After over two decades and eight studio albums together, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, known to their legion of fans as Indigo Girls, have played thousands of shows. They've operated within the music industry, without ever being a product of that industry, gaining the respect of their peers, not to mention an extremely loyal fanbase. It's an audience that most artists would envy: one that eagerly awaits new music from the duo, and greets older songs like old friends. Fans often go to multiple shows per tour, and never leave the gig until the final note rings out, and the house lights go on. Regardless of which way the pop culture breezes are blowing, who is topping the pop charts, who is dominating fashion magazine covers, or who is getting played on the radio, Indigo Girls' concert experience remains a constant. Catch a show in any given city in America and you will understand the meaning of an enduring artist-audience bond and it has been developed without marketing gurus, corporate tie-ins or spin doctors. Indigo Girls have thrived through flirtations with the mainstream as well as when the media spotlight was pointed elsewhere. But one recent show - on August 14, 2003 at the Central Park Summerstage in New York City - truly revealed volumes about the duo and their relationship with their fans.
You may recognize the date: it was the day that Manhattan, along with much of the Northeastern United States and Canada, lost all electrical power. It's safe to say that the scheduled concerts in the affected areas did not go on as planned. Acts were either unwilling, or unable, to perform without power.
Not so for Indigo Girls: all that they required to play as scheduled was a small generator and a request for everyone to get a bit closer to the stage. Even that might cause problems for other artists: asking fans to cram even closer together, on a muggy evening. But Indigo Girls fans respect each other, just as they respect Amy and Emily .
So the show went on, at least until sundown. (Neither Indigo Girls nor security wanted the fans to try to make their way through a pitch-dark Central Park at night). Other than the brevity of the set and the temporary power source, it was an Indigo Girls show, "as usual," meaning an unpredictable set list with old favorites and songs yet to be recorded. Alongside some of their better known songs ("Become You," "Galileo," "Closer To Fine"), they introduced some tunes from their next album, "Fill It Up Again" and "Dairy Queen." Most artists with a two-decade plus history have a hard time keeping audience interest when they play new songs; few would even dare to play as-yet-unreleased material, for fear of a mass-restroom exodus. Again, not so with the Girls. While the rest of the city was wondering when the power would go on, the temporary denizens of Central Park were wondering how long they'd have to wait before the release of the new Indigo Girls album.
The wait is over with All That We Let In. The credits on the new album are similar to those of 2002's Become You. The Indigo Girls returned to Tree Sound Studios in Georgia, and, again, used producer Peter Collins and the core band of keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Carol Issacs, bass player Clare Kenny and drummer Brady Blade. Not that the Girls don't embrace change: for the first time, Amy - who up to this point, played strictly rhythm guitar - started taking some solos. "I'm learning to play lead," she says. "When I hear something in my head, I want to play it the way I hear it," adding, inaccurately, "I'm not a very good guitar player."
Meanwhile, Saliers, who has played dobro, banjo, bouzouki, classical guitar, piano and hurdy gurdy and guitar on prior albums, made her mandolin and high-string guitar debuts on the). She points out, with typical humility, "I have an aptitude for stringed instruments."
Of the eleven songs on All That We Let In, six were written by Emily, five by Amy. Emily's "Fill It Up Again" kicks off the album. An empowering and upbeat song, Saliers explains "It's about a relationship gone sour, and one person says, 'I'm out of here!' It's about someone taking your strength and power from you, and then you say 'I'm not going to do this anymore.'" Combining matters of the heart with her innate environmental concerns, she compares her partner to "the hole in my sky, my shrinking water supply," to which she comments, "It's fun to take something like the ozone layer and compare it to a relationship!" But she muses, "I guess it's appropriate sometimes."
Amy's "Heartache For Everyone" has a two-tone ska feel and was originally intended for her second solo album. "I was thinking of The Clash, I listen to them a lot. They way I would have done it with one of my punk backing bands would have been similar, but maybe a bit more raw." The yearning in the lyrics are raw enough: "I'll give you six more weeks, just in case, you can change your mind, you won't be replaced/ Are we looking at a lifetime of regret, or just one little moment that we'll never forget."
Emily follows that up with a much happier relationship song, "Free In You." "It's just a straight up love song. It takes into account all our insecurities. And how someone can love you even through those. And how when you find the right person, it's just like breathing. It's just a straight-ahead love song."
On first single "Perfect World," Amy balances concern as a global citizen with having fun in her personal life. "It's about having a good time, and not paying attention to what's going on in the world. And then realizing that you can't do that. You have a responsibility to be accountable."
The title track, written by Emily, had a tragic beginning: "I started that song after losing an activist friend in a car accident and being devastated. And dealing with that loss. It's a positive song in the end; I am optimistic by nature."
"Tether," by Amy, would be a staple on classic rock radio if the format played new music, that is. Featuring the aforementioned duel guitar leads by Amy and Emily, it also features vocals by Joan Osborne. Joan, one of the most distinctive and powerful vocalists alive, currently splits her time between her solo career and singing in The Dead, but she made time to lay down vocals on this song as well as "Rise Up" and "Heartache For Everyone." She also sang on four songs on 1999's Come On Now Social. As Emily points out, "She blends my and Amy's voices together in a way that's unique to the three of us."
Emily's "Come On Home" is unusually dark. "It involves betrayal, a person who runs, a person who 'enables'. There is nothing positive about that song at all!" Amy follows that with "Dairy Queen," an unusually upbeat breakup song: "The love you gave was not for free, but the price was truly fair." It concludes with Ray admitting, "I love you, more and more."
"Something Real" sees Emily in a nostalgic mood. "It took me ten years to call you back, but here we are today," she tells her friend. "So life has brought you this, two marriages and three kids/You're as sweet as you ever were, the slight sickness of regret, washes over me and in the end that's all I get." It may well stand as Emily's most poignant moment as a lyricist.
Amy's "Cordova" is even more melancholy, and has been about five years in the making. About a few of Amy's fellow activists in the Native American community, by the time the song was completed, three of them had, tragically, passed away. "It seems revolution and relationships go hand in hand," she says. "You're working so closely together and then you fall in love, but you don't know if you're falling in love with the person or the revolution. The human dynamics of the revolution fascinate me. There's lots of human frailty. It's not perfect."
Emily's "Rise Up" ends the album on a very upbeat note, fueled by Carol Isaacs's rollicking Elton-esque piano ("I had Elton in mind," Emily says). The Girls sing, in unison, "Rise up your dead, there's life in the old girl yet." To apply the song to the not-very-old Indigo Girls, if this album is any indication, there's lots of life yet, and lots of ground still to cover.
They plan to hit the road this spring, doing a string of dates in their acoustic duo format (although anyone who attends their shows knows that guests, both famous and otherwise, frequently grace the stage at Indigo Girls concerts - there are usually at least three vocal mikes set up on their stage, just in case). After that, they'll pack up the band and do a larger scale tour in the summer. Expect to see voter registration booths and tabling on issues such as environmental justice at the venues. And, after that, they plan on releasing their long-talked about album of rarities - the track list will be made largely based on suggestions from fans. Then, Amy may release her second solo album, and Emily is considering doing her first. After that, another Indigo Girls record and tour. It'll be "business as usual," so to speak - more songs to augment their already-packed catalog, and more concert dates to reconnect with the older fans and to meet new ones. They've been going that way for about two decades, and they've got a few more left in them.
A post-script to the story that began this bio: despite the fact that they performed during the blackout, the Indigo Girls returned to Central Park to "make-up" their abbreviated show on October 1st. This time, the autumn chill replaced the heat, humidity, and blackout-caused stress. The crowd was treated to a 20-plus song set, including nearly half of All That We Let In, as well as songs spanning the duo's career, and a cover of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'." It's true, the times do change, pop culture is always evolving, music tastes ebb and flow, but one of the few constants in rock and roll is that when the Indigo Girls play a show, or put out a record, their fans will still be there - regardless of trends in the industry, weather conditions, or yes, even power outages.