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Chicks settle into a new nest

On the outs with former fans but finding new ones, the trio makes a straightforward start to a new tour that could help redefine it.

July 24, 2006|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — The Dixie Chicks might not be ready to make nice, as they put it in a song from their new album, but they finally seem to be willing to move on.

That was the major revelation as the trio opened its U.S. tour at the Joe Louis Arena on Friday, a key step in the career of a band trying to recover after being sidetracked by controversy.

There were no "Free Natalie" T-shirts at the merchandise booths this time, no video during the concert linking their plight to history's struggles for freedom. And the three musicians, who have rarely been reluctant to toss verbal gasoline on the fire, didn't say anything from the stage about the controversy.

Instead, the Chicks downplayed the conflict, which started in 2003 when singer Natalie Maines disparaged President Bush over the impending war in Iraq -- an opinion that escalated into a full cultural alienation between the group and the country music audience that had made it one of the biggest acts in popular music.

If the Chicks are seen as unpatriotic she-devils by their conservative ex-fans, they have taken on a role as heroes and symbols of independence and freedom to their new ones, and the moments that got the strongest reactions Friday were those that could be read as references to their saga.

When Maines sang "You don't like the sound of truth coming from my mouth" in Patty Griffin's "Truth No. 2," the crowd roared loudly, and when Maines reprised the line later, she gave it an extra vocal intensity and sold it with a punching gesture. Huge cheers also greeted the new power ballad "Not Ready to Make Nice," a no-regrets statement of defiance.

The Chicks no doubt realize the significance of those sentiments to their fans, but they didn't oversell them, letting the moments make their point and then pass -- a show of restraint suggesting that they want to get the emphasis back on their music.

They might as well. At this point neither side seems interested in rebuilding any bridges, which took additional damage recently when band member Martie Maguire told Time magazine that the group wasn't interested in the mainstream country audience that listens to Reba McEntire and Toby Keith.

So country loses one of its few acts with a combination of critical credibility and commercial clout, and the Dixie Chicks find themselves with the rare opportunity to redefine themselves in public.

Artists throughout pop music history have pulled off identity shifts, but it's rare that a group tries to remake itself and rebuild its audience on the fly, as it were, on the high-profile platform of a major album release and concert tour. It's like a scene from an action film where someone tries to climb from one speeding car into another.

The first step was to record a new album, "Taking the Long Way," with Los Angeles producer Rick Rubin, known for his work with rockers and rappers such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers as well as, significantly, Johnny Cash.

Rubin hasn't turned the Chicks into the Beastie Boys, and the album's sound isn't that far from the pop that passes for country these days, but its folk and roots-rock element suggest that the Americana genre -- the world of Lucinda Williams, the nonrock Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Ryan Adams et al -- might be their ultimate home. It's not platinum city, but it's not a bad place to be for an artist with a taste for the poetic and the passionate along with tradition.

The Chicks' transition has put them in unknown territory. The album has sold well, nearly 1.5 million, without getting much play on country radio, but that's far below the level they set with "Wide Open Spaces," "Fly" and "Home." And finding their audience on the road has proved tricky, with ticket sales for some scheduled concerts put on hold while new dates are booked in more hospitable cities. (The tour runs through Nov. 11, with a Staples Center concert Sept. 14.)

The Joe Louis Arena, with a capacity of around 20,000, appeared to be about two-thirds filled Friday, and when Maines asked if anyone was seeing the group for the first time, a substantial portion of the audience responded with a cheer.

All this uncertainty and the efforts to move away from the controversy might account for a bit of stiffness in their performance Friday, in which the Chicks and their nine-member band seemed to be feeling their way into a new environment -- an unfashionably low-key production with just one video screen and some abstract patterns flashing on panels behind the stage.

It was as if the Chicks were being careful not to stir things up, so while their trademark mix of rock instrumentation with fiddles and banjos came across with its strengths intact -- especially Maines' powerful vocals and her harmonies with sisters Maguire and Emily Robison -- there was only rarely the spark of joy and liberation that they've struck in the past.

The band has always been resilient, but it has never been tested like this before, so give it a little time on the road -- wherever that road is going.

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