Opening for the Grateful Dead at Autzen Stadium in the ultraliberal collegiate hamlet of Eugene, Oregon, is tantamount to staring across the net at one of the Williams sisters in an early round at Wimbledon. You may play well, but you're probably never going to win much more than cursory applause. It's an even taller order when you're the Indigo Girls, a couple of lesbian folk singers from the Peachtree State whose reliance on stripped-down strums and harmony would seem to put them at stylistic odds with Captain Garcia and his tricksters' psychedelic joyride.
But an oft-overlooked characteristic of the Dead faithful is that they were remarkably open-minded, able to appreciate many genres of music, including but not limited to that of the Indigo Girls. The crowd drenched the Dead's brave warm-up act with waves of vocal affection. On August 22, 1993 -- beneath a merciless sun on the Dead's Northwest home field -- Amy Ray and Emily Saliers struck just the right chord, drawing heavily from their platinum-selling Rites of Passage while interspersing just the right number of timeworn ditties into their setlist.
The Indigos' performance was so pitch-perfect and mesmerizing that nary the flicker of a bong-bound lighter could be heard on Autzen's Astroturf that day. The Dead crowd simply wouldn't let Ray and Saliers leave Eugene without an encore, an almost unprecedented gesture of support for a duo whose previous definition of success revolved around how many pints of Pabst the patrons at Little Five Points Pub could down.
Can you imagine silly little kitties Avril Lavigne and Michelle Branch getting a standing O at a Dead show? Didn't think so.
Herein lies the quandary faced -- or exploited -- by the modern female musician. In a post-Britney pop landscape, if a girl can stand up, sing live and nail the finger formation of a D-chord, she's hailed as the would-be love child of Jimi and Janis. With the artistic bar set so low that it threatens to submerge itself under a slab of "Ska8er Boi"concrete, female artists such as the Indigos, Ani DiFranco, Tori Amos and Lucinda Williams -- women who've been quietly producing artistically credible music for the better part of two decades -- are unjustly passed over for the cover of the (embarrassingly edible) Rolling Stone.
"In a lowest common denominator culture, I think that's a good point," says Saliers, the softer, sweeter, more musically dexterous half of the Indigo Girls. "I think those young women artists are striking a chord with people, but if they don't have the integrity and ability, they're not gonna last. Time will tell. This is a youth-based culture. There was a time when we were the young women artists with guitars."
That time was 1989, when the Indigos' self-titled major-label debut album received a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording, as well as a nomination for Best New Artist. The whirlwind year featured stints opening for Neil Young and fellow Athens, Georgia, band R.E.M., with the latter group's moderately famous lead singer lending a vocal track to "Kid Fears," always a favorite of the duo's fawning, largely female fan base.
"Those guys [R.E.M.] were good to us at the right time. I'm forever grateful to them for that; it was good to get a boost," Saliers recalls. "The [Athens] underground is alive and well. Amy just played there with [her side project] the Butchies and had a great crowd."
With her lusty-activist stage persona and passionate, gravelly voice, the charismatic Ray might seem, on the face of things, to be the duo's wielder of power -- that is, until you consider that Saliers, whose phenomenal soprano makes her sound like a cross between Christine McVie and Norah Jones, is far more valuable on a technical level. In concert, it's Saliers who deftly handles the more demanding guitar parts. And, frankly, gritty chutzpah only takes Ray so far; the average fan can swallow only so much of that graham-cracker vibrato without a thick layer of Saliers' harmonic honey.
After a pair of amped-up, comparatively experimental albums -- Shaming of the Sun and Come on Now Social -- that drew a smattering of critical and commercial backlash, it was Saliers who greenlighted the Girls' return to their acoustic roots on their latest recording, Become You.
"Amy had been wanting to make an acoustic record for quite some time," Saliers says. "I wanted to experiment with electric things and loops, so we made Come on Now Social that album. [Become You] is probably the most live album we've played in awhile. There's not a lot of layering of sound -- no samples. It's got a stripped-down quality to it, whereas in the past we've brought in two or three drummers -- all kinds of guests."
Stylistically, Become You most closely resembles 1990's grossly underrated Nomads Indians Saints, which is easily the group's most durable, vocally pleasing album to date, if not its most artistically adventurous.
If Saliers is the more musically gifted of the duo, then Ray is perhaps its stronger songwriter, drawing on a career spent shining a spotlight on social injustice through song and speech. Though songwriting duties on Become You are evenly divided between the two, the album's title track, written by Ray, ranks among last year's most politically relevant songs. In the wake of Trent Lott's sickening nostalgia for the days of segregation, the lyrics -- in which Ray comes to peace with her Southern heritage but still expresses uneasiness about her home's Confederate roots -- almost seems prescient.
"We lost our Democratic governor, which was a bummer; but I'm proud to be from the South," says Saliers. "It's going to be a hot issue to see how [newly elected Republican Governor Sonny Perdue] deals with going back to the Confederate emblem on the Georgia flag. He says he wants a referendum, but I think a lot of the time it's the responsibility of government to change people's minds. I read this quote in the New York Times where this guy [state Senator Vincent Fort] said 'If there had been a referendum in Georgia in 1860 on slavery, I'd still be picking cotton.'"
Unlike the album, the Girls' live set for this tour is scaled-down and acoustic. "We've always mixed it up," says Saliers. "After our records first come out, we play larger venues, and the band can fill space in a really good way. But all the band members live abroad. That makes it difficult -- times are tight in the business."
In a perfect world where talent matters more than trends, times wouldn't be so tight for the Indigo Girls or their twentieth-century-bred contemporaries. But if belt-tightening begets two women who prefer to work in comfortable shoes, singing onstage in little theaters across the heartland -- armed only with their guitars and an impressive catalog of lovely tunes -- then there is indeed a silver lining in these tough artistic times.