Alice and I went to see the Indigo Girls play a show at the Ace Hotel in Downtown LA a few weeks ago. I never know which Indigo Girls will be playing at any given show of theirs—the acoustic duo, or their band, which has consisted, varyingly over the years, of amazing players like Lisa Germano, Sara Lee, and Gail Ann Dorsey (who famously played with David Bowie). The Ace Hotel show was just the two of them, Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, and it was like magic.
The Indigo Girls have never really gotten the respect they so justly deserve. When I was trying to get friends of mine to come with me to the show, a friend told me “no thank you” in an emphatic sort of way, then asked me if I was going to sport a denim jacket to see them. I told her rather cattily that I was going to hire the Indigo Girls to play at her funeral, and that, in addition, I would handle all of the arrangements and make sure she was laid in the coffin wearing all denim. With fringe. Yes, I understand that the Girls didn’t have a cutting-edge fashion sense when they first arrived on the scene in the late 80s, but they’ve since evolved sartorially. Amy in particular. That evening, she was wearing a dark, tailored, slightly dandyish suit that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Raymond Chandler story—and Emily wore a classy blouse that, yes, could have been purchased from a Chico’s. But still.
They opened with “It’s Alright,” a kind of statement of both resolve and resignation that includes the lyrics “And it's alright if you hate that way / Hate me 'cause I'm different / You hate me 'cause I'm gay / Truth of the matter come around one day / It's alright.” They’ve always had their detractors because they’re gay; but I think the bigger issue for some is that they’re so female. Their persona as a duo is pretty gendered. They once planned a tour with other female musicians that they initially planned to call the “Rolling Thunderpussy Revue,” before settling on the name “Suffragette Sessions.” Their band is primarily composed of other women, though they do collaborate often with men. They sing songs about Virginia Woolf, songs that namecheck Hamlet’s Ophelia, songs that re-gender classic rock songs like Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet.”
What are your favorite memories of the Indigo Girls?
In the early aughts, I heard that they were playing with their full band in Marietta, Georgia, so I decided to fly there from New York to hear them play. The Girls sell out arenas when they play, but for some reason, the row I was sitting in—far, far from the stage—was completely empty. They launched into “Power of Two,” and Emily instructed the crowd to look to their left and take the hand of whoever was there. I gasped and looked to my left and there was of course no one, and that’s when I plunged into an unfathomable knowledge of the sorrow of loneliness, where I’ve pretty much been ensconced ever since.
Another time, in the 90s, I went to see the aforementioned “Suffragette Sessions” at Irving Plaza in New York City. The lights went down and then a whole gang of women I admired with an almost hopeless fanboy-ism took the stage singing a Luscious Jackson song. Kate Schellenbach sang lead, and then she sat herself down at the side of the stage and watched the rest of the show from there, mysterious as a sphinx. Lisa Germano sang “Cannonball” by the Breeders, backed by, amongst others, the Breeders’ Josephine Wiggs. A new singer named Rose Polenzani sang a song called “Or,” backed by Emily and Amy. The next day, I read a review of the show in the New York Daily News that dismissed the whole, amazing spectacle as a “bunch of women who really want to be Neil Young—and also Lisa Germano played.” The reporter called Emily and Amy “two ogres,” and a muscle throbbed in my jaw.
When I was in my late teens, I went to a Gay Pride event in Central Park, and the performers turned out to be a real rogues’ gallery of unknowns. Like, gay dj’s and gay soothsayers and such. I milled about aimlessly, unsure of how to talk to the crowds of people who presumably shared my predilection towards same-sex love. I wanted to fit in and meet people, but I didn’t even know, really, how to articulate to myself that I was gay yet, much less how to articulate it to someone else. Towards dusk, I was dehydrated and haggard, and found myself looking at the stage as two women came out and the announcer said it was the Indigo Girls, and I nearly fainted. Imagine—a major-label act who had the courage to play a Gay Pride festival! People forget, but they were among the first openly and unapologetically gay musicians in the business. Before Melissa Etheridge, before k. d. lang, before Riot Grrrl. The Indigo Girls gave me hope. They said, by playing, that it's okay that we're gay, and it's okay that you are too, and besides that, we won't take our cues from fear.
And they’ve continued to be brave. Their prescient songs address racism, consumerism, white nationalism, police brutality, and intellectual isolationism. Visit their website and you’ll be given resources to help Indigenous activists, support clean energy, support women and people living with HIV in Africa, and support activist media, among many other causes. They list their own tour dates on the site almost as an afterthought.
At the Ace Hotel, they performed a flawless set, complete with blistering rockers like “Chickenman” and “Go” (Emily Saliers definitely plays guitar better than you); crowd favorites like “Ghost” and “Power of Two”; and new ones like Emily’s “Train Inside,” from her solo record. Her voice is still gorgeous, but it’s different now, more haunted, with a quaver that I’ve never noticed. She sounded sad. But between songs, she and Amy were jovial, and spoke to the crowd as though we were all friends. There were more “Thanks, y’all”s than in an episode of “Friday Night Lights.”
One of the last songs they performed was “The Rise of the Black Messiah,” which Amy wrote after Herman Wallace, one of the “Angola Three,” wrote her a letter after his release from prison, thanking her for her activism against mass incarceration. Herman had been in solitary confinement in prison after he was accused and convicted of murder—with no physical evidence linking him to the crime. He spent an unbelievable 41 years in solitary. It would be tricky for any white performer to perform a song like this, but because the Indigo Girls have been performing songs like this for decades, they have the moral authority to do so.
I wondered how they would follow the dark horror of “The Rise of the Black Messiah,” how they could possibly turn the crowd’s energy into hope by the end of the show. I needn’t have wondered—they simply launched into “Galileo” and everyone in the crowd was screaming and crying with release. After they left the stage, I got a little overstimulated and started yelling at everyone: “Thanks, y’all!”, “Thanks, y’all!” and Alice moved quickly away to find her mother, who was ahead of us in the crowd. I can be a handful when I’m overstimulated.