Dixie Chicks, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

"Just so you know, we're embarrassed that the president of the United States comes from Texas." When Natalie Maines, singer of Dixie Chicks uttered these words at the Shepherd's Bush Empire three years ago, she was passionate, decisive and greeted with cheers. When she repeats the remark tonight, she's smothered in roared approval before she can finish. But there is a sense of sadness behind the defiance.

Maines' original comment clearly marked the end of a chapter for Dixie Chicks. The signs were already looming - having just won four Grammy awards, they were beyond being country music's biggest band. Their bubbly charm had bridged the gap between country and pop. Their last album, Home, had reinvented bluegrass as an accessible, modern sound. They were untouchable - until Maines recast them as renegades.

In 2003 there was a party atmosphere, a feeling of London being lucky to host America's favourite daughters. Now, it's almost as if they are British rock royalty, with all the naughtiness thrown in. There are T-shirts bearing the legend: "The Bush We Trust Is Shepherd's Bush," and, with the show broadcast live on the internet, Maines can't resist a dig at the detractors back home. "This was the first single from our new album," she says, introducing Not Ready to Make Nice. "It was on the radio here - not in the States, but here."

Spitting out the words that trace her descent into infamy, Maines is dramatic and unrepentant, her voice switching from a breathy whisper to full-on attack. Still, it's a long time before she looks comfortable or smiles.

With most of the set devoted to new album Taking the Long Way, the mood is one of desperate contemplation. The giddy fun of Sin Wagon and Goodbye Earl is surrounded by the fear and loneliness that seep through the band's new AOR sound. Maines' voice is still gorgeous, Martie Maguire's fiddle breezes through Wide Open Spaces, Emily Robison's banjo leads the chatty anti-nostalgia of Long Time Gone, and the three-part harmonies are perfect. But Dixie Chicks wear their broken hearts and battered idealism not like hard-won honours but open, weeping sores.


Betty Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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