas, she made the unconscious gamble that the Chicks were bigger than the war and bigger than blind allegiance — at least in their multimillion-odd fans’ eyes. During the months leading up to “Top Of The World Tour”, it seemed Maines had placed a bad bet. Major radio networks such as Cumulus pulled their songs, moms and daughters smashed their records at rallies, and, birthday-suit cover stories not withstanding, Maines herself offered an apology to the president.
Yet it didn’t stop the crowds from coming to see them: On this night, the eighth show of their first tour since the fracas, the Chicks played to yet another sold-out, mega-corporate arena. Outside the Savvis Center, no one shattered CDs, no one held signs, no one mustered as much as a frown of patriotic displeasure. Midway through the Chicks’ set, Maines acknowledged that St. Louis was the first city to greet the band without protest (she evidently didn’t count the family in the cheap seats displaying a pro-Bush banner). Though many of those working the concert are on the payroll of Clear Channel (a concert and radio industry monolith which helped foster the airwaves boycott), more than one merch booth was sold out of “Free Natalie” bumper stickers, and more than one group of girlfriends danced with “We Support Our Chicks” signs in the air.
Tight bell bottoms riding low as gun belts, cream macrame vests, rumpled straw hats, vintage cotton blouses with pearl buttons, sparkles over tanning-booth dark shoulders, overtreated hair: the hippie country chic of past and present mall rats tells its own story. No one did or will do the math, but a conservative guess would put the female to male ratio of the crowd at about 100 to 1. When the lights dimmed and the pre-show soundtrack (which featured “Band On The Run”, “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding”, and “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad”) kicked into “Born In The U.S.A.”, the sound of thousands of women screaming clarified just how big the Chicks, finally, remain.
At the center of the stage, a circular curtain (like a mammoth, embroidered lampshade) went up to reveal a rising platform, upon which the Chicks and their band rocked nonstop through “Goodbye Earl”, “Somedays You Gotta Dance” and “There’s Your Trouble”. With two drummers and as many as three guitar players, plus bass, pedal steel and, at times, twin keyboards, the Chicks’ wall of sound thundered like a sortie while remaining musical.
With the exception of “Travelin’ Soldier”, sung by Maines with an almost contrite anguish, the band’s stabs at the chickgrass sound of their most recent album, Home, paled somewhat next to the party rock of “Cowboy Take Me Away”, “Ready To Run”, and the sly encore pairing of “Top Of The World” (Patty Griffin’s, not the Carpenters’, though the PA played the latter as the exit number) and “Sin Wagon”. Emily Robison’s banjo was virtually inaudible, even during the bluegrass numbers, though Martie Seidel’s fiddle playing all night, especially paired with pedal steel on “Hello Mr. Heartache”, suggested that should she ever tire of selling millions, she could get steady session work.
The set held only two surprise entries: “Mississippi”, Bob Dylan’s best song from Love And Theft, and “Truth #2”, the other Patty Griffin tune from Home. The former fared better on paper than in practice, for the Chicks apparently have only heard Sheryl Crow’s rushed, bar-band arrangement of the song. (The performance did feature gorgeous staging; rippling blue lights gave the effect of cascading water as gigantic foam cattails sprung up around the apron.)
Maines, in a leather jacket open to a black T-shirt with a sequined peace sign, introduced “Truth #2” as a song she didn’t really understand until “the last few months.” Griffin’s lyric of honesty and deception, toward oneself and others, was accompanied by a fascinating video sequence. Juxtaposing scenes of civil rights marches with abortion rights rallies, feet smashing Elvis records with feet smashing Dixie Chicks albums, the band managed what might, on the surface, seem forced, even pompous. They placed their own political trials within a bigger, deeper perspective, not out of egotism, but out of a sense of history, even a sense of musical responsibility, that seemed as genuine as a jumbotron — not to mention 1,500,000 LED lights, 13 tour buses, and 4 tons of forklifts — can get.