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[whitespace] Flight of Passage

The Dixie Chicks spread their wings on their first headlining tour

By Sarah Quelland

THE FACE OF COUNTRY MUSIC has changed dramatically since the days of Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire. Country's got a sexy new swing and a hip new attitude, with crossover country-pop artists like Shania Twain and Faith Hill topping the charts. The Dixie Chicks are leading the way with their sassy young style of cutting-edge country and a truckload of awards, including Grammys for Best Country Album and Best Country Vocal performance by a group.

The Chicks, as they're known to their fans, put on a full-scale production at their sold-out concert at the San Jose Arena last Friday (June 16).

Like a modern-day version of the Mandrell sisters, the Dixie Chicks feature Natalie Maines (25) on lead vocals and sisters Martie Seidel (30) on fiddle, mandolin and vocals and Emily Robison (27) on dobro, banjo, guitar and vocals. With their intelligent, funny songs that deal with themes of independence and freedom, this trio has jumped out of the country arena to become one of the most successful crossover acts around.

Still, despite their widespread commercial appeal, the Chicks haven't abandoned their country roots. Unlike poppier contemporaries Twain and Hill, the Chicks play a variety of traditional instruments and incorporate bluegrass, Western swing and Irish folk music into their songs and hint at some of Willie Nelson's rebelliousness and Charlie Daniels' fire.

Their Monument debut album, Wide Open Spaces, was hailed as the bestselling album ever by a country music group, and their sophomore album, Fly, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts last September, breaking previous records for any country artist with the exception of Garth Brooks.

Embarking on their first headlining tour, the unconventional Dixie Chicks enlisted the expertise of Cirque du Soleil guru Luc Lafortune to design their show. The night kicked off with a giant fly buzzing around the arena, and the Fly theme was carried out with a stage curtain designed to look like a pair of jeans with a prominent zipper fly. Lenny Kravitz' "Fly Away" played before the girls started the show.

After encouraging concert-goers to arrive early for surprises, the crowd was rewarded with spirited contests that led the winners to front row seats.

The Chicks have been using their success to make a difference. Their tour is sponsored by MusicCountry.com, and one dollar from each ticket sale is being donated for the World Wildlife Fund. This isn't the first time the Chicks have raised money for charity. Last July, they raised $100,000 for the St. Jude Children's Hospital, a Memphis-based hospital that cares for children with cancer, leukemia and other diseases.

The Dixie Chicks launched their highly visual show with "Ready to Run," and almost 20 songs would follow, including "There's Your Trouble," "Hello Mr. Heartache," "Don't Waste Your Heart On Me," "Without You," "I Can Love You Better," "You Were Mine," "Give It Up or Let Me Go," "Tonight the Heartache's on Me" and "Some Days You Gotta Dance"; a cover of Sheryl Crow's "Strong Enough"; and a sizzling old-fashioned country hoe-down jam session. They even brought out opener Patty Griffin, who wrote "Let Him Fly," to perform the song with them.

Serving as the frontwoman, the spunky 5-foot-3 Maines, who attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music, is a real spitfire, and she's as rock & roll as she is country, stomping around the stage like a headbanger.

Speaking frequently to the crowd, she stopped during "Let 'Er Rip" to ask a man in the front, "Are you tryin' to look up my skirt?" After listening to his response, she feistily replied, "There is nothin' up there for you."

"We can't let this show go by without totally humiliating ourselves," she announced, introducing a slide show that featured unflattering yearbook pictures and candid family shots. "We were all ugly at one time," she assured the crowd. "Thanks to hair and make-up, we can all be beautiful butterflies."

During "Cold Day in July," Maines played a silvery guitar that sent a dazzling spotlight into the audience. As the song wound down with the heartbroken lyrics "You always said the day that you would leave me would be a cold day in July/Here comes that cold day in July," white snowflakes fell from the ceiling.

After regaling the crowd with tales of tequila and wrestling, Maines explained, "We don't really feel like role models," but added that the best advice she could give anyone was "never to settle for less than the fairy tale." "Cowboy Take Me Away" followed. Then, with a devilish gleam in her eye, Maines dedicated "Sin Wagon," saying, "If you haven't found your cowboy to take you away, and you just need one for tonight, here's your song."

After that fiery number burned up the stage (enhanced by a rippling red background that roared like flames behind them) the Chicks made their exit.

With the controversial "Goodbye Earl" and "Wide Open Spaces" conspicuously absent, the encore seemed obvious. But the girls did something almost unheard of: Maines appeared on a small stage near the back of the arena floor while Seidel and Robison showing up on opposite sides of the second tier. The Chicks dug into "Goodbye Earl" from their various perches while the video (which stars NYPD Blues' Dennis Franz as Earl and Ally McBeal's Jane Krakowski as Wanda) played on screens above the main stage.

"Wide Open Spaces" closed out the show, and as Maines waved her hands back and forth in the air, people quickly took her cue. The crowd was a sea of arms waving in time with the music.

Engaging and entertaining, the Dixie Chicks proved they're more than country music's answer to the Spice Girls.

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Web extra from the June 22-28, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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