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By Jon Bream, 3-1-09

Mellow drama for Fleetwood Mac: The band leaves the soap opera -- and Sheryl Crow -- behind as it launches its first tour in five years.

Get all four members of Fleetwood Mac on the phone at the same time and the chemistry -- and roles -- are very clear.

Singer Stevie Nicks is highly talkative and aggressively opinionated. Singer/guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, her mercurial ex-lover, seems detached but thoughtful. Drummer Mick Fleetwood is the compromiser with a practical eye on the ledger, and steady bassist John McVie doesn't speak up unless Fleetwood asks him to.

The famously fractured foursome is getting along fine right now -- but Tuesday's concert in St. Paul will be only the second on their Unleashed tour.

"Lindsey has been in incredibly good humor since we started rehearsal on the 5th of January," said Nicks, 60, during a rehearsal break. "And when Lindsey is in good humor, everybody is in good humor. When he's happy, everybody's happy."

This trek will be different from any previous one by Fleetwood Mac, a British/American group that dates to 1967 in England.

"This is the first time that we've gone on the road without an [new] album," said co-founder Fleetwood, 61. "That's a whole new experience for us as a band presenting the very best that we feel we can do."

Touring without having the pressure to perform several new songs excites Buckingham, 59. "It kind of frees you up to kind of enjoy each other a little bit more as people," he said. "The mantra is really more 'Let's just have a good time' and value the friendships and the history that really underpins this whole experience that we've had over these years."

On their last tour in 2003-2004, the four principals of Big Mac didn't get along so well. With more than 135 shows, they weren't happy campers by the end.

"When we left the Say You Will tour, there was some discontent about how everything got left," Buckingham said.

That's an understatement, considering that Nicks threatened to quit after the tour.

Actually, there was tension over the recording of the new CD even before the tour started. Buckingham's heart wasn't in it. He got pulled away from a solo project to work on "Say You Will," and then he showed up with finished recordings instead of working with the full band, as Nicks did with her compositions. Since that tour, the notoriously fussy studio denizen Buckingham has released two solo albums and undertaken a solo tour.

Crow doesn't land

If Nicks was going to continue in Big Mac, she wanted another female singer as "a buffer between Lindsey and me." In March 2008, Sheryl Crow announced that she would join Fleetwood Mac, taking the spot vacated in 1998 by singer/songwriter/keyboardist Christine McVie.

But it never happened, as Nicks explained.

"We rented a studio and we hired a crew," she recalled. "We needed her to come for two or three days to just play. And it was Mother's Day, and [Crow] had invited all 300 people in her family. It was her first Mother's Day as a mom, and she said, 'I'm going to have to pass.'"

Nicks concurred with the decision, telling her close friend: "You have a new baby. You have survived breast cancer and Lance Armstrong. I don't think this is the right thing for you, Sheryl."

Fleetwood Mac's ticket prices have jumped 20 percent from the last tour -- from a top of $125 to $150 this time. Other Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acts, including AC/DC and Bruce Springsteen, are keeping their top prices under $100 in economically challenging 2009.

Can Fleetwood Mac explain the discrepancy?

"We don't do the amount of gigs that, say, a Bruce Springsteen or an AC/DC does," Fleetwood said. "We're doing 46 gigs. We're not doing 250 gigs."

Does that mean that Fleetwood Mac makes more money off a shorter tour than Springsteen or AC/DC do for a longer tour with less expensive tickets?

"I doubt it," Fleetwood said. "It's actually probably the other way around."

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719