Despite a cultural consciousness that is more comfortable categorizing Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of folk-pop duo the Indigo Girls as lesbian-identified relics of the early 90s and the rise of the Lilith Fair generation, ask any fan who has seen the Girls in the past ten years and they’ll all say the same thing-- that the Indigo Girls have lost nothing in their artistic momentum. Rather, through constantly touring, recording albums that focus on their songwriting strengths while each time slightly pushing the envelope, and then finally bringing in new voices to add to their palette both on tour and on record, Ray and Saliers have fought obsolescence, and they’ve won.
Their recent show at Slim’s in San Francisco offered a new permutation to the Girls’ summer touring regimen, which usually involves a set more focused on the highlights of their catalogue, dipping back all the way to the late 1980s. This time around, The Girls brought Atlanta-based rock outfit The Shadowboxers on the road, to serve as the opening act and then the Girls’ backing band. Founding members Matt Lipkins, Adam Hoffman and Scott Schwartz met while at Emory University, where they made a connection with Emily Saliers, who has since help champion the band. They’re a strapping collection of five young men, but the best part about it is that they’re all wildly talented guys with winsome personalities, and they’ve positively invigorated the Indigo Girls’ live show, which while perfectly fantastic on its own this summer has shown its potential for wonderful new growth.
Opening with “Least Complicated,” which has been relatively rare over the last decade, the Girls immediately pulled in the crowd, who enthusiastically sang back in response. In many ways, this song would lay the framework for the evening, which was essentially a night full of mirth, collaboration and exhilaration. It’s all there, too, in the song: the opening build into the second verse, strong sing-a-long melody, joyful interplay between melody and harmony, the separating of audience members to Amy Ray and Emily Saliers vocal lines and then in the end an exuberant chant to close the song. Not to push the conceptual similarities too far, but what they’ve done by opening with the song is basically announce that this show would be both similar and different to what longtime fans have come to expect, but above all to hold on because it’s gonna be a fun and wild ride.
For the most part, the setlist was a smart assortment of songs from the last thirty years, with a definite emphasis on the last decade, but not annoyingly so. While the inclusion of “War Rugs” and “Making Promises” showed some of the cloying and repetitive tendencies that they’re fallen prey to, songs like “Gone,” “Digging For Your Dream” and “Share The Moon” demonstrated their ability to use the Indigo Girls traditional aesthetic and successfully delve into slightly new territory. These songs also benefited from having more voices to give depth to their R&B and country-flavored arrangements.
Photo Credit: Joan Bowlen
It’s probably always going to be the case that the big hits from the 80s and 90s get the largest applause, so the passionate response to songs like “Shame On You,” “Wood Song,” “Galileo,” “Get Out The Map” and “Closer To Fine” was nothing new, but somehow the Girls are mostly able to make those songs, which they play almost every night, seem fresh and new. Wood Song in its stripped-down, solo acoustic form was downright heartbreaking (as was “Ghost,” for that matter), but the extra drums, bass, guitar and harmony vocals turned “Shed Your Skin,” “Tether” and “Go” into all-out frenzies.
Amy’s solo offering, “Let It Ring,” off of her 2005 album Prom, was a fitting tribute to Pride week in San Francisco, and she performed it with a visceral drive and palpable force. But it was the closing song, a cover of Bob Dylan’s classic “Tangled Up In Blue,” that really tore the house down. Some will remember that the Girls put this song on their first major live album, the 2-CD collection 1200 Curfews from 1995, and it’s retained much of the same form (especially with the breakdown, bass-driven section near the end, which finds Saliers belting out a verse in a sultry and powerful swagger). But what was so great about this version was that the Girls let each singing member of The Shadowboxers take on a verse, making it a real group effort, and thus elevating the boys above the standard “backing band” status and into the realm of true musical peers.
It’s this sort of benevolence that has propelled Amy Ray and Emily Saliers forward since they first began singing professionally. You’d be hard-pressed to find a musician that has shared the stage with them who could claim some major grievance; rather, the Indigo Girls have made it a point to champion new and young voices. They’re very much to thank for the meteoric rise of Brandi Carlile in the last six years, and they’ve also been incredible mentors to other folk-pop groups such as Girlyman, Coyote Grace, Michelle Malone and others. But what the Girls showed by bringing The Shadowboxers on tour and fully integrating them in their own set was their willingness to shake things up, try some new sounds but above all have fun and share in the magic of music-making. And again, you’d be hard-pressed to find an audience member who didn’t get pulled in by that sort of magnetism from their show at Slim’s. Hopefully we’ll see Amy Ray and Emily Saliers again on the road soon, and no doubt they’ll have some new tricks up their sleeves.
Setlist Least Complicated Heartache For Everyone Gone Beauty Queen Sister Cold Beer and Remote Control Shed Your Skin Get Out The Map Share The Moon Wood Song (solo) Making Promises Trouble War Rugs Fill It Up Again Shame On You Ghost (solo) Go Love Of Our Lives Moment of Forgiveness Closer to Fine Tether Galileo
Encore: Digging For Your Dream Let It Ring (Amy Ray solo) Tangled Up In Blue (Bob Dylan cover)