The usually outspoken Dixie Chicks didn't have much to say during the opening show of their Accidents & Accusations Tour. But that doesn't mean they didn't say anything -- they just let the music

The usually outspoken Dixie Chicks didn't have much to say during the opening show of their Accidents & Accusations Tour. But that doesn't mean they didn't say anything -- they just let the music do the talking.

The 45-date trek comes with the Texas trio still suffering in the wake of Natalie Maines' 2003 concert comment about being ashamed to be from the same state as President George W. Bush. A major backlash followed -- and persists. The Chicks have fired their own broadsides, both musical and verbal, in the battle, but unlike the Top of the World Tour of two years ago, where the used the controversy as schtick and even slogans for merchandise, the group is pursuing a policy of restraint for the road.

They weren't completely silent about the feelings, though. The trio and its nine-piece band of Nashville heavyweights trooped on stage to an ironic taped version of "Hail to the Chief," and Maines acknowledged that she, Marti Maguire and Emily Robison "were mad as hell" when they were writing their chart-topping fifth album, "Taking the Long Way." Subtle anti-war imagery projected on a screen at the rear of the stage accompanied a couple of the more pointed songs.

But mostly, the 23-song set reminded the fans, who filled about two-thirds of the arena on opening night, that the Chicks are still one of the best live acts working in any genre thanks to a tightly performed and dynamically crafted concert evincing only the slightest bit of first-night stiffness.

They came out swinging -- and rocking -- with "Lubbock or Leave It," with its lyrical acknowledgment that "I hear they hate me now." "Truth No. 2," "The Long Way Around," "Easy Silence" and "Travelin' Soldier" continued the evening's defiant theme, and even the group's richly arranged rendition of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" ("Can I sail through the changing ocean tides/Can I handle the seasons of my life") took on a deeper resonance in this context.

One fan who held up an anti-Bush sign before the show was escorted out by security. But it was clear that the vast majority of the audience was on the Chicks' side, too, when an inspired delivery of the single "Not Ready To Make Nice" -- the group's reflection on its recent experiences -- drew the strongest sustained ovation. The soul-flavored "I Hope," meanwhile, put a prayerful cap on the evening at the end of the encores.

But it was not all sober and serious. The Chicks kicked up their heels on spirited versions of "Goodbye Earl," "I Like It," "White Trash Wedding," the bluegrass instrumental "Lil' Jack Slade" (a showcase for Maguire's fiddling and Robison's banjo playing) "Long Time Gone," "Sin Wagon" and "Mississippi," as well as on a buoyant performance of the signature hit "Wide Open Spaces." Maines' forceful vocal on "Top of the World" was another highlight, while "Ready to Run" was treated with a grittier rock edge.

Prior to the gentle "Lullabye," Maines jabbed at "anyone who tries to say we are turning into a rock band." The truth is that the Chicks perch, boldly and sometimes precariously, on a wire that crosses a number of different styles, and on opening night they handled all of them with an accomplished balance of precision and passion.

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