As much as any band of their era, the Indigo Girls are free to do whatever they want without worrying about critical acclaim or commercial interests. This unfettered approach makes for great live music.
It has been a long time since the Indigo Girls have been required to bother themselves with anything but their music. Their political leanings (far left), image (earthy, fashion-challenged Southern folkies) and semi-righteous artistic stance (would you want to be the studio exec who wanders in and suggests they make a hit single?) combined with a passionate, fiercely devoted fan base have thoroughly insulated the band from outside influences. They record independently now, shorn of annoying record label requirements and freed of market concerns. As much as any band of their era, the Indigo Girls can do whatever they want without worrying about critical acclaim or commercial interests.
This is a good thing for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that Amy Ray and Emily Saliers are mature, prodigious talents best left to follow their creative muse sans outside meddling. The proof is all over their second full-length live disc, Staring Down the Brilliant Dream, which effectively captures the Girls' strengths in a series of 31 songs recorded on various tours from 2006 to 2009.
Live discs are generally glorified greatest hits packages or overblown souvenirs from a band’s most recent tour. Typically, the Indigo Girls opt for an alternative strategy, using the collection as a career retrospective that captures them in various shows over the three years, patching them together in a package that doesn’t resemble any single-show setlists over that time span.
This could have been disastrous, by leading to a distracting, piecemeal feel, especially if the sound quality or energy from the performances varied considerably. It's clear, though, that Staring Down the Brilliant Dream was put together in painstaking fashion. It’s the production equivalent of the way the band's complex vocal harmonies knit together seamlessly.
It works amazingly well. In fact, more than any of their 11 studio albums, the live disc could go a long way toward attracting the uninitiated to the band’s substantial talents. It’s also a given that this package is a slam dunk for long-time fans who spontaneously sing-along to the band’s songs the same way a metal fan thrusts his fist in the air at the drop of a power chord.
Kicking off with the ska-infused "Heartache for Everyone", the set has the immediate vibe of musical adventurousness and fun. The Indigo Girls have long been associated with serious issues such gay rights, environmental causes and anti-war stances, but they are neither dour nor buzz-kills. The emphasis in their live shows is on community. That also means getting together with friends and lovers and having a good time, which Staring Down the Brilliant Dream captures both overtly and subtly.
Ray and Saliers often end the songs with what sounds like a heartfelt "Thanks, y’all", and occasionally break into laughter. They also encourage their fans to sing along, which is fortunately kept to a minimum, reducing the "Kumbaya" factor that could ruin a live recording.
The level of musicianship captured throughout the sprawling set is both impressive and daunting. The CD is spiced liberally with moments of transcendence. "Salty South" features an acoustic guitar holding down a funky rhythm that goes beyond a traditional folk strum, while a harmonica and mandolin lock into a mini musical adventure. "What Are You Like" is a powerhouse, with the vocals soaring across the song. The old warhorse "Prince of Darkness", from their first major release, is suffused with energy and complexity, the vocals weaving in and out of each other and ultimately coming together in a chill-inducing climax.
Perhaps most surprising is the ferocious rocker "Tether", with its impassioned lead vocal from Ray, roaring guitars, and timeless lyrics about the nature of war and peace in America. A pair of covers are included. Their take on Bob Dylan’s "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)" is predictable and in the band’s wheelhouse without adding much to the original. A version of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" is less successful and feels weighted down by the vocal gymnastics.
It’s tempting to cherry-pick favorites when listening to Staring Down the Brilliant Dream. Perhaps that's how it’s intended, given that the songs are taken from separate concerts over the years. The emphasis is on the individual performances rather than portraying an actual Indigo Girl concert. Perhaps tellingly, the band's traditional sing-along set-closer "Galileo" isn’t even included. Detailed liner notes are included in the set, with explanations for each of the songs that illuminate why they were chosen for the disc.
Staring Down the Brilliant Dream is neither a placeholder live album, nor a cheesy attempt to cash-in on the band's "greatest hits". It stands as a testament to a band that restlessly continues to challenge itself and its audience.