Just before Indigo Girls took the stage for the first show of a two-night stand at Scottish Rite Auditorium, a friend who’d seen them six weeks earlier texted some words of warning: “Poor Emily. At least you’ll have memories of when she could sing.” And with that, I couldn’t help but be sensitive to what might have changed since I last saw Emily Saliers, Amy Ray and violinist Lyris Hung.
I needn’t have worried. So maybe Saliers’ voice wasn’t quite as supple on “Love Will Come To You” as when she recorded the song for 1992’s Rites Of Passage. But nearly 30 years on, she sounded comfortable and comforting, hopeful and wise. Maybe her vocals were a bit ragged on “Pendulum Swinger.” But the way half-spoken words like “glistening” and “gunslingers” tumbled from her mouth seemed positively Dylanesque. Maybe she delegated some of the work, handing off one verse of “Closer To Fine” to opener Bitch and inviting the crowd to take another; in fact, the audience sang lead for part of the Girls’ first song of the night (“Least Complicated”) and their last (“Galileo”), and it was our pleasure.
And maybe you could hear Saliers pushing her once-effortless vocals on “Cold Beer And Remote Control” and even straining a bit on newer songs like “Country Radio” and “When We Were Writers,” both from last year’s Look Long. But her keening only added to the sense of yearning and reminiscing, and when she and Ray fell into their inimitable harmonies or braided countermelodies, the magic was just as I remembered it.
One thing that wasn’t exactly as I remembered it was Saliers’ guitar playing. It was better than ever, responsible for one highlight after another: the fluidity of “The Wood Song,” a righteous rendition of “Go,” a killer cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer.” “Land Of Canaan” had mighty harmonies and thrilling countermelodies, but Saliers’ ecstatic guitar brought it all home.
Early in the set, the woman in front of me shouted, “I love you, Em!” Recognizing the admirer as a longtime friend from Philly, Saliers sent love back her way. After a beat, the woman shouted again: “Love you, too, Amy!”
Ray shrugged off the pause: “People think they have to be even with us, but we don’t care. Anymore.”
In three decades of listening to Indigo Girls, I’ve usually been guilty of sending more love in Ray’s direction. Within the duo and on her own solo albums, she’s got the punk-rock spirit and gruffness I relate to more than Saliers’ softer, gentler demeanor. At the Scottish Rite Auditorium, Ray didn’t disappoint. “Happy In The Sorrow Key” naturally channeled her gruffness into an impassioned performance. Mandolin-centered songs like “Get Out The Map” and “Gone Again” and Look Long’s “Howl At The Moon” revealed the tenderness just beneath her spiky exterior. The rootsy “Starkville” and “Holler” (the set’s only solo song) showed how good the deep cuts are.
Best of all, “Shit Kickin’,” the last of the four Look Long songs the trio played, provided the perfect canvas for considering what’s changed and what hasn’t for Ray and Saliers since they met as girls in suburban Atlanta in the 1970s and paved the way for gay kids with something to say over the past 40-plus years of their musical partnership. They’ve been invisible and hypervisible, heartthrobs and punchlines, lazy shorthand for critics who reduce them to one dimension and can’t understand all that they represent in a musical landscape where their existence is so necessary and yet so marginalized.
And if they sound like middle-aged women who fall in and out of uncanny harmonies, flawlessly execute the muscle memory of one-of-kind countermelodies and occasionally stretch for a note that’s no longer in reach, all while running their roadie ragged with the arsenal of instruments they play the hell out of, then hell yeah! Experiencing what Saliers and Ray are capable of now is even more rewarding than reliving memories of what they could do seven or 27 years ago.
Bitch kicked off the evening with a mischievous set of stories and violin-and-synthpop ditties about nature, capitalism and Brett Kavanaugh, including “Hello Meadow!,” “Polar Bear,” “You’re The Man” and “Easy Target” from her forthcoming album Bitchcraft, due in February on Kill Rock Stars.
—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich