by Bruce A. Smith
Seattle’s Key Arena, Summer, 2003 – and the Tacoma Dome, November 2006
Chicks Rule! Yup, best concert I’ve ever seen, and I’m not alone in that assessment – the 12,000 screaming, mostly women in the Key Arena in 2003, came close to lifting the roof off.
The ceiling-busting energy came from something deeper than fans appreciating a great show. The Key concert was held a few weeks after lead singer Natalie Maines told an audience in the UK she was “ashamed that President Bush was from Texas,” or words to that effect.
Critics of the Chicks burned their CDs in response, or crushed them under bulldozers. Worst of all, Nashville’s hierarchy turned their backs on Country’s Numero Uno act and radio stations across the nation to pull Dixie Chicks tunes from airplay, including the industry’s number one hit, “Travelin’ Soldier” – a song about a young, scared Army grunt who finds a true-hearted girl before he ships out.
In an unprecedented act of solidarity, Dixie Chicks fans I was told by one of their roadies sold-out the entire USA summer tour in 48 hours. As a result, their Key Arena performance, one of their first of the American run, was humming.
Security was cranked up several notches, too. First, because of 9/11 orange alerts, and secondly because of threats against the Chicks. I had to show my Seattle City stagehand ID twice just to get to the loading dock, let alone backstage.
So crew and fans were all jazzed before anyone took the stage.
When they did, the Chicks took everyone higher by opening with “Earl,” a song about a woman who uses “extreme prejudice,” as the CIA fondly calls assassination, on her sister’s abusive husband who “walks right through all the restraining orders.”
But here’s the kicker: before singing the last line of the chorus the Chicks paused. The band vamped for a few beats, and then, with dramatic flourish all three Chicks thrust their microphones toward the audience, signaling them to finish the line.
“Earl’s gotta die!” they screamed, and folks, I really wasn’t sure the building was going to hold together. I glanced quickly up at the roof in a reflex to make sure it wasn’t cracking – and in doing so I noticed the Chicks had done something I had never seen before or since. The entire ceiling was used as a back drop, bathed delightfully with colored gels on which were displayed projections called gobos, gizmos that cast designs, silhouettes and other cut-out type filtration across the bare concrete. It was extraordinarily inventive. Instead of utilizing the roof just to keep the rain out, The Dixie Chick had turned the every inch of the Key Arena into a theater. It was marvelous.
That level of expertise continued throughout the entire show. Above their stage-in-the-round, which was multi-leveled and wondrously lit, the set designer flew three levels of truss that had curtains, scrim, and other backdrop-like hanging stuff that produced another splendid multi-leveled accent to the Chicks’ superb music. Creative, pricey, and again, singular in the industry.
As for the music, it was top-notch. I love the Dixie Chicks sound: modern, rockin’ country, but rooted in banjo and fiddle. And the Chicks can play their axes, let me tell you; they’re much more than three ladies who look good while singing a couple of country tunes.
Natalie is their lead singer, and when she joined the two founding sisters of the original Chicks few years ago, she made the Dixie Chicks what they are today. She has soul, grit, and a rock-y edge. Yet, she warmly embraces the country ethos: be close to the earth and tell it like it is, which is exactly what she did with George W and Nashville’s old guard.
In addition, the Chicks brought along a dozen of Nashville’s finest musicians for their backup band. Together, they were down-right bodacious.
Three years later, in 2006, the Dixie Chicks unfortunately chose not to play the Key but instead went to the Tacoma Dome. Since the T-Dome is not a union house, and I wasn’t on the call. Part of the reason was that I consider the private production companies who have the stagehand contracts there too cheap to work for, ie: they pay half the union rates, do not provide any health benefits, and generally never pay overtime. As a result, I don’t work much at the T-Dome. Too bad, too, because I live just down the road. But more importantly, I think the city of Tacoma should insist on living wages for all employees who work there. The Dome is a symbol of Tacoma Pride, and that pride should be evident in the how the city pays its employees.
But a union brother was in the audience and he told me the show was great. Once again, he said, Natalie had something to say about the Prez because Pentagon boss Donald Rumsfeld had resigned a few days prior. But, apparently, she and the Chicks did not utter a single political word until the very end, and then Natalie chirped, “I guess you guys are wondering when I’m going to say something about the President and Secretary Rumsfeld.” The T-Dome erupted like they did at the Key. Natalie smiled, and then launched into the next song.
I guess she didn’t have to say anything more.
Editor’s Notes: Since those days, the Chicks have gone on to an uneven career. Their CD “Taking the Long Way” won five Grammys in 2007, and features a stellar tune about thier political experiences titled: “Still Not Ready to Make Nice.” But their explosive stage presence and huge touring schedule has waned. A superb video about this change, “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing” reveals the rejection the Dixie Chicks and their music received by country music fans and industry principals – particularly in country radio – that has resulted from their political commentaries.
Nevertheless, I still love the Chicks, and I’m glad they’re still not ready to make nice.
© 2006 and 2012 Bruce A. Smith