Having thoroughly enjoyed the Indigo Girls‘ performances numerous times over the past 25 years — in various settings and configurations — seeing them play on May 23 with the Nashville Symphony was an utter revelation. The splendor of Schermerhorn Hall, the elegance of the Nashville Symphony, and the enduring songs of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers converged to make for a truly spectacular evening of music.
Ray and Saliers tapped Sean O’Loughlin and Stephen Barber, respectively, to craft orchestral arrangements for their compositions with each rendering scores perfectly suited to both the songs and their creators. Generally speaking, the Ray/O’Loughlin numbers were feistier, punchier while the Saliers/Barber pieces were gentler, subtler.
Once concertmaster Jun Iwasaki took his seat, the Symphony’s assistant conductor, Vinay Parameswaran, stepped up to the podium and the Girls sauntered out, guitars in hand. The first half of the program kicked off with the parallel lead harmonies and delicate orchestral undertones of “Love of Our Lives,” after which Saliers proclaimed, “What a band!” For Ray’s “Sugar Tongue,” that band created a wondrous soundscape with hushed swells of harp and tympani mingling alongside hints of clave and woodwinds as they all played off the song’s lyrical mentions of symphonies and “the orchestra of need.” Though the drums really drive the album version of Saliers’ “Come on Home,” those duties were spread out across the whole stage here. Still, the emotional and musical power was no less present. The performance was so tenderly puissant that it left Ray cheering the musicians upon its conclusion.
Next up was a huge and wonderful surprise: “Compromise.” On the record, this is a power rock tune anchored by Me’shell NdegeOcello’s funky bass lines. Well, 180 degrees away from that, the Nashville Symphony basses served up a potent reworking supported in large part by William Wiggins’ mighty tympani. Settling things back down, Iwasaki’s violin opening strains of “The Wood Song” was met with such knowing applause that he paused to let it subside before finishing the introductory stanza, as Saliers looked on, beaming.
For “Yoke,” Ray switched to electric guitar to compliment the haunting arrangement that found the strings and horns playing off each other to great effect. The symphonic break — a violin solo on the album — was absolutely mesmerizing. After responding enthusiastically to that performance, the crowd went crazy at the first signs of “Power of Two.” There’s something so thoroughly satisfying about this song, particularly this night, that Ray couldn’t help but show her joy and appreciation with a huge smile for the audience and a round of applause for the orchestra. After a beat, she launched right into “Chickenman” and the crowd went wild. Propelled by the percussion section, the song found Ray’s voice soaring out through the hall, solid and true, cutting and clean. Saliers and the strings joined forces for a brilliant instrumental breakdown — no harmonica required. Marking the end of the first set, Saliers invited the audience to sing along and the marimba cued up a long-time crowd favorite — “Galileo.”
The second half of the program began with two stunning cuts from Swamp Ophelia, an intentionally sweeping and fiery rendition of “Fugitive” and an appropriately gentle, reflective take of “Mystery.” Those were followed by two Beauty Queen Sister tunes in the (somewhat ironically) ebullient “Able to Sing” and the pensively stirring “War Rugs.” Next up was the first-ever performance of O’Loughlin’s faultless “Virgnia Woolf” score which was received with intense gratitude by the audience. Saliers commented later that they hadn’t done it before because it seemed like too obvious of a orchestral piece. And it was, but the Nashville crew did wonders with it — the heft of the brass stirring up understated timpani crescendos. It was as impeccable as “World Falls” was evocative and “Ghost” was luscious.
To close the program, Indigo Girls went back to their roots and their 1989 eponymous effort. Here, Ray’s “Kid Fears” took on a whole new life — the harp’s ethereal flourishes lifting the song into its grown-up self which was just as sobering and solemn, but, perhaps, a bit more hopeful all these years later. And, exactly on cue, the audience filled in the vocal gap created by Michael Stipe on the record. Such was the stunning effect that a good portion of the crowd rose to its feet in response. Naturally, the entire crowd stood for the big finish of “Closer to Fine.” Ray made sure everyone knew there would be no encore because they had rehearsed only so many songs with the symphony and playing anything without them, at that point, just wouldn’t work. She added, “We tried it once. It was bad. Oppressive even.”
But this night was anything but oppressive. Joy was wonderfully obvious in both Ray and Saliers throughout the entire performance. And their genuine appreciation for Parameswaran and all of the musicians was evident in their persistent praise. By the end of the program, pretty much everyone in the room had a smile plastered across their face.
Top photo by Lori Arthur Hodges.