The Dixie Chicks still joke about “the Statement” and its ramifications during their L.A. show, but in every other respect this trio appears to have joined MoveOn.org. When they recorded an album and started touring earlier this year, their game plan was to find a new audience; the CD sales went well, but their concert plans went so haywire that they became a dramatic portion of a documentary.
Smartly, the Dixie Chicks have stuck to their guns. Friday night at Staples Center, they delivered a rock show with country flourishes, not the other way around. It’s less homey and welcoming than in the past, but these spunky Chicks are sliding over to the heartland rocker mantel where they easily stand proud. A full half-hour of music passed before these styled and high-heeled Dixie Chicks ever put the spotlight on the fiddle or anything even remotely related to Nashville.
After entering to the strains of “Hail to the Chief,” the first of several Bush-related jabs, the Chicks launched into an impressive cross-section of songs old and new — “Lubbock or Leave It,” “Truth No. 2,” “Goodbye Earl” and “The Long Way Around” — that lent credence to their plan to draw in the Adult Contemporary radio aud. (As if using Star 98.7 as a sponsor wasn’t enough of a signal, the pre-show music concludes with Green Day’s “Holiday.”)
Seven of the first 15 songs in the 21-tune evening appear on “Taking the Long Way” (Columbia), the Dallas-bred trio’s multimillion-selling disc recorded with rap/rock producer (Rick Rubin) and a crew of rock players and co-writers from bands such as Crowded House, the Jayhawks, the Heartbreakers and Semisonic.
The most striking juxtaposition between where they’ve been and where they may be headed came toward the end of the show, when the frothy bluegrass barn-burner “Some Days You Gotta Dance” was set in front of the new album’s most soulful track, “I Hope.” “Dance” is a lyrical throwaway, a 7-year-old track for the hot country marketplace looking for a dance hit.
“I Hope,” which Larry Knechtel made soul-piercing with some gorgeous runs on the organ, is a plea for taking care of future generations that the Chicks wrote with contempo bluesman Keb’ Mo’. But where Natalie Maines quivers on record, she approached the song with an assured boldness in concert; she has grown into the song, and in a night of considerable vocal prowess, this was her strongest perf. (As a group, the trio shined on “Travelin’ Soldier.”)
As the Chicks have turned away from the Nashville mainstream, they’ve retained their identity in songs like “I Hope,” numbers that reassure with concepts of empowerment and a plan of action.
Even without tampering with recorded versions, the Dixie Chicks are relying far less on the firepower of Martie Maguire’s fiddle and Emily Robison’s banjo. They have a Texas guitar great in David Grissom in their band (not to mention Knechtel), and he’s kept on a pretty tight leash. Given an opportunity to get gritty with a tune, as he did on “Sin Wagon” and “Ready to Run,” the Dixie Chicks used John Mellencamp, Tom Petty and Steve Earle as a musical compass.
Pete Yorn, who wrote “The Neighbor” with the Dixie Chicks, opened the evening with an agreeable set of acoustic guitar-driven rock. Most of it hails from his recent Columbia release “Nightcrawler”; unfortunately, the songs’ often-complex lyrics were lost in a barn-like echo.