Chicks Shine at Homecoming

Long time gone, Dixies return to Dallas

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A week after the Oklahoma Sooners wiped the field with the University of Texas Longhorns, Dallas' Cotton Bowl hosted another embarrassment of Lone Star State-sized proportions: A stadium-full of Texas music fans and some of its biggest performers managed to mangle the words to the official unofficial state song, "London Homesick Blues" (a.k.a. "Home With the Armadillo"). The difference was, this time, nobody filed out of the Cotton Bowl bummed out. Not even the day-long drizzle of rain could put a damper on Saturday's Big Tex Music Festival, which wrapped up the month-long State Fair of Texas and featured the Dixie Chicks' first appearance in their old hometown in two-and-a-half years.

The Chicks were the main course on the Big Tex menu, which apart from the mega-platinum headliner could have been mistaken for almost any of the other country-leaning weekend music festivals that are a staple of life for Texas music fans. Mind, on most occasions, Saturday's runner-up in the lineup -- amiable good-time guy Pat Green -- would have done just fine as a headliner himself. The same could be said for just about everyone who preceded him: Wiseacre Chick husband Charlie Robison (married to banjo picker Emily Robison), Lone Star legend Jerry Jeff Walker and his son Django, Oklahoma-bred Southern rockers Cross Canadian Ragweed and folk-pop singer-songwriter Terri Hendrix.

Regional pride rules down here, and Texas music fans support "local" music on a scale almost unimaginable in any other state in the union. Being signed to a major label don't mean a thing if you haven't held your own opening for Willie Nelson or Robert Earl Keen, sold out the storied Gruene Hall or Billy Bob's Texas and moved at least 50,000 to 100,000 CDs all by your lonesome. Fortunately for the Dixie Chicks, they spent more than their fair share of time in the independent trenches before breaking out on a national level -- a mere footnote in their official bio, perhaps, but a fact worth more than any Grammy or Diamond award back on their home turf.

"It's so good to be back in Dallas, but I would not give anything to be back in that pink RV," fiddler Martie Maguire said to the crowd, referring to the group's wheels back when they had first graduated from playing downtown Dallas street corners. Them days are a long time gone, but the Dixie Chicks' predominately acoustic performance Saturday harkened back to their street roots every bit as much as it recalled the highlights of their deliberately over-the-top 2000 arena tour behind Fly. It wasn't quite the back porch hootenanny suggested by the finest moments of their new album Home, but considering the imposing size of the venue, it wasn't a bad facsimile.

Of course, this being only their second full-blown concert of the year (after the Houston Rodeo in February), it was far from perfect. Home's "Long Time Gone," the best single of the Dixie Chicks' career, drew the short straw backstage and was sacrificed as the group's inevitably shaky opener. Lead singer Natalie Maines, one of the most brazen vocalists in country music, seemed uncharacteristically hesitant, reaching in vain to hit the song's money notes. Sisters Maguire and Emily Robison fared better, but the not-quite-warmed-up-yet backing band and timid vocals softened what should've been a knock-out opening into more of a pulled punch. But that only helped strengthen the impact of the chaser, a more-satisfying breakneck race through "White Trash Wedding" that found Maines in sudden full, swaggering confidence and Robison plucking notes off her banjo with machine gun speed. The frantic, deliberately comic urgency of the song ("Say 'I do' and kiss me quick 'cause baby's on its way!") was further enhanced by the promise that baby really could be on his or her way at any moment: At eight and a half months pregnant, Robison looked ready to burst. "The night's still young," she quipped after Maines led the crowd of 40,000 in a practice Lamaze yell of "Push!"

The rest of the group's eighteen-song set -- which concluded with an encore of "Goodbye Earle" that had enough women singing, "Earle had to die!" to ring the ears of every Earle in a 100-mile radius -- drew liberally from all three of the Chicks' major-label albums, with the earlier hits served well by the Home-style stripped-down arrangements. "There's Your Trouble" was transformed from a sugar-coated, bouncy pop confection into a markedly more effective, frankly stated admonition for squandered affection, while the wide open spaces allowed the acoustic instruments in "Cowboy Take Me Away" only enhanced the song's panoramic sweep.

But it was the Home selections that truly shined, from the shimmering reading of Stevie Nicks' "Landslide" to the backwoods beauty of Patty Griffin's obliquely erotic "Truth #2" ("This is one of those songs where I have no idea what it means," confessed Maines, "but we like it.") Indeed, after hearing the gossamer harmonies and delicate picking of Bruce Robison's achingly bittersweet "Travelin' Soldier," the transition back to more anthemic, drum-heavy Fly-fare like "If I Fall You're Going Down With Me," "Sin Wagon" and "Goodbye Earle" was rather jarring, though ultimately no less thrilling.

Bar a couple of slightly off-pitch moments, the Chicks' harmonies throughout the evening were exemplary, while Maines herself commanded the crowd's attention with authority every time she dropped her West Texas twang to a whisper or pushed it into an almost inhuman scream. Anchored by Natalie's father (and Home producer) Lloyd Maines on steel guitar, the Chicks' seven-man band provided ultra-confident and tasteful backing throughout the eighty-minute set, with John Mock's mandolin in particular as vital to the mix as Robison's banjo. But the evening's MVP honors went to Maguire, who ignited the chilly night air with her Gaelic fiddle leads in "Ready to Run" and the instrumental showstopper, "Lil' Jack Slade."

Maguire also knew when to pick up the slack on "London Homesick Blues," the last song of the night which found the Chicks joined onstage by the rest of the day's performers. "This could be a disaster," said Maines in a rare moment of understatement, as the rag-tag lineup of Texas all-stars proceeded to mumble through the first verse of the song with comic ineptitude before locking somewhat more into step on the chorus. Charlie Robison read the next verse off a sheet of paper, but when all assembled (including the crowd) faltered on the second chorus, Maguire jumped in with an impromptu, extended reel that managed to make everything right. Then it all fell happily apart again, like the world's biggest family jam session collapsing in a fit of giggles and good humor.