Indigo Girls with Matt Nathanson @ Central Park SummerStage, NYC, June 16 2009

Jenn Ackerman/The New York Times

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Are you on fire?

Jenn Ackerman/The New York Times
Photo: Jenn Ackerman/The New York Times

As a straight male, I get a lot of quizzical looks when I tell non-fans how much I love the music of the Indigo Girls. What a lot of people fail to realize is, the Indigo Girls are amazingly talented musicians, who, yes, actually rock. Check out their live album, 12,000 Curfews if you don’t believe me. With a full band behind them, they can hold their own against any other musical act you want to mention. And as a two-piece, which is how they started, they’re just as capable of holding a crowd captive for hours at a time.

On June 16, the longtime duo took the stage in New York City’s Central Park for a concert to benefit food banks and the SummerStage venue itself. (New York remains one of their favorite cities to play, despite it not being warm and folksy like the South, where they hail from.) Their music is perfect for a damp summer’s evening outdoors, the sun not yet set. Seeing two old friends up there, who’ve been going at it since the mid 80s, is heart warming.

The Girls have gotten better with age. Their voices, great to begin with, have actually improved, as opposed to say, other harmonizing groups like Crosby, Stills and Nash. Emily writes songs of hope and reflection. Amy writes songs with a political and rebellious bent; together they meet in the middle. Their themes are universal, not just for the ladies. I can’t stress this enough.

An Indigo Girls concert, in case you don’t know, goes like this: the song ends, impassioned applause. “Thanks y’all!” Start of new song, which is met with a resounding female roar inside the first few lines.

This tour, in support of their new double album, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug, is mainly an acoustic affair, with instrumentalist Julie Wolf adding additional flavor. On this night, they played a crowd-pleasing mix of old and new material, including 1997’s “Get out the Map,” which has aged into a classic. The most recent songs on the set list included “Digging For Your Dream,” “Deconstruction,” and “Second Time Around.”

There were nods to the Girls’ early years, with “World Falls” and “Prince of Darkness.” “Shame on You” featured a nimble Emily guitar solo. They also broke out 1999’s “Faye Tucker,” a wild reel decrying the death penalty.

“Romeo and Juliet” was a goose bump moment for all involved. Few can sing Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” with as much conviction as Amy Ray (sorry, Brandon Flowers), especially when she leans into the line “I keep BAD, BAD company.” On this night, she apologized to Mark Knopfler for screwing up the verses. It wasn’t necessary.

“Kid Fears”, with it’s minor key melody and counterpoint harmonies, is one of their most soul-stirring songs, and show opener Matt Nathanson joined them to assume the Michael Stipe role (the R.E.M. frontman was song’s the original third vocalist). The Girls have always been good to their opening acts, a Lilith Fair unto themselves.

Nathanson stuck around to share vocals on the song most associated with them, “Closer to Fine,” the ultimate Indigo Girls anthem. He was totally into it, leaning into his mic. “The best thing you ever did for me is to help me take my life less seriously.” It’s a cathartic song for the crowd, who sing along to every word: “WE STAND UP FOR THE LOOK OUT.” At one point, Emily joked about releasing a karaoke album together.

They wrapped things up with “Galileo,” probably the second-most-loved song in the Indigo Girls catalog. It’s a reincarnation ballad that asks, “how long ’til my soul gets it right?” Maybe one day, I too will be reincarnated as a lesbian folk singer. Or maybe I already was one. Whatever the case may be, I know I’ll always, always want to hear me some Indigo Girls.

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