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The Chicks are back in fine form

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Emily Robison does some banjo pickin' while a bandmate plays guitar during the Dixie Chicks concert at the MTS Centre Tuesday.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen the Dixie Chicks.

In fact, it’s been seven years since the Texas trio has done a proper Canadian tour; the last time Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire were in Winnipeg, it was 2010 and they were the support act for The Eagles — at the old stadium.

And it’s been a full decade since Maines made that fateful remark about former U.S. president George W. Bush at a 2003 show in London, just days before the U.S. invaded Iraq: "We're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."

It was a comment that sparked an unprecedented boycott that took an ugly and misogynistic turn. Dubbed ‘Saddam’s Angels’ and ‘Dixie Sluts’, the trio received death threats, had their concerts picketed and their CDs destroyed in public protest — a saga chronicled in 2006’s acclaimed (and excellently titled) documentary Shut Up and Sing. They watched as country radio stations pulled their support — and as the hits from their smash 2002 album Home steadily tumbled down the charts. America’s sweethearts were made into pariahs.

The Dixie Chicks had the last laugh, however. Despite receiving next to no radio support, 2006’s Taking the Long Way — which featured the very pointed Not Ready to Make Nice — went on to win five Grammys.

Now, after a hiatus that saw them focus on solo projects and growing families, the Chicks are back. They have no new album to support, but the fans that filled the MTS Centre on Tuesday night were sure happy to hear the hits.

And the Dixie Chicks have a few of those.

Taking the spartan stage just after 9 p.m., the trio kicked things off with the honky tonk stomp of I Can Love You Better and the soaring Wide Open Spaces — one of the night’s many showpieces for lead vocalist Maines’ arresting pipes — wasting no time reminding us just what estimable players they are (like anyone forgot). From Maguire’s stunning fiddle work on Am I The Only One (Whose Ever Felt This Way), to the mahogany-rich harmonies on You Were Mine, the trio was in fine form.

And the hits, they kept on coming. A one-two punch of Ready to Run and crowd favourite Goodbye Earl kept the energy high.

Those hoping for a political diatribe didn’t get one. Maines didn’t address the crowd until six songs in, and she kept things light before launching into a rafter-reaching rendition of Cowboy Take Me Away — its title a tongue-in-cheek reference to Calgon’s famous slogan, by the way — before mentioning something about Canada’s mayors that was drowned out by the audience booing in agreement. "OK, time for more music." (I recommend following Maines on Twitter for commentary.)

Things got rowdy with the infectious toe-tapper Some Days You Gotta Dance, which gave way to the barnburner Sin Wagon, which featured some break-neck banjo pickin’ courtesy of Robison. Maguire made her fiddle sing on Long Time Gone, the song for which this tour was named, before the trio launched into its famous cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide.

A tender version of Lullaby — dedicated to their children — was one of the standouts in the latter half of the main set, which drew largely from Taking the Long Way. The anthemic Silent House has a beautiful melodic hook, but both Maines’ voice and Maguire’s fiddle occasionally sounded like they were battling it out in the high end of the mix, which was a little wince-inducing. A small spot on an otherwise lovely performance.

Listening to the songs from Taking the Long Way — The Long Way Around, the breathtaking Easy Silence, I Like It and the truly excellent Lubbock or Leave It, with its unchecked commentary on life in the great state of Texas — it was hard not to be struck by how much more fierce and bold their post-2003 material is; these Chicks didn’t want to Lubbock or leave it; they refused to shut up and they kept on singing.

In the encore, the trio addressed the whole controversy through two perfectly placed songs, closing with Travelin’ Soldier — the patriotic mega hit from 2002 that was forced off the charts due to the boycott — and Not Ready To Make Nice, the band’s chart-topping response to the controversy. Beautiful.

Mississippi singer/songwriter Charlie Mars set the mood with an easy, breezy 40-minute opening set. He has one of those laid-back, sexy drawls that effortlessly wraps around everything from mellow ballads (Listen to the Darkside) to slow, slinky grooves such as Back of the Room and Meet Me By The Back Door, which both benefitted from the call-and-response vocals courtesy of the audience. Mars' voice has a soulful grit that, at times, recalls that of Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach; it lends some cool to what could have easily been a bunch of Jason Mraz songs.


Updated on Tuesday, November 5, 2013 at 11:15 PM CST: additional information

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