As the story goes, the initial scene backstage at Lilith Fair in 1997 was a somewhat lonely one: many of the featured artists stayed in their individual dressing rooms with their respective bands until showtime. Until Indigo Girls showed up, that is, and began knocking on everyone’s doors, asking if anybody wanted to join them for any number of songs within their set. The atmosphere opened up and a community formed, and the duo fostered what can only be described as a hootenanny. This vibe seems to surround the Indigo Girls concert experience, both for artists and audience, and is plenty present on their new solid live release, Staring Down the Brilliant Dream.
A two-disc set, Dream is the third live release in the Girls discography (preceded by 1991’s Back On the Bus, Y’all and 1995’s 1200 Curfews). While that may seem like at least one live album too many, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have been so prolific since the release of the last one that there’s barely any overlap at all. And for those who have followed their career since the beginning, it’s easy to hear the maturity in song approach and performance throughout.
The track listing was taken from a handful of concerts between 2006 and 2009, and the Girls have wisely decided to present a varied setlist — nearly their entire discography is represented within these two discs, the heaviest being from their latest studio album Poseidon and the Bitter Bug. (1992’s Rites of Passage is ignored entirely, most likely because six songs from the album wound up on 1200 Curfews.) The duo have always toured in two incarnations — as a full band and as a pared-down duo — and the album is split evenly between the two. Truth be told, most of the “duo” songs feature an additional musician, Julie Wolf on keyboards and vocals, though her additions are welcome on nearly every track. The diversity in performance style allows for some freedom to really explore each song; I never cared for Become You‘s “Moment of Forgiveness” (download) until hearing this quiet, gentle version, and other Ray full-tilt rockers like “Go” and “Tether” benefit from her passionate electric guitar work behind a solid band.
While there are certainly some duds on this release — most of the songs from Despite Our Differences (their weakest album) remain forgettable — they’re far and few between. Recent songs like “Come On Home,” (download) “Cordova” and “What Are You Like” are all beautiful examples of the continued strength of their songwriting, and their older songs have grown up, exuding a maturity about them: “The Wood Song” (one of my all-time favorites) sounds wiser than it did on Swamp Ophelia, “Get Out the Map” actually sounds more joyful than it does on record, and “Prince of Darkness” has lost its melodrama and become a quiet spiritual. This does occasionally backfire — “Shame On You” in particular has lost some of its edge — but more often than not, they’ve settled into their back catalogue enough that the songs simply breathe on stage.
Much like 1200 Curfews, a few covers are included on this release; while they don’t hold up to the previously released covers of “River” and “Tangled Up In Blue,” they provide featured moments for some of the guests that join them on stage. Longtime IG opener Michelle Malone is featured on “Wild Horses,” which she’s pretty much owned for over 10 years. New IG fave Brandi Carlile is featured on a raucous cover of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” which I’d probably enjoy more if I didn’t hold so much affection for the IG/Joan Baez version from Ring Them Bells. Guests also appear on IG staples like “Closer to Fine” and “Kid Fears,” which features Trina Meade from Atlanta’s Three5Human and comes close to surpassing Michael Stipe with her guest vocal.
With Staring Down the Brilliant Dream, Indigo Girls are preaching to the converted, but even casual fans of the group should definitely pick this one up; it serves as a good reminder that the secret to their longevity lies in their continued growth as songwriters, their uncanny ability to combine their voices into a greater entity, and the communal experience they offer to anyone who attends their shows. These actually converge into one pure, spine-tingling moment in “Prince of Darkness,” when Saliers encourages the audience to sing the final verse together. It’s a moment that shouldn’t work on a record, and yet it does. It represents why, after 25 years together, they still have so much to offer those willing to listen.