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Chicks Shine at Homecoming

Long time gone, Dixies return to Dallas

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.

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