Lightness Has a Call That's Hard to Hear (Indigo Girls Live in Asheville)
Indigo Girls on May 9, 2017
It's been said that music criticism basically boils down to "You've got to hear this" or "You had to be there." I kept thinking about that last night, as I watched the Indigo Girls perform to a sold-out crowd in Asheville's Orange Peel. It's not the first time I've seen them live, by a longshot. The North Georgia duo's music has been a thread through my life for more than 20 years now. Some of their albums have resonated more than others, some shows have been better than others, but I couldn't shake the sense that we had grown up together, all of us in that room.
When I was 17 years old, I lived in a small town in Central Florida, where I’d lived since I was two years old. That town is now a booming, artsy, progressive haven along the I-4 corridor, but back then it was … not so much. There was a whole section of our high school parking lot full of giant pickup trucks with gun racks and rebel flags on the license plates. That wasn’t really my scene. In fact, there wasn’t much to do for a creative-type teenager in DeLand, Florida, in those days aside from going to school and going to church. When I wasn’t at either of those places, I was in my bedroom, writing poems and journaling in a notebook, listening to riot grrrls and punk bands and REM and the Indigo Girls.
I remember the time one late night/early morning in the parking lot of the goth club in Orlando, when my friend Sean pulled out his Ovation acoustic and we sat on the car and sang “Closer to Fine,” appreciating the flow of the song but having no real grasp of how hard a couplet like “Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable / and lightness has a call that’s hard to hear” might someday fall. In that moment, it was just one more way I learned to improvise harmony.
I remember long solo drives on the back roads of Central Florida, trying to figure out where in the world I could possibly belong as a young queer person in the American South. Among other things, I cranked up “Galileo” on the Indigo Girls’ 1,000 Curfews live album so I could hear a crowd of strangers somewhere I’d never been, singing at the top of their voices til they drowned out the singer. Listening to them sing, I knew there was a crowd of people who thought like I did and listened to what I did, asked the same questions, and — all together, at the same time — believed in the same possibilities. It wasn’t just some band, but all the people who went to see them.
Like any teenager who can’t possibly have enough of a worldview to truly understand this, I was listening to my community.
In the years since, I’ve seen the Indigo Girls play in theaters and small clubs, on the Seattle pier overlooking Elliott Bay, in Portland’s Pioneer Square, on a cruise ship. Their music opened my eyes to indigenous communities and peace movements and environmental issues and heartbreak and love. In quieter places, I've talked with them about being women in the music industry, about god and dogs and our babies and songwriting.
Once, I asked Emily Saliers what makes a song a "good song" and she told me it had to have something to do with the listener. That a good song was about the right moment. It was a confluence of events, a meeting of minds, an aligning of stars. That you could hear a brilliant song in one place and time and it wouldn’t resonate with you until one day, years later, when it comes on the radio in your car. Suddenly you’re in tears. Suddenly you’re flying.
Years later and worlds away, I walked into the Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina, last night to see the Indigo Girls. I was late to the show, so I stood at the back of the sold out, packed-like-sardines crowd. I didn’t see anyone I knew, even though Asheville is a small town and I always see people I know at the Orange Peel. It seemed at first like a room full of strangers. The duo didn’t have much to say between songs, but they rolled through their set with the kind of natural artistry of people who have found a way to balance passion and practicality, with the scale tipped far enough toward the former for the show to be engaging. With the rhythm just right so that you swayed without knowing.
I’ve been thinking about community a lot lately. Every time I look at the news or my various social media feeds, it can start to feel like the ground is falling out. And then I remember my communities, how they remind me of my roots, how the roots hold the ground together, how they intertwine inextricably underneath all of us, even as the branches sprout leaves to help us breathe.
There’s the community in which I live, and the community I’ve formed over decades of traveling and moving around the country. The community of musicians and writers, of activists and volunteers, of readers and random friends I met some unexplained place one time, who have just remained in my community. Community is an inherently feminist idea, which is not to confuse it with a political statement or to call it anti-men. It's feminist in the sense of being a paradigm based on the strength of relationships, which is typicaly more associated with femininity (masculinity is more frequently associated with individuality and autonomous strength). Pete Seeger used to emphasize community, with his "Think globally, act locally" idea. With his comment that "Participation ... is going to save the human race." In recent months, as the news coming out of our government has seemed chaotic and undigestible, I've reminded myself frequently about these communities. Focusing on communities may not jive with everyone but it gives me, at least, some sense of purpose and context, a place to work, to help change a much bigger picture.
That teenager in that small town used to think about how big the world is, how many billions of people, how hard it might be to find “my people” within all of that; within all of this. She turned to music and her imagination and a small set of friends, because the rest of the places around her offered so few options. But there are people who just appear at the right time, and you already know them. They’re in your community already; you didn’t have to find each other. Age has taught me about this terrific providence of worldwide connection. Sure, part of that is just what happens with growing up. Part of it is learning to be mindful, paying attention to your surroundings. Seeing the forest for the trees. Opening the windows as you speed down the road.
Last night, the duo got to “Galileo” before I realized how far into the crowd time had moved me. Without me even realizing it, this community swallowed me up. I suddenly spotted people I knew. I threw my head back and sang along for my 17-year-old self, who wandered aimless, wondering if she’d ever find her people. I sang for the ways the world has changed and the ways it hasn't. I sang for the lifetimes I've lived knowingly and any that may have come before. Whatever was happening on the news, I sang for the thing I’ve learned from listening to the Indigo Girls and so many other musicians in my community: as long as we’re here, we may as well sing.
How long til our souls get it right, indeed.
As for how good the show was, you just had to be there.