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Dixie Chick Urges Donations to Defense Fund for Murderers

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Natalie Maines (AP)

Dixie Chicks | King, Taylor Reunion | Sneaks and Peeks

Dixie Chick Urges Donations for Murderers

The Dixie Chicks have a new controversy on their hands. Lead singer Natalie Maines is urging people to contribute money to a defense fund for three Arkansas men that she (and many others) believe were wrongly convicted of killing three children in 1993.

Maines writes her plea on the Dixie Chicks Web site, which has already been answered by several celebrities including, I am told, Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Eddie Vedder, Jack Black and Henry Rollins.

"I'm writing this letter today because I believe that three men have spent the past 13 years in prison for crimes they didn't commit," Maines' message begins.

"On May 5, 1993 in West Memphis, Ark., three 8-year-old boys, Steve Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore were murdered.

"Three teenage boys, Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin were convicted of the murders in 1994. Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley received life sentences without parole, and Damien Echols sits on death row.

"I encourage everyone to see the HBO documentaries, 'Paradise Lost' and 'Paradise Lost 2' for the whole history of the case."

Right now, Maines’ main goal is to raise money for the West Memphis 3. To that end, she’s directing fans to the Web site www.wm3.org.

Overturning convictions is more common these days, thanks to more sophisticated forensics. There are obviously now dozens of stories about murder convictions that have been overturned thanks to DNA testing.

Plays and projects like "The Exonerated," for example, have shown mistakes made by juries and prosecutors.

On the above-mentioned Web site, the wife of one the convicted men wrote on Oct. 29: "DNA testing has been conducted on dozens of pieces of evidence. The DNA results show no link whatsoever to Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley or Jason Baldwin — and all of the experts agree that, under the prosecution theory of how the crime was committed, their DNA would be present at the crime scene if they were guilty.

"Instead, the DNA results match Terry Hobbs, the step-father of one of the victims. Our new filing also includes strong evidence from Pam Hobbs (the ex-wife of Terry Hobbs and the mother of one of the victims) implicating her former husband in the murders."

It's an interesting case, and one that I'm sure Maines won't let go of until the verdicts are overturned.

King, Taylor Reunion: So Hot, Someone Fainted

A woman actually fainted on Friday night during Carole King and James Taylor’s first show (their fifth in three days) at West Hollywood’s fabled Troubador nightclub.

The woman was pressed up to the lip of the stage in the small club, and was listening to Taylor explain how he wrote the song, "Sweet Baby James," in 1969 for the 1-year-old nephew who’d been named for him.

This was maybe a couple of minutes after the audience had stopped a long cheer and standing ovation for King’s blues anthem made popular by Aretha Franklin, "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman."

And the woman in question just went down.

"That was a first," Taylor said after paramedics removed the air-deprived female to the side of the club.

"Start over!" someone shouted from the standing room only floor space. (We were watching from the mezzanine above, where four rows of bench seats were filled, literally, to the rafters with celebrities and music-industry types.)

So we heard the story again.

James Taylor and Carole King invented the singer-songwriter movement 26 years ago, and returned to reclaim it late last week for a series of rare shows at Los Angeles’ Troubador. (King, by the way, is only in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a writer, not a performer. Ha!)

The six historic performances — two a night from Wednesday through Friday — featured the original band with whom they played at the small Santa Monica Boulevard club in 1971.

Taylor said he’d often mentioned over the years that they should try and do something together again. The reason last week was to raise money for six non-profit groups through a Boston firm called tickets-for-charity.com.

One of the designees was MusiCares, part of the Grammy Foundation and National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which honored Taylor last year.

And so it was that King, who is 65 and looks 10 years younger with her trademark cascade of curly hair, and Taylor, still a lanky drink of water at 59, recreated their landmark success of 1971 with band members Russ Kunkel on drums, Leland Sklar on bass and Danny Kortchmar on lead guitar.

Carole took her place at stage right at the piano, James was front and center on acoustic guitar.

The hits never stopped coming.

The two shows I saw on Friday night were each very good, although the late show — and last one in the series — was perhaps more relaxed and better sung.

For the six shows, the small audience was consistently dotted with celebrities from Joni Mitchell, the pair’s cohort from years gone by, to siblings Jane and Peter Fonda, Rob Reiner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Marsha (Mrs. Robin) Williams, Mary Kay Place, famous record producers Russ Titelman and Don Was, Warner Bros. chief Alan Horn, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, Colin Farrell, Rosanna Arquette, John Lithgow, John Cusack, the EaglesTimothy B. Schmidt and, of course, King’s (first) ex-husband and legendary collaborator, Gerry Goffin.

Taylor and King were never connected romantically and only briefly as artists. (In fact, Taylor and Kunkel at some point were involved in each other’s lives. But that’s a different story.)

It was in 1970 that King was working on "Tapestry," the album that would become the longest running No. 1 in history (until "Thriller" 13 years later). Taylor was simultaneously recording "Sweet Baby James" in an adjacent Los Angeles studio. They wound up playing on each other’s albums, and performing together live as the work progressed.

King — who’d already had a career in the 1960s as one half of a hit writing duo with husband Goffin ("The Locomotion," "Chains," "Up on the Roof") — wound up giving Taylor a song she’d finished but hadn’t yet recorded: "You’ve Got a Friend." He made it a hit and, as he said on Friday, "played it every night for the rest of my life."

It established both of them. In their wake came Carly Simon, to whom Taylor was married for a decade, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens and floods of sensitive singer-songwriters.

But in the beginning it was Carole and James, and they demonstrated why on Friday night amply.

The 80-minute set ran thusly: "Blossom" — James, with Carole on piano, "So Far Away"—Carole, with James on guitar, Kortchmar’s "Machine Gun Kelly" — James, introducing the band and "Kootch," who wrote the song, in particular, Taylor’s "Carolina in My Mind" and King’s "It’s Too Late" with Carole, playing boogie-woogie piano breaks and Kootch doing searing guitar riffs, especially in Friday’s second show.

It’s amazing to think this was once a No. 1 radio hit. Nothing this sophisticated could ever survive on Top 40 now. That was followed by King’s "Smackwater Jack" and Taylor’s "Country Road," "Fire and Rain" and "Steamroller Blues."

The band took a break, and Taylor continued solo with "Something in the Way She Moves" explaining this was the song that his famous producer/manager Peter Asher (who was in the recording booth for all six shows last week) took to Paul McCartney and secured his Apple Records deal in 1968.

"George Harrison liked it so much he … [beat] … wrote it," James said, alluding to the similarities to the Beatles’ "Something" on Abbey Road from the following year. There were lots of inside joke chuckles. Taylor’s vocal phrasing is remains precise and poignant. (Careful listeners will recognize how the song also inspired Billy Joel’s early hit, "She’s Got a Way About Her.")

King followed with "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," giving credit to Goffin for the lyrics, and then got a standing ovation for a rockin’ blues version of "(You Make Feel Like a) Natural Woman."

After Taylor’s lusty blues attack on "Steamroller," King returned with "I Feel the Earth Move." The set finished with the pairs duet on "You’ve Got a Friend," "Up on the Roof" and Taylor’s "You Can Close Your Eyes."

For "Friend," Taylor — in one of several anecdotes — recalled how he’d first heard King play the song at the Troubador "standing up there" — he pointed to the mezzanine — "by that Christmas-y looking light. Carole insisted I release it before she did. I had no idea I’d be singing it every night for the rest of my life."

He added: "It’s the best pop song I’ve ever heard."

So what made this music a hit 26 years ago and work again last week? What made that woman faint? King and Taylor are often described as "soft rock," but in fact, listening to them again, this is wrong. Taylor laughed that they were once thought of as folk singers, but tried hard to avoid it.

"Assiduously," Carole added.

Thanks to the band that played on most of their albums from 1970- 77, they were neither "soft "nor folk. Their music, as shown last week, often delved into blues and R&B, sometimes using the kind of pop-jazz phrasing that eventually turned up in Joni Mitchell’s music, and that of Steely Dan, Paul Simon and Sting. For lack of a better word, there’s also a total honesty to it, also. The music and the lyrics ring true.

When those albums were released, there was no artifice, no PR campaign or marketing plan. King, Taylor et al were songwriters simply expressing themselves to their generation, to their peers, about what they were going through.

They put out an album per year, with two singles. Of course there were no such things as videos. The audience only knew what they looked like from the album covers or from live performances. The music had to be real, and it was.

Concord Records recorded the shows for video and audio but only for "archival" purposes until a formal announcement is made. The word is that if Taylor and King are both happy with finished product, releases will follow.

Certainly the timing could not be better. King is about to be part of a book coming out in April called "Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon … and the Journey of a Generation."

If the book is as juicy and fun as Weller’s current Michelle Phillips piece in Vanity Fair, all about the 1960s and '70s romances tying Phillips to Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, then we’re in a for a good read.

These pop stars were just as interesting as the current crop of Justin, Jessica, Britney, etc — only they were talented! That, you see, made all the difference in the world, and is why anyone cares about their music enough to faint more than a quarter of a century later.

Sneaks and Peeks

The magnificent Gloria Steinem at JFK, on her way back from a Ms. magazine anniversary dinner in Los Angeles over the weekend. …

Actor Matthew Modine and beautiful wife, Cari, dining at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The Modines have taken up temporary residence in the nabe as Matthew’s star is in ascendancy, thanks to his run on "Weeds." …

Sam Elliott and wife of 23 years (together for 28, thanks) Katherine Ross — she of "Butch Cassidy" fame — at the premiere last night of "The Golden Compass" at the Rainbow Room, welcoming pal (multiple) Oscar-nominee Joan Allen.

The Elliotts’ gorgeous daughter, Chloe, 23, is considering a singing career. She has the looks, that’s for sure, and the poise. Sam stars in "Compass" along side Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

He’s one of Hollywood’s unsung heroes, a great guy, and a "real" cowboy who has heavy Texas roots. …

New Line, by the way, reports an 80 percent sellout from Saturday night’s "sneak peeks" of "Compass" around the country. …

Interested in the ongoing writers’ strike? Click on www.unitedhollywood.com to get a lot of information and some entertainment, too. …