By Whitney Pastorek
Updated August 02, 2006 at 12:00 PM EDT

The Dixie Chicks were at Madison Square Garden last night, and I was there, ready to reconcile my crazy liberal Yankee-ness with my native Texan upbringing. Wasn’t the first time I’d seen them — I caught the Fly Tour back in 2000 B.I. (that’s “Before Incident”), and my memories of that show are all happy and fluffy bunnies and innocent. I remember walking out feeling like I was safe, I was awesome, and everything was right with the world. It was kind of like summer camp.

But that was then. This is now, 2006 A.I. (“After Incident”), and their Accidents and Accusations Tour has been tainted by low ticket sales in the South and the still-simmering anger of their country music fans, who curiously have yet to redirect any of that anger toward more deserving or at least more obvious targets (like, I don’t know, Neil “Impeach the President” Young?). I wasn’t exactly expecting bunnies this time around, in other words — and the Chicks didn’t bring any.

(Read on to hear what they had to say about Mel Gibson…)

The lights went down. The crowd went “Wooo!” And the sound systemplayed “Hail to the Chief” as the Chicks walked onstage. You get theidea. They really, honestly, do not care what you or anyone else thinkabout them, and they are going to be exactly who they want to be fromhere on out. Luckily, who that is just happens to be a threesome whoplay with sisterly connection, backed by an excellent band capable ofthrashing their opening barnburner, “Lubbock or Leave It,” or pullingback for an almost orchestral rendition of Patty Griffin’s “Top of theWorld.” Martie Maguire’s syrupy fiddle anchors the group’s sound, hersister, Emily Robison, rocks a variety of instruments (but none asimpressively as her trademark banjo), and the lady of the hour, MissNatalie Maines, stands at the center of it all in a pair of stilettosshe wields like shitkickers, singing her little heart out in a voicethat’s only grown stronger.

But you don’t want to know about this, do you, Popwatch readers? Youdon’t want to know about their perfect take on the BobDylan-by-way-of-Sheryl Crow cover “Mississippi,” or the funked-upversion of “Ready to Run” they used to close, or the way their faceslight up when they play, when they sing harmony, when they walk to thewings to greet the fans… You want to know What She Said. Did Natalieexplain herself? Did she get herself in more trouble? Did hecklersthrow rotten fruit? The answers, too bad for you, are no, no, and no.There were references here and there: “This next song is about how welive our lives, and how we make the excellent career decisions wemake,” Maines smiled at the start of their album’s title track, “Takingthe Long Way.” She dedicated “White Trash Wedding” to Mel Gibson,dropping deep into her Texas twang to giggle, “You know how it is whenyou’re drunk!” She explained that while the song doesn’t pertain toMel, per se, she just wanted to send him a shout-out — and (wisely)observed that “All of our controversy would have been over if I’d onlychecked myself into rehab…” That got a nice-sized cheer from thecrowd.

But no cheer was as big as that for the somber opening notes of “NotReady to Make Nice,” the Chicks’ musical response to their critics.Before this one, Maines walked up to the mic in a single spotlight,kept her mouth shut, and let the lyrics speak for themselves. When thelights came up on the rest of the band, they illuminated the crowd onthe floor in front of the stage, many of whom were holding xeroxedsigns that said, simply, “Thank You.” And after Maines bitterly,resolutely, breathed the last line — “They say/time heals everything/but I’m still waiting” — the applause stretched for a full minute ormaybe more, a bunch of crazy Northerners showing their respect andadmiration for a bunch of Southern Chicks who put themselves out there,got kinda screwed, but aren’t gonna change for any of us. When the lights came up at the end of the show, the sound system was playing Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back.”