DETROIT — Say what you will about the Dixie Chicks, but one thing’s for sure: They’re never predictable. What seemed like a tour on the brink of disaster all the way up to an hour before the first note of music was played actually turned out to be a surprising night of music and redemption.
Walking up to Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena on Friday night (July 21), with about 45 minutes until show time, only eight other people were wandering around outside the venue — not a promising start to a national arena tour. Turning the corner to the steps, there were about 50 more, and then immediately inside, maybe 300 or 400 in the whole place were standing in various lines for merchandise and concessions. Even in the final minutes before the show began, the arena itself was about a third full, and it looked like maybe the band’s Accidents and Accusations tour should have been billed merely as the Accidents tour.
But writing off the Detroit show as a failure would have been like counting chickens before they hatched. By the time the lights dimmed for the Chicks, the floor seats were almost totally full, with the first section of reserved seating only slightly less dense. The upper regions attracted a respectable number of fans, too, and you could fairly estimate an 85-90 percent capacity overall (and maybe give the neighboring Canadians some credit, too, for coming across the border for the show.)
The band’s choice of music played over the sound system as they prepare to hit the stage is so ridiculous and perfect for this show, it would be a shame to spoil the surprise here. Their selection speaks volumes about the Chicks’ sense of humor, and yes, they still have one. “Goodbye Earl” and “Sin Wagon” are still huge crowd-pleasers, largely due to Natalie Maines’ feisty vocals. Not all of their country hits are included, but what a blast it is to hear the Chicks rip into “Some Days You Gotta Dance.”
The biggest surprise of the night came when the crowd totally flipped out during the first thunderous chords of “Not Ready to Make Nice.” As she does on the new album, Taking the Long Way, Maines really let it fly on the phrase, “Shut up and sing, or my life will be over.” Martie Maguire tore it up on the fiddle, and Emily Robison’s playing is always theatrical. Young and old alike were singing along like it was “Wide Open Spaces.” And when it was done, an overwhelming majority of the audience stood up and applauded like it was Lance Armstrong up there. They kept clapping and clapping and wouldn’t quit. And this, mind you, was merely halfway through the set.
When the song finished, people with seats on the sides of the arena could see Maines turn to bandmates Martie Maguire and Emily Robison to give them a puzzled look. Certainly, that level of praise and adoration was unexpected. The single never got a lot of radio airplay, but in this concert setting, the song’s stubborn message thoroughly galvanized the audience as if a heavy, unspoken secret could finally be unburdened. By no means weak or simply polite, the rousing applause would have easily gone on another five minutes if the trio’s backing musicians hadn’t finally led into another song.
Another unexpected twist: Maines asked the audience who was seeing the band for the first time. Probably between a third and a half of the people in the floor seats raised their hands. There’s no doubt they lost fans after what’s been called “The Incident” — Maines’ comments about President Bush during a London concert — but they apparently have picked up a few more while taking the long way around. For all the grief they’ve gotten during the last few years, the enthusiastic response on opening night must feel like vindication to them. Yes, even without a hit single, they still filled up an arena in the U.S.
The show isn’t completely faultless. The Chicks barely looked at each other, even during a bluegrass breakdown, and only once did I hear Maines say “thank you” in response to post-song applause. Maguire and Robison didn’t speak to the audience at all. In addition, the special effects appear incomplete, sort of a salvage-meets-shabby chic look. Plus, the microphones went dead several times for both Maines and the opening act, young singer-songwriter Anna Nalick.
Not to mention the merchandise prices — $40 for a nondescript Army cap? Or $70 for a black hooded sweatshirt? Yes, $70 for a hoodie. Honestly, even a pretty good seat in the lower section of the arena cost less than that. But after their two-hour show, every merch booth had a flock of folks waiting to spend.
As for the band’s politics, not a peep was heard. Before the Chicks even went onstage, a young man did get escorted out of the venue after holding up a homemade — and mildly profane — anti-Bush banner. The mini-protest caused a mild ruckus on the main floor, but it was one of those blink-and-you-miss-it moments. (It just happened to unfold right in my line of vision.) If there were any picketers outside the venue prior to the concert, they must have been at a different entrance.
In advance of the Detroit date, the Chicks had to “postpone” several concerts in major markets that lacked enthusiasm for the outspoken stars. Other cities on the itinerary aren’t selling as briskly as before, either. (Their 2003 tour sold out almost instantly.) And you may still be wondering whether to buy tickets this time when they come to your area. The internal debate rages: Can you get past their recent remarks (even when it seems they’re dissing country music) and simply enjoy the experience?
Here’s some free advice: If you wore out your copies of Fly and Home, then, by all means, you need to go. Yes, it’s hard to know what they’re going to do (or say) at any given moment. But judging from the first night of this tour, they aren’t shy about showing off what they’ve already accomplished. Now it’s up to the fans to decide if they like surprises.