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BEST COUNTRY CONCERT: DIXIE CHICKS

Friday, December 26, 2003

BY JOHN HAYES, PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

Once again, much of the best country music in Pittsburgh this year wasn't played at the major venues.

1. DIXIE CHICKS

June 14, Mellon Arena

In a truly great concert experience, the artist offers personal insight that audiences can't get from albums or articles, and the music is rearranged to make the maximum impact on a live environment. That's what happened at the Dixie Chicks concert. Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison shared with the crowd and rejoiced in the music. And to her credit, Maines didn't say anything unprofessional, irreverent, politically partisan or really, really stupid.

2. GILLIAN WELCH

Sept. 20, Carnegie Lecture Hall

Gillian Welch gives herself no place to hide. On stage, it's just her, sideman David Rawlings, two acoustic instruments and the songs that bare her soul. In a Calliope-sponsored event, Rawlings squeezed lightning bolts from his antique guitar while Welch sang two sets of honest, unpolished, uncompromised country genius.

3. BRAD PAISLEY

Aug. 1, Post-Gazette Pavilion

No slight intended toward Brooks & Dunn, but the best part of this year's Neon Circus Tour was Glen Dale, W.Va.'s Brad Paisley. The local-boy-made-good radiated confidence, good looks, songwriting skill and guitar-picking talent. "Little Moments" and "He Didn't Have to Be" were warm, tender and unpretentious, and Paisley buckled down on chicken-pickin' honky-tonk instrumentals that other stars would have hired someone to play.

4. LUTHER WRIGHT & THE WRONGS

March 28, Club Cafe

On the very night when country star Tim McGraw foolishly walked off stage at Mellon Arena (after some fans foolishly booed the appearance of his father's Phillies jersey), a little-known Toronto band was oozing charisma at Club Cafe. Luther Wright & the Wrongs, a band that once remade Pink Floyd's "The Wall" as a country-bluegrass album, has all the wit, charm and chops that Nashville needs to pull itself out of its doldrums.

5. KEITH URBAN

May 11, Post-Gazette Pavilion

Australian Keith Urban has it all -- the looks, the licks, the lyrics. His middle set at the Kenny Chesney show was everything a country concert should be. Songs from his two Capitol albums were stretched and augmented for the road, accessorized with banjo, fiddle and steel.

6. EMMYLOU HARRIS

Oct. 19, Byham Theater

Sometimes the routine pace of a concert breaks down because of an accident, revealing something about an artist that we never knew before. Emmylou Harris screwed up her guitar's tuning so badly that she handed it to sideman Buddy Miller. While he fixed it, she just talked for a while, told a stupid joke and bonded with a forgiving Byham crowd. Smart arrangements of her newer stuff seemed wildly adventuresome compared to sturdy recitations of her old radio hits, and Miller's opening set was nothing less than amazing. But in her unscripted moments, Harris seemed shy and vulnerable, like an old friend who had just shared a secret.

7. DWIGHT YOAKAM

Sept. 13, Pepsi-Cola Roadhouse

Dwight Yoakam was mad. Mad at the sound man, mad at the guitar tech, mad at the universe for recently taking several close personal friends: Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Warren Zevon and John Ritter. The result was an explosive concert. Every lyric was heartfelt and real, every guitar lick electric, and every time he bounded from his stool, knocking it down behind him, you knew the guy wasn't taking prisoners.

8. WILLIE NELSON

Sept. 8-9, Pepsi-Cola Roadhouse

No one else on the planet could forget to dress for the show, repeat parts of a couple of songs, rewrite lyrics on stage and improvise licks on a guitar so road-worn that it has an extra hole in it. Somehow, when Willie Nelson does it, it's magic. At the first of two dinner shows at the Pepsi-Roadhouse, Nelson rattled off dozens of classic tunes and traded hats with fans at the tables touching the stage.

9. JOHN PRINE

March 7, Capitol Music Hall

Despite a crowd that preferred to hear itself rather than the performer it paid to see, John Prine proved that he hasn't lost his charm or self-deprecating wit. Tall Steve Goodman tales, the stories behind the story songs, old standbys, new revelations -- Prine hasn't lost a step.

10. TOBY KEITH

Sept. 26, Post-Gazette Pavilion

Toby Keith used to swagger and brag like a high-school jock. Now, after years of careful fine-tuning of his stagecraft, he swaggers and brags like a filthy-rich star who doesn't have to drive one of those Ford trucks. But, hey, it works for him. Keith's concert was not only the most-attended country show ever at the Post-Gazette Pavilion, it was fun, engaging, energetic and very well-performed.


John Hayes can be reached at jhayes@post-gazette.com .

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