Three songs into the Dixie Chicks' high-energy show at Washington's Verizon Center on Friday night, no-nonsense Natalie Maines, the country trio's lead singer, delivered the anticipated swipe at President Bush. Pointing to her right up in the stands of the packed arena, she said with a smirk, "I'd like to say `Hi' to President Bush's family up there." Already on its feet, the audience erupted with applause, hoots and hollers. The Bushes, of course, were nowhere in sight. But Maines continued: "You guys know how it feels since he spends 50 percent of his time here," an apparent crack at his plentiful vacation time.
The comment was more benign than the one she made on a London stage in 2003 when the singer told the audience she was "ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." That sparked a backlash against one of the biggest-selling groups of any genre. And it continues today as many country stations refuse to support the trio's latest album, the polished, pop-rock-oriented Taking the Long Way.
But as they showed Friday night in their exhilarating two-hour set, the Dixie Chicks have moved on. Their music has evolved well beyond its traditional country roots, taking on an appropriate rock edge. And folks in Washington, of all places, were enthusiastically receptive of the displaced Texas group.
After a tongue-in-cheek entrance to a recording of "Hail to the Chief," the Chicks and their excellent nine-piece backing band kicked off the show with a hard-hitting take of "Lubbock or Leave It," a highlight from the new album. That easily segued into Patty Griffin's "Truth No. 2." As Maines belted the line, "You don't like the truth coming from my mouth," the song took on a new sense of defiance, the aggressive groove bolstering the sentiment. Even "Goodbye, Earl," the 1999 smash about two women killing an abusive husband, felt more biting and vengeful with the pronounced rock edge the Chicks added Friday night.
The music (and sentiments) eventually softened as the trio slid into Stevie Nicks' "Landslide." The reflective ballad glowed with the airtight harmonies of Maines and her bandmates, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. "Everybody Knows" continued the golden harmonies, which were nicely shadowed by Pete Finney's pedal steel guitar. "After we got all the mad-as-hell songs out of our system, we were able to write this nice, motherly tune for our children," Maines said, introducing the lovely "Lullaby." On the soothing tune, she played the Omnichord, an electronic instrument that added plucky touches.
Then the Chicks revved back up with "White Trash Wedding" and "Lil' Jack Slade," two mostly instrumental bluegrass numbers that showed they haven't forgotten their roots.
But on "Not Ready to Make Nice," the first single from Taking the Long Way, the Chicks returned to the angst-ridden stance that kicked off the show. As Maines sang, "Forgive, sounds good/Forget, I'm not sure I could/They say time heals everything/But I'm still waiting," many in the house (mostly women) pumped their fists in the air. Afterward, the Dixie Chicks received a long, thunderous ovation. Maines and the other women smiled and bowed as they were warmly received in the city where the target of their derision lives.