Fifteen million album sales, multiple Grammys and dozens of weeks at No. 1 later, "Chicks rule" now rings like an understatement. When the Dixie Chicks returned to New York this week on the wings of their Fly Tour, it was for a sold-out, two-night stand at Radio City Music Hall. This time out, the crowd led their own cheers, from the moment the giant zipper on the curtain dropped and fiddler Martie Seidel sawed through the Gaelic intro of "Ready to Run" to the Chicks' final bow ninety minutes later after a mass singalong to their biggest hit, "Wide Open Spaces."
With their insanely catchy songs, irreverent fashion sense and just-cuter-than-the-girls-next-door good looks, it's not hard to understand how the Dixie Chicks have gotten this far. But that's just scratching the surface. Don't be fooled for a minute by the "new country" tag many apply to the group. As proved on both nights at Radio City, they can pop and rock with conviction, but when Maines belts her heart and lungs out on, say, "Tonight the Heartache's on Me" or "Don't Waste Your Heart," it's stone-cold, hard-core honky tonk at its best. And where else but a Dixie Chicks' show can you see a fiddle break get cheers worthy of an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo? Seidel and her banjo/dobro-playing sister Emily Robison no doubt received similar applause back in the group's pre-Maines days of playing bluegrass festivals, but to see them receive stand-up roars of approval from an audience reared more on MTV than Hee Haw is damn near revolutionary. Shania and Garth may have brought country to the masses in the Nineties, but the Chicks are the first act likely to inspire kids to want to pick up hillbilly instruments and learn to play it themselves.
Although both nights featured the exact same setlist and nearly identical one-liners, Wednesday's performance found both the Chicks and the crowd in considerably feistier form. Perhaps it was somehow attuned to Maines' choice of stage wear; for the tamer Thursday show, she sported a Vegas-ready sparkly gold blouse, black leather slacks and a carefully coifed Charlie's Angels hairdo. Wednesday found her in full country-punk mode: short pig tails, retro T-shirt and funky black skirt. She'd howl a line of "Ready to Run" or Bonnie Raitt's "Give It Up or Let Me Go," then stomp around with arms and head jerking fitfully and defiantly out of rhythm with the sisters' answering solos. The crowd responded in kind, dancing in their seats and in the aisles even during the slow songs. Two young women who claimed to have already seen three or four shows on the current tour kicked their shoes off and danced around a bemused usher.
Bar the slight dip in intensity the second night, the standout moments remained consistent: the sugar rush of "If I Fall You're Going Down With Me"; Maines' powerhouse, nail-it-to-the-wall perfect delivery of "You Were Mine," an achingly beautiful weeper Robison and Seidel penned after their parents' divorce (Dad was in the audience); opening act Patti Griffin's return to the stage to sing lead on her own composition, "Let Him Fly," followed by a cover of Sheryl Crow's "Strong Enough" worthy of copyright transfership. All that before the shit-hot, show-stopping bluegrass jam and set-closing one-two punch of "Cowboy Take Me Away" and "Sin Wagon," the rousing barn burner destined to go down as the Chicks' signature battle cry for the rest of their career.
And they still had another masterful card to play. If the Chicks' show has lost anything in its transition from honky tonks to concert halls, it's a sense of intimacy between each of the women and their six-man backing band, a casualty perhaps of overly ambitious stage and lighting design and the way the Chicks spread themselves out across the larger stage. But if they sometimes seemed a little distant from each other, they never lost touch with their fans. For the encore of "Goodbye Earle," Maines sang from a short platform in the middle of the floor section of the audience while Seidel and Robison performed on opposite sides of the theater Wednesday, and clear up in the nosebleed seats Thursday. The room damn near exploded, proving that even as the Dixie Chicks spread their wings, they still know how to kick ass.
(July 21, 2000)