I’ve been an Indigo Girls fan since 1990, when a girlfriend gave me Closer to Fine on a mix tape. I followed their music–in recordings only–through their next two or three albums, and then on and off over the ones after that, but I’ve kept listening to those 1990s songs. I can sing along with most of their first record and Nomads, Indians, Saints. I love many of those songs, and think the rest are OK. So they were just a band to me, until last night. I had the sense that they were good in live shows, but that vague understanding didn’t approximate the reality: in recordings the Indigo Girls are really good–deeper, more meaningful music than most of what’s been out there for three decades–but in person they make sense. All sorts of things come together with a satisfying clicking sensation. Before last night I did not even quite know the difference between Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, but now it’s impossible not to know, and understand, that difference.
Their first number, Faye Tucker, was like a welcome–and revealing–punch in the gut. Emily laid down riff after riff of gritty folk (on her electric banjo?) while Amy drawled out the story. Then she howled, shouted, growled, and screamed the story with its accusations and pain. I’ve seen IG on video, and something is lost in the recording. Actually, almost everything is lost in the recording. If you watch Amy Ray on video, you might see that her motions sometimes seem awkward and at other times she just doesn’t seem to do anything except play and sing (which is enough). However, when I was watching her in person I could not look away. She had a presence that doesn’t quite come through in recordings. She was fully compelling, every second she was on stage. she poured the songs out with agony, anger, angst, and even tenderness. Then, after each three-to-five-minute transformation, she said, almost shyly, “Thanks, y’all.” The audience’s screams weren’t just those of northerners hearing a Georgia accent; the brief window into someone’s passion had just re-closed, with some nice gingham curtains. The friendly humility was like a dollop of ice cream after a scalding-hot slice of rhubarb pie.
Emily, for her part, seemed like she belonged in a trio with Jimmy Page and Jack White. Actually, I would pay to see It Might Get Loud with her replacing The Edge. Her fingerstyle, of course, was great–lush, precise, intricate, and always right on the money, whether on guitar or banjo. Her development as an instrumentalist was evident when she played older tunes and had to dial it back for their simpler guitar parts. In the less acoustic numbers, she full-on shredded. Alex said she looked like a plump suburban mom, and she did, but that mom was cranking out hooks and riffs that make 3/4 of the currently working rock guitarists the industry look clumsy, unsophisticated, or both. She expertly and effortlessly wove together solos and fill in half a dozen styles or more. Her singing, which has never really been my favorite part of the IG experience, was sweet and, with age, has developed matronly bluegrassy vibrato. Every Indigo Girls song I say “meh” to on CD became Absolutely Worth Listening To when I heard it live.
They played some of my personal favorites list: Hammer and a Nail and Kid Fears (which was a-ma-zing!), and, of course, Closer to Fine. Surprisingly, they also hooked me on some new ones–I’m especially thinking of Spread the Pain Around and Rise of the Black Messiah. I have not been a fan of many of their tender love songs–possibly because I’m not their main demographic? I dunno–and I’ve been (vocally, annoyingly) critical of their rendition of Dire Straits‘ 80s anthem Romeo & Juliet, but seeing Amy do it live last night made me a believer. The Dire Straits original has always been missing something, trying to do too much with one song, maybe. I’ve always thought Amy Ray’s rendition filled in some of that missing I-don’t-know-what, but was too over-the-top, too angsty, leaned too heavily on all the dramatic moments. It was melodrama. OK, so it still is melodrama but, like everything else, it worked live. It worked hard. It was amazing. I found out today that they crossed Three Hits off the set list to put R & J in, so I’m kind of conflicted, because Three Hits is one of my favorites, but you can’t have everything you want in a concert.
At the end of the night, after all the stuff about Amy’s stage presence, Emily’s virtuosity, and the always-good but occasionally-brilliant songwriting, I’m left with three impressions more general than those: first, the Indigo Girls have been doing this for a long time, and they’re very, very good at it. They don’t make mistakes, which is pretty amazing for two hours of performance, though it’s not surprising in the realm of musicians who have been touring for 30 years. Their harmonies are tight (or intentionally not) in ways some other bands really should envy. Their rhythm is precise, impeccable. Everything is a well-oiled machine. Second, despite the above, nothing seemed mechanical, and maybe that’s even more amazing than the professionalism of their delivery. Everything seemed passionate and immediate, fresh as it ever was. I don’t know how someone sings a song ten thousand times, even if it’s a great one like Closer to Fine, and keeps that quality, but they did. Third, the things they sing about–mostly relationships and social justice issues–are things they seem to care about, and always have. I will be very surprised if anyone ever finds anything non-authentic about the way they approach these things. They’ve been doing this for decades, and they seem to “walk the walk” as well; their professional involvements and actions seem to reflect personal investment in the issues they sing about. Maybe that is part of why their delivery seems perfectly authentic.
Finally, I think I understand something about IG, which hit me like a hammer in their first number, though I’m struggling to find the words to express it concisely: although they sing about relationships and epiphanies, they aren’t in any way navel-gazing songwriters, or even on-the-ground hippies. They are something much more like down-home Georgia blues and bluegrass musicians. They aren’t the kind of folk singers who hold drum circles and pray for world peace–no, that’s not right, because I think they would do those things–what I mean is that, I now think in their core, they are the kind of folk singers who play banjos and mandolins not because it became trendy a decade ago but because that’s what their grandpas and grandmas played. When they sing about family and community, they have specific people in mind. They’re the kind of folk singers who sing about peace and love but also, and always in the context of, injustice, pain, and death. They’re absolutely not The Association or The Kingston Trio. They’re less Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez than they are Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ralph Stanley, and Emmylou Harris.