Live Review: The Dixie Chicks

Tramps, New York City, July 29, 1998

Should you be tempted to write off the three blond lookers in the Dixie Chicks as a "Country Spice" phenomenon, you need only catch one of their shows to realize that these so-called chicks are for real. It's not that these girls aren't above unabashed, Spice-like self-promotion. In fact, the Dixie Chicks rival some hip-hop acts when it comes to brazen stage banter, whether they're inciting the crowd to chants of "Chicks kick ass!" or pretending to hypnotize the concert-goers and commanding them to buy their new album, Wide Open Spaces. But from the first note of the night it was clear that these girls can play. Backed by a tour band that included drums, bass, electric guitar and keyboards, the Dixie Chicks ripped through a set that expertly traversed country, honky-tonk, blues and country-folk, with a nod to bluegrass thrown in for good measure.

Though the three Dixie Chicks and their touring band are clearly greater than the sum of their parts, lead singer Natalie Maines commands the most attention on stage. One moment she's crooning a lovely rendition of Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man," the next she's growling snaggle-throated blues on Bonnie Raitt's "Love Me Like A Man." And the veteran Chicks, who've been playing since '89, are not just about good covers: current hit "There's Your Trouble" and the ballad "You Were Mine" proved the band can deliver originals along with the classics. Natalie head-pumps her way around the stage like a cross between a sorority girl and a Megadeth fan, making wild hand gestures that were equal parts bandleader and cheerleader. She blurs the line between skank and swank and all but tears the roof off the barn.

Sisters Martie Seidel and Emily Erwin provided the Chicks with good old-fashioned virtuosity as well as heart-stopping visuals (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). Martie's superb fiddle breaks, delivered with a beautiful smile and the proud posture of a championship show-horse, were almost too much for a lovelorn country fan to handle. Emily, though all but inaudible on the banjo due to bad acoustics, really shone on the Dobro. Her bluesy solo on "Love Me Like a Man" was one of the highpoints of a set heavy on raw musical intensity.

Rounding out this formidable package was Natalie's father, Lloyd Maines, who sat in on the pedal steel. In addition to being a longtime member of the Joe Ely band, the senior Maines has produced such acclaimed new alternative country acts as Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen and Richard Buckner. His participation, in addition to fleshing out the band's sound, raised the credibility bar considerably.

From the looks of it, the Dixie Chicks are in for a date with mainstream popularity. Their current single, "There's Your Trouble," is enjoying an extended stay on the Billboard singles chart and the album just hit No. 5 on the country chart. Considering the prodigious musical talent behind the chick schtick, the band could be in for a wild night on the town.