I’ve been to Indigo Girls concerts in four different states, and seen them in all sorts of venues – everything from small clubs to performing arts halls to a college gymnasium and outdoor concert pavilions. The experience, though, is always the same. The Girls are low-key, gracious, and possibly more talented with each and every album. The fans are similarly casual and grateful simply for the opportunity to sit and listen, and occasionally sing along. No matter how many people, or how big the room, it feels intimate and somehow precious.
The current tour, in support of the album Become You, felt like more of everything to me. Sitting on the steeply sloping lawn high in the bowl of the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, CA, I watched a little girl dance and clap off to one side of the stone-terraced seating below, her too-blond ponytail swinging wildly while women I assumed to be her mother and partner watched and laughed with her. The stage was bare of props. The security was almost non-existent. The lights of San Francisco struggled to shine against the usual haze of the Bay, and the Girls sang every single song as if they meant every word. It was a most intense peace.
In keeping with the musical movement toward rock, bluegrass, or rockabilly, the Girls have picked up new instruments over the years. Amy Ray has taken to the mandolin in the last couple of years like it was an extension of her arm. Emily Saliers shares equal time with her banjo, and both women change guitars as frequently as the rest of us breathe. Joining them onstage was the band behind Become You: Clare Kenny on bass guitar, Brady Blade on drums, and Carol Isaacs on piano/accordion/penny whistle. For the Bay Area show, there was also a guest cellist, who played beautifully and seemed stunned by his good fortune the entire time he was onstage.
The show took a running start with “Bitterroot,” and despite the relative newness of the material – half the set list was new, I’d wager – the crowd sang along as if it were one voice. Older material, like “Power of Two,” “Shame on You,” “Watershed” and “Least Complicated,” have been on the set list almost continually since their respective albums came out. But somehow, no matter how many times I hear them performed, they never sound the same.
It’s more than the addition of show-opener Vonda Shepherd to the classic “Closer to Fine.” If it’s possible, Amy’s voice has gotten more raw and abused, while Emily’s has smoothed out and gained a higher octave on her range. “Kid Fears” highlighted this slight evolution, even as the crowd covered Michael Stipe’s harmonies from the original recording (the link, I feel, that made this song so stirring).
The new music was truly the highlight for me. “Yield” and “Become You” fit right in to the older stuff like they’d always been there, and the crowd treated them as such. “Collecting You,” “Deconstruction” and “Moment of Forgiveness” were perhaps most notable for the way the crowd grew still and attentive, listening with parted lips, arms wrapped around the person standing nearest by. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that “Starkville” marked the halfway point exactly, and that I might have bruised my friend in an attempt to convey how much I love it.
The encore was somewhat a mystery. Given that traditional concert-ending numbers “Galileo” and “Closer to Fine” appeared earlier in the night, I couldn’t begin to guess what they’d wrap up with. Emily’s duet with Vonda, “Baby Don’t You Break My Heart Slow,” was gorgeous. Never a particular fan of Vonda’s, I’ll be running out post-haste to buy her album, just to play this song over and over. “Midnight Train to Georgia” has always been my favorite cover, ever. “Go,” a nondescript song from Come On Now Social, ended the show.
What I had forgotten in my recent foray into the land of enormous, glittery pop music shows is that sometimes (most times) concerts are just about the music. After decades of touring, the Indigo Girls still seem amazed that so many women look up to them and love them, and after each song they let us know with a heartfelt, “Thanks y’all.” Singer-songwriters like the Girls can stand almost perfectly still onstage for two hours, wearing something grabbed from the bottom of their closets, and the music is all that matters. It’s enough.