It was a triple bill of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Indigo Girls and Shawn Mullins a cool Friday night in June, the perfect atmosphere for some hot music. And though the showed started early at, 6:30 PM, there was already a surprisingly good-sized crowd on hand well before the activities were to begin. For those of you who have not experienced Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, the park contains a massive picnic area that surrounds the pavilion where the stage is held. Some stay in the lawn area until the headliner hits the stage, others remain in the picnic area and just enjoy the ambience while listening to the concert to the speakers set up throughout. This show was no different.
The first thing I noticed when I first heard the Indigo Girls over twenty years ago was their vocal harmonies, an interesting blend. Amy Ray has a very deep voice for a female singer and Emily Saliers has the higher and much more versatile voice. This makes for an interesting vocal blend. My only issue with this is the repetition of this formula on every song though I am not that familiar with their catalog of work in its entirety. I found that even though their sound is quite unique, after a couple songs their sound could get a bit predictable. Having said that, the crowd certainly approved of what they heard, many of them singing along and dancing in place.
The Indigo Girls were backed up by three other performers, a multi instrumentalist, a violinist/vocalist and a singer/guitarist. Even with the augmentation of the line up, I still found a lot of their songs have few variables to the band’s overall sound. The tempo and harmonies were just extremely similar from song to song.
Shawn Mullins opened up the night with an acoustic guitar, his own voice and an accordion player. This exceptional baritone singer had a really folky vibe that was a great warm up for the crowd. The pavilion had a lot of empty seats still at that point as concert goers milled about the grounds, but the people that were watching his act really appeared to enjoy his music. Mullins’ sense of humor was also very refreshing.
The act of the night in my opinion was the one in the middle, Mary Chapin Carpenter. She had a typical five-piece band line up, drums, bass, keys and guitar. Backing vocals were provided by the bass and keys players. Now, I don’t know why, but Carpenter is a performer I can honestly say slipped under my radar. A real veteran, her performance was amazing, as Carpenter played a great variety of material - and played it to perfection. If I were to label her music I would say folk….no, country….no, Rock and Roll….all of the above. I hate categories because of their limiting definitions anyway. I like variety and her portion of the show was a great example of that. I really thought Mary should have been the headliner after watching her, but the Girls have a very strong following. It’s not right to say a certain performer is better than another, so I won’t go there. Rather, I simply found Carpenter the performer of the night.
The Indigo Girls is still an act worth seeing. I think maybe branching out a bit may be in their best interest. Their fans would probably disagree, that’s okay. Their following is very loyal, and this could be partly due to their social position…just a couple girls doing it on their own for the most part. I should probably listen a little more clearly to the lyrics, that is probably where the variety of their material lies. I’m sure it is also somewhat difficult to provide a lot of different tempos and rhythmic variations when you play without a live drummer. Heading into the show, I wasn’t sure what their lineup was going to be since I have mostly seen Amy and Emily play as a duet.
The Indigo Girls closed the show with “Closer to Fine”, the song that really put them on the map. The crowd was probably louder than the Girls were at times during that song. That’s what it’s all about really anyway, communication. If you can get an audience to respond like that, mission accomplished. So, to sum it up my criticism of the lack of variety was clearly only in my eyes. Their audience didn’t view it like that. I guess for me Bob Dylan is the same way. To the average listener, many of his songs sound the same. Am I comparing The Indigo Girls to Bob Dylan? I guess in a way, their appeal is in the same vein. Just simple songs played with their own particular flavor. Folk music is what it says it is, music of the people. The people responded, that’s all that really matters, not the opinion of one critic.
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