For any band faced with the one-more-stop, one-more-show routine that characterizes life on the road, the challenge is making each new gig as fresh as the first. But for the Indigo Girls—Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, who started playing together in high school more than three decades ago—keeping it fresh is what keeps them going. Stopping here on July 28 to play with the Chattanooga Symphony directed by Bob Bernhardt, they’re particularly psyched about their first-ever performance with an orchestra.
The only preparation they’ll have is one run-through with the orchestra the night before the concert. “We show up and do a dress rehearsal, and that’s it. It’s scary,” Saliers said in a telephone interview. The songs they’ll play—chosen from their immense catalog, as well as new material from their current album, Beauty Queen Sister—will include some fan favorite sing-a-longs.
The CSO show will be the last of their current tour, which has taken them all over the South and Midwest with a young rock/funk band. Taking their cue from Bob Dylan (whose radical re-arrangements often leave even long-time fans guessing as to which song it is), the Indigo Girls have given the band free reign to re-interpret their work. The result, according to Saliers, is reinvigorating—“like hearing the songs for the first time,” she said. The band will open the show and then back Saliers and Ray for the rest of the performance.
“You know,” said Saliers, chuckling, “You got these gorgeous 22-year-olds playing with the Indigo Girls. We’re having fun. It really is like a new thing, and our fans are loving it.”
After playing together for more than 30 years, Ray and Saliers still find stimulation in the music—and in each other. That’s at least partly due to their sharply contrasting personalities: Ray’s punky restlessness next to Saliers’ reserve.
“Amy and I are like yin and yang, and because we’re so different it keeps it interesting,” said Saliers. “I love being able to tap into [Ray’s] energy, playing and singing her songs. My energy is not as visceral and immediate and stompy as hers—I’m more reflective. I’m really glad that I get to have a partner like that. I think we’d be bored if it were any different.”
Listening to their current album, it’s easy to pick out who wrote each song. The album opens with Ray’s softly insinuating, melodic love song, “Share The Moon.” Over a warm, funky bass line Ray begins the song, her throaty vocal sweetened by Saliers’ sisterly harmony on the chorus. It’s a folk song, but with the compressed energy of a rock ballad. The lyric has an easy conversational feel, even while the words have been carefully chosen to complement the melody.
Later on, Saliers’ “Feed and Water the Horses” sounds like an undiscovered Joni Mitchell ballad from her Blue period. As the music moves beneath her at a languid pace with a funky drummer and a tolling piano, she frets over the massive cultural changes that—even as she attempts to grapple with them—shift under her feet. It’s a written by a worrier who, not surprisingly, is happiest in the company of a risk-taker who helps her maintain her equilibrium. With a wonderfully sympathetic shadow vocal, Ray gives the song the stalwart support she’s always provided for Saliers.
Listen to the early Beatles-style spring in their voices in “Making Promises.” Their voices weave in and around each other, pushing toward an ecstatic release at the end of each verse, each voice vying for the lead. It’s the companionable competition that has fuelled their three-decade partnership. But anyone who has spent time listening closely to their songs knows there’s a sting inside those gossamer harmonies.
As to which ones made the cut for the Chattanooga show, Saliers wouldn’t say. Or perhaps she and Ray aren’t yet sure. As Saliers said of their approach, “We have a lot of spontaneity. Nothing is rote, absolutely nothing is rote.”
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.
The Indigo Girls
with the CSO
Saturday, July 28
709 Broad St.