The Indigo Girls were hugely important to me as an adolescent, when I was all “fuck the patriarchy,” looking at my baby boomer parents and teachers and seeing a lot of what I didn’t want, but couldn’t figure out what to do instead. They were queer and progressive and unpretentious and pensive and courageous, yet even they have complained about the dismissive labeling they’ve received from the press – “bleeding heart lesbian folk duo”. They’ve been totally cast off as wholesome and safe, banal music for lesbians. When I told my friends I was going to see them, they kidded with me. “Are you sure you aren’t gay, Becka? You have flannel shirts and you listen to The Indigo Girls and Neko Case and you have very, very aggressive looking glasses.” Long ago, prior to my current Age of Zero Fucks, I felt self conscious about my adoration for them, and then I realized that I, too, was falling for a common sexist musical trap.
If you compare the Indigo Girls’ career to fellow Georgians and musically similar politi-folk rockers REM, it’s easy see how much gender colors the perception of a band’s sound and commercial success. Nobody’s ever called REM “gay folk rock,” though, in spite of numerous similarities between the two bands. Calling them a “lesbian folk duo” sounds so dismissive when you consider their formidable track record over 31 years, and their expert musicianship, and their adept versatility in songwriting, ranging from acoustic folk ballads, to rock anthems with big sounds. They haven’t had a single in over a decade, and none of their singles broke the top twenty, but here they are today, selling out mid-sized venues across the nation. If you were a queer woman coming of age in the 90s, there’s a very good chance that their music helped you find your way into adulthood, and you’re probably still going to their shows.
A lot of hardcore fans talk about having seen the Indigo Girls dozens, if not hundreds of times, showing up for new songs but also to sing along with classics like “Galileo” and “Closer to Fine.” Most fans of the Indigo Girls are women, and many are part of the LGBTQ community. The Indigo Girls, famously, came out before it was common to do so. The band has said (many times, over many years) that they’re happy to be part of the good fight, except that the label implies that their music can’t stand on its own without a political identity behind it. Nothing could be farther from the truth: Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have been playing music together for over forty years, penning insightful, sometimes pointed lyrics, and meticulous arrangements.
The Indigo Girls’ backing band has changed over the years several times. The violinist, Lyris Hung, has been with them since 2012, but the others were new to this tour; there’s backup singer Lucy Wainwright, who opened for the band, and multi-instrumentalist Jordon Brooke Hammond, who also produced their last album. The sound is really engineered around Amy and Emily’s harmonies and their battalion of strings; they each switched their instruments between songs, from acoustic to electric, or to change tunings, or to pick up a banjo or mandolin. On some songs, like the fan favorite rock anthem “Land of Canaan,” they brought out electric guitars and vocal growls under their harmonies. On other songs, like the lonely, angst-ridden “Leeds,” Emily sang alone with just the violin backing her.
The songs they performed went beyond the introspective, sometimes veering into the political, such as in “Rise of the Black Messiah”, a song Amy Ray wrote about Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3. He’d reached out to many artists, asking them to bring attention to his case while he served four decades in solitary confinement. The song is about systemic racism, with references to the South’s history of lynchings, the KKK, and mass incarceration as the new Jim Crow.
Every Indigo Girls show closes with a version of “Closer to Fine”, and for this concert, they brought out members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus to provide backing harmonies. They’re known to give the mic to the audience, standing silently while a chorus of women’s voices sings the lyrics to some of their fans’ most beloved and heartfelt lyrics: “the best thing you’ve ever done for me / was to help me take my life less seriously / because it’s only life after all.“
- Bring Out the Map
- Nothing to Hide
- I Believe in Love
- Don’t Give That Girl a Gun
- Love’s Recovery
- Hammond Song (cover, original by the Roches)
- Rise of the Black Messiah
- Shame on You
- The Wood Song
- War Rugs
- Free in You
- Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters (cover, original by the Elton John)
- Learned it From Me
- Crazy Game
- Land of Canaan
- Closer to Fine (encore)
- Galileo (encore)