The Indigo Girls (with Spearhead and Rose Pelanzaro)

Indigo Girls

There’s no denying the fact that there is almost always something magical in the air during a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrisson, Colorado. Perhaps it’s the gigantic, earthen-red igneous rocks jutting out of the otherwise humble foothills at the base of the Rockies. Maybe it’s the view, sitting nearly 8,000 feet above sea level and facing out towards a distant Denver and the Colorado eastern plains. Or perhaps it’s the fact that Mother Nature is always adding her own effects to shows at the world famous venue. Most likely, it’s all of the above, and more.

It’s certainly one of the highlights of touring for the Indigo Girls. The Indigos have had enormous success with shows at Red Rocks. They’ve played the amphitheater frequently in the past decade, each time managing to sell out shows, or at the very least packing the enormous stands at the last minute. A version of their popular “Ghost” recorded live at Red Rocks made its way onto their live album, 1200 Curfews, a truly stunning collection of tracks recorded at various times and places throughout the Indigo Girls’ career. And as Emily Sailers, one half of the duo, said during the show on their most recent stop at Red Rocks, “This is one of our favorite places to play.” For a cool 360 degree Web tour, check out the official Internet site.

It wasn’t hard to see why. There’s a large contingent of Indigo Girls fans in the vicinity, for one thing, including the notoriously folksy Boulder, Colorado area and the large gay and lesbian community housed in Denver. Then there’s the sheer spectacle of playing to a raised wall of thousands of people who know all the words. And let’s not forget Mother Nature.

She showed up in full elemental regalia this year. After a scorching 96 degree (F) sunny day, clouds began rolling over the mountains as it approached show time. As people milled about purchasing expensive microbrews (no cheap swill at Red Rocks!) and deciding which T-shirt to shell out for, the wind picked up slowly and steadily. Once the stagehands had the first opener ready to go, a light drizzle began. Then flashes of lightning and thunderclaps had the audience cheering in anticipation.

The show opened with Rose Pelanzaro’s Indigo-esque song stylings. A sweet voiced newcomer; she would have made a nice start to the show, if it hadn’t been for equipment failures that rendered her guitar mute. It was hard not to feel her pain at the discomfort of being caught off-guard in front of nearly 10,000 strangers. Fortunately, Pelanzaro was able to recover and pulled out a startlingly soulful rendition of “‘Til There Was You” from The Music Man. She also won my wife’s affection for asking the audience, “Who already has their copy of the new Harry Potter book?” (which my wife does) and then singing a tune inspired by one of the series’ magical characters.

The rain continued unabated, but was still light enough to keep people in their seats, however, the wind picked up and began blowing full force up the side of the foothills. People spent cash left and right on flimsy temporary ponchos that the theater sold in the aisles like pretzel and beer. As the wind intensified and the rain continued, the expanse of the seating area looked like it was filled with a rainbow of cheap Teletubbies costumes. I, for one, welcomed the breeze and cooling rain after the heat of the day, and true to the spirit of the Indigo Girls, there was something cleansing in the intensity of the elements and the flashes of lightning.

The stage lit up again for Spearhead as dusk settled and I settled in for an unexpected treat. I’ve been a fan of Michael Franti ever since his days heading up the Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy, and after hearing a few Spearhead tracks I’ve become convinced that Franti is a genius. Hearing them live was not a disappointment. In fact, if you get the chance to see a Spearhead show near you, drop everything and go. A full band with live musicians, each exceptionally talented in their own right, gives Franti’s heavy rhythms and powerful messages the backing they need. Plus, the more soul-oriented sound of Spearhead gives Franti’s music a more positive spin. The hard-hitting politics of the Disposable Heroes have metamorphosed into a positive message that’s both eloquent and beautiful. Franti’s energy was palpable throughout the arena, and even if it took bringing out the Indigos in true Lilith Fair fashion to really get the audience up and moving, Spearhead was able to represent.

But, of course, the real story here was the Indigo Girls. The rain continued unabated as we waited (hmmm, Franti’s rhymes must have seeped in from somewhere…) for the roadies to get the stage set up. That’s when the confluence of elements really struck me. The wind, the rain, the rocks…. The only thing that was conspicuously absent was fire (not counting anything the lightning might have set). Thanks to a family seated next to me consisting of a couple with a child and an elderly woman, I was unable to smoke in my seat and had to make frequent trips to “smoker friendly” areas. I respect the health and wishes of others who don’t like smoke, but this is an open air amphitheater and there were scatterings of people smoking all around this family, but because we happened to be right next to them, my wife and I were singled out. However, this lack of fire and unfortunate seating turned out to be a good thing as the show got underway.

Once the stage went dark and the Indigo Girls finally made their way in front of the crowd, the evening began to crackle with the energy that had been building. Amy Ray and Emily Sailers had graced the stage earlier, acting as impromptu MCs for their opening acts and covering introductions, but it was not until the power of their music was behind them that they seemed larger than life. The beauty of the Indigo Girls live is that the music feels pure. Everything is clean, precise, and measured, yet powerful and vibrant and alive. There is no denying that Emily and Amy, as well as their supporting cast of characters in their full band, are consummate musicians. And there is no denying that their best energy is not the recorded material, which is often hauntingly intimate, but the communal experience and the envelopment of 10,000 people by their wrap-around-the-heart sound.

Their set included some tunes off their latest release, Come On Now Social, including “Gone Again” and a rocking, chest thumping rendition of “Faye Tucker,” as well as past favorites. Of course they played, “Closer to Fine,” getting the crowd to sing along perfectly to the third chorus. “Love’s Recovery” was as touching as ever, “Shame on You” had everyone grooving, and “Get Out the Map” got me even more psyched for my impending road trip from Denver to South Carolina.

Back to my sob story about smoking. The inability to enjoy a cigarette from my assigned seat ultimately afforded me the greatest opportunity to enjoy the show. We not only had the previously mentioned family on one side, but another family on the opposite side who seemed to enjoy the music but never really feel it (the anti-smoking family sat through the whole thing). On top of that, there was “That Guy” dancing right behind us, the one who knows all the words, is obviously a fan, but can’t understand what’s wrong with shouting (not singing…shouting) the words along with the music. So we got up and left. And that’s when it became an Indigo Girls show.

I would be remiss to ever write a review of and Indigo Girls concert without ever mentioning the community of support the band has gathered to them. Yes, the Indigo Girls have publicly announced that they are gay. Yes, the shows draw an enormous amount of lesbian and bisexual women to the stands. And yes, it is family. The gay and lesbian support structure is not the only element to the Indigo Girls fan base by any means. There were a great number of M/F couples in attendance, as well as groups of folksy, hippie-ish, or granola mountain yuppie guys everywhere as well. But it was the women that made the difference. An Indigo Girls show is a de facto celebration of femininity, both gay and straight, and the feeling of inclusion, community, pride, and openness was as present at this show as it has been at any other.

My wife and I moved away from our assigned seat to find a place to smoke and found a spot in a little copse of trees that still had view of the stage. Here a few lesbian couples, a few straight couples, and an assortment of individuals whose preferences weren’t on display surrounded us (and it couldn’t have mattered less). Not only that, but they were smokers! No, I’m not saying that smokers are the true audience for the Indigos (it would be next to impossible for Amy or Emily to smoke and still sing so amazingly), but we were not ostracized here either. And every one of the people around us was dancing, smiling, holding hands or each other, singing and experiencing the community of fans.

One of the most intimate moments was Emily’s acoustic turn on “Philosophy of Loss,” which she began with a shout out to family in attendance and then proceeded into an explanation of her intent with the song, noting the hypocrisy of official church doctrines that condemn gays and won’t allow them into congregations. The highlight of the show was the ever-present cover version of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” another favorite from the 1200 Curfews disc, and this time it rivaled the disc version with its inclusion of Spearhead’s full band and Franti on male lead vocal.

The only disappointment in the show was that the Indigos played a fairly short set. It seemed to be a combination of the touchy weather early on in the show and the fact that there were two openers, but they just crossed over an hour and were already in violation of the curfew restrictions placed on bands at Red Rocks. Although not enough to make it a bad show by any means, it was disappointing all the same, all the more so when the Indigos were forced to cut their encore down to one song, the excellent “Gallileo.” As we climbed down the hill to our car, I overheard one person say that it must get tiring to go out and do it year after year, the same songs over and over. I hope that had nothing to do with the length of the set, because from where I stood (the second time) the energy was as strong and pure as ever.

All said and done, as I waited in the line of traffic to leave the theater, I decided that, abbreviated or not, it was just the excellent experience I needed it to be. We convened with Nature, got a little wet, and listened to amazing music. We felt the intimacy of strangers pulled to a common note, and harmonized with 10,000 people. It was everything it always had been. It was the Indigo Girls.