Yes, Natalie Maines has apologized for her “controversial” remarks about the president, but even before one note is played on Dixie Chicks’ “Top of the World” tour, it’s apparent that the incident has left her, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire bloodied but unbowed. “Free Natalie” t-shirts are on sale at the merch booths; the songs played before their set were a pointed lot, including the Go-Gos’ “Our Lips Are Sealed” and the Rolling Stones’ “I’m Free,” climaxing with Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” And once the curtain came up, they opened the show with an emphatic “Goodbye Earl,” a murder ballad recast as a testament to female empowerment.
Feistiness has always been key to the Dixie Chicks’ charm, but the (over)reaction to Maines’ comments has given it a focus. Songs such as “Somedays You Gotta Dance,” “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” and “Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way)” take on a deeper resonance when placed in the context of the radio boycotts, slumping sales and death threats that followed what the band referred to as either as “the incident” or “March 10th.”
They accompany Patti Griffin’s “Truth #2” with a video montage that contrasts images of the Civil Rights Movement, the ’60s anti-war protests and women’s liberation marches with footage of book burnings and the bonfires of Beatles albums that followed John Lennon’s controversial “Jesus” quote. And like a seasoned politician, Maines slyly complimented the L.A. crowd when she addressed the audience directly, confiding that the only epithet she didn’t consider an insult was when she was compared to “those crazy liberals in California.”
While the controversy was never far from the surface, the Texas trio never let it overshadow their music. The 22-song set was crafted to showcase how much the Dixie Chicks can do well, as they moved easily from the country-fried rock of “There’s Your Trouble” to the honky-tonk two-step of “Hello Mr. Heartache” and the impeccable Laurel Canyon harmonies of “A Home.” The bluegrass of “White Trash Wedding” and “Lil’ Jack Slade” put the spotlight firmly on Martie Maguire’s fiddle and Emily Robison’s banjo picking, and “Tortured, Tangled Hearts” allowed Maines to show off her big, soulful voice.
The playing, both from the stars and their backing band, was of a high caliber, with musical director David Grissom, pedal steel guitarist Robbie Turner and Brent Truitt on mandolin especially impressive.
The show’s in-the-round seating ensured that the audience felt a connection with the performers. The stage, a collection of runways, stairs, catwalks and various riser and platforms, gave Maines, Maguire and Robison plenty of room to wander and get close to the cheering crowd (it also unfortunately meant that for at least part of the show, the phrase “behind the music” took on new meaning). But with so much turf to cover, the three singers were rarely facing in the same direction, so it was tough for them to really connect with each other. And with the PA forced to pump out sound in four directions, the sound was echoed and blurry, even for the Staples Center. But not even those problems could keep the Dixie Chicks from a triumphant evening.