Chicks let the music do all the talking

Times Staff Writer

"Please, no heckling. I think we all know what happens," Natalie Maines quipped during the Dixie Chicks' concert Friday at Staples Center. The singer's little joke about Kramergate was as close as the group came to controversy, unless you count her dedication of "White Trash Wedding" to K-Fed.

Maines must know what it's like for Michael Richards, "Seinfeld's" Kramer, whose comedy-club outburst has endangered his career. It was Maines' on-stage criticism of President Bush in 2003 that changed life for the Chicks, ending their relationship with country music and forcing a career makeover.

Now, four months into the tour that's a test of that redefinition, the trio continues to distance itself from the controversy. Even though the national mood has swung their way, judging by the midterm elections, and though the Bush incident has been freshened by a documentary film, "Shut Up and Sing," the group is avoiding politics and returning the focus to the music.

What has changed since the tour started in July is the performers' manner, especially that of Maines. On opening night in Detroit, she seemed tightly wound. Now the trio and their support musicians have hit their stride, and Maines can make wisecracks about "our fabulous career decisions" and wail with soulful freedom.

Taking advantage of a nine-member band that could be reconfigured into various mini-bands -- an acoustic bluegrass team on "White Trash Wedding," a chamber pop ensemble with string section for "Top of the World" -- Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire breezed through a career-spanning set for nearly two hours.

It's hardly country music at all anymore -- their post-incident album, "Taking the Long Way," was produced by rock guru Rick Rubin and showcases a distinctive brand of grown-up pop-rock with Americana strains.

Its best moments -- and the highlights of Friday's concert -- were songs that process the Chicks' tribulations into powerful, universal statements: "The Long Way Around," an autobiography of an independent spirit, and especially the defiant "Not Ready to Make Nice," which Maines turned into a roof-raising showstopper Friday.

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