- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 6, 2006

There were no protests, no riots.

No burnings in effigy or at the stake.

Those itching for a fight Friday night at Verizon Center went home with their “Vote for Natalie” T-shirts stained only with sweat.

Over the last three years, the Dixie Chicks have accumulated the kind of political baggage that you pay extra to check. Still, as much as she grumbles about the weight, Natalie Maines, the pop-country trio’s feisty lead singer, seems to fancy herself as a courageous controversialist.

On Friday, she couldn’t resist at least one dig at President Bush, mock-welcoming him as she pointed to the nosebleeds.

Yet, for all the posturing, the Dixie Chicks know how to deliver what’s important — a hootenanny.

Miss Maines and principal Chicks Martie Maguire and Emily Robison were supported Friday by a spectacular wall of sound. To give you an idea of the talent the group had to spare: Among the nine auxiliary musicians sharing the stage with the Chicks was guitarist Audley Freed, who, during a brief stint with the Black Crowes, traded licks with the great Jimmy Page. Yet on Friday he was barely audible.

Who needs so much backup when the Chicks can slay an audience on their own merits, as they did on a poignant acoustic rendition of “Travelin’ Soldier” and the delightfully show-offy jams of “Sin Wagon” and “Lil’ Jack Slade”?

Miss Maines can’t match the instrumental prowess of Miss Maguire on fiddle or Miss Robison on guitar/banjo (her switch from acoustic guitar to bass on “Goodbye Earl” is a tired gesture), but her soprano is the most powerful instrument of all: Miss Maines’ voice soars enough to spit nails.

Really, though, if your goal is to burn down the barn, it helps to bring a big box of matches. And with “Lubbock or Leave It,” a ferocious detuned stomp that not-so-gently mocks Bible Belt piety, the Dixie Chicks and Co. kicked off the show on an aggressive note. “Truth No. 2,” with its smoldering staccato bluegrass arrangement, came next, followed by the anti-domestic violence rah-rah of “Goodbye Earl.”

Over the next two hours, the Chicks focused on cuts from their latest album, “Taking the Long Way,” interspersing fan favorites such as their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” (a ballad so achingly perfect that even the Smashing Pumpkins couldn’t ruin it) and the irresistible romantic ballad “Cowboy Take Me Away.”

“Easy Silence” and the enthusiastically-received “Not Ready to Make Nice,” both from the Rick Rubin-produced new album, were tinged with references to current events; the latter angrily referred to a death threat Miss Maines received after her anti-Bush remarks of 2003.

But the sweetly-rendered “Lullaby” and “So Hard” — about, respectively, the inexhaustible love for a new child and the difficulty of conceiving one — fit nicely alongside such pre-2003 hits as “Wide Open Spaces” and “Ready to Run,” with their celebration of young wanderlust.

Forget the storm-in-a-teacup that was the Dixie Chicks’ banishment from the Nashville mainstream: The most compelling story of the Dixie Chicks — in 1998, when they found national fame, and now — is that of women negotiating the pitfalls of maturity, marriage and motherhood.

This is why a song such as “White Trash Wedding,” from 2002’s “Home,” seemed a bit preposterous Friday night. If we’ve learned anything about Natalie Maines in the last few years, it’s that she never would allow herself to be bullied into a marriage.

The Dixie Chicks have a tough choice to make. They need to nurture the Starbucks Coffee crowd while doing what they do so superbly: play country music.

The risk is that they’ll end up one day looking like redneck minstrels.

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