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Weekend Pop Music Review

Dixie Chicks Fill Wide Open Spaces

Sparkling and earnest second-billed band outperforms country hit-maker Tim McGraw, who pleases his fans despite his generic delivery and material.

July 05, 1999|NATALIE NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In his leather pants, black shirt and big, black cowboy hat, country star Tim McGraw looked about as generic as a modern product of the Nashville assembly line could look on Saturday at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion in Devore. His fast-paced performance was heavy on the hits and thrilled the fans, but it was the second-billed Dixie Chicks who provided most of the evening's real fire.

McGraw's appearance perfectly matched his underwhelming stage presence and anonymous singing. For a song stylist who doesn't perform his own material, the Louisiana native's thin, sometimes nasal voice wasn't much more distinguished than those of many of the average guys in the audience who sang along all night.

Accessibility is part of the reason listeners respond to the 32-year-old singer, whose 90-minute set included compositions by George Strait and Steve Miller. McGraw has been praised for his ability to select good material--a.k.a. hits, which he's racked up in double digits over a seven-year recording career--and his show certainly focused on such popular themes as heartbreak, romance, drinking and dream-chasing.

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Yet his eight-piece band provided nothing more than competent accompaniment, and clever turns of phrase came only occasionally, as in "Something Like That," a breezy recollection of young love from his current album, "A Place in the Sun." Much more often, songs such as "Don't Take the Girl" and his current pop hit "Please Remember Me" were steeped in cliched ideas and words, not to mention the sort of cloying sentiment that is a staple of country music.

If McGraw is a symptom of the cookie-cutter sensibility plaguing Nashville these days, the Dixie Chicks' hourlong performance made for a potent antidote. Backed by a lively quintet, the towheaded Texas trio--lead singer Natalie Maines with the sisterly team of Martie Seidel (fiddle) and Emily Robison (banjo, dobro)--lighted up the stage with colorful costumes, sharp displays of musicianship and bright vocal harmonies.

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In marked contrast to McGraw's subdued blandness, Maines bubbled over with energy, singing such cheeky love laments as "There's Your Trouble" with a knowing yet optimistic charm. In addition to highlights from their multi-platinum, Grammy-winning album "Wide Open Spaces," the Chicks previewed a handful of songs from their forthcoming collection, "Fly," which capitalized on their strong pop-crossover appeal.

The Chicks had their share of emotional numbers too, such as the tear-jerker 'You Were Mine," a ballad the sisters wrote about their parents' divorce. But Maines gave the overwrought song genuine weight, delivering even the more maudlin lines about betrayal with a conviction that McGraw never quite mustered.

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