Amy Ray’s smile opened itself to wrap love around the couple thousand fans who’d weathered a soggy soaker of a spiritual festival to wait for their 10 p.m. Saturday set. “Y’all have advanced way past kum-bah-yah,” she quipped. “That was a deep album cut.”
For 90 minutes, Ray and her musical partner Emily Saliers couldn’t stop praising the Wild Goose Festival crowd. It’s as if they’d trekked to the misty mountains of western North Carolina just to see us render their greatest hits the new hymnal for progressive and inclusive Christianity. The stellar setlist covered all the ground, a collection of tracks both new and old spanning a career that jump-started itself in the same 1980s Georgia music scene that gave us the likes R.E.M. and Widespread Panic.
The Indigo Girls catalog knits itself into our daily lives in such a way to make them the perfect band for a campfire singalong at a radicals’ revival like this. But what else was obvious here could not be pinpointed in the mere practice of song. The best-selling grassroots folk duo found something in our makeshift festival that’s been true of their career — past all the great lyrics and legacy of activism, past the DIY-ethics and indie entrepreneurs' edge, past all the albums and compilations, past all the accolades — exists the chewy center of hope. We see the Holy Spirit at work in such a down-to-earth humbling and fiery fashion. The Indigo Girls headline set at Wild Goose 2013 healed the audience and sealed the festival’s cultural location in a jubilant justice movement for ecumenical and evangelical convergence on the funky fringes of mainstream Christianity.
Speaking musically, socially, and spiritually, the Indigo Girls have always been there for me and their extended fan community, providing a safe sacred space against the backdrop of sonic dissonance, daily desperation, and devotional decadence. In the 1990s, I’ll never forget a particular summer night when I chose a popular folk gig with my parents and skipped a sloshy urban mosh pit with the local punks. For much of my 20s and 30s, I teetered on the axis between light and dark, between life and death. I felt these songs pointing to the light then as now, even as I wallowed elsewhere.
At the top of the Indigos’ Goose set, rather than a traditional MC warm-up or a mysterious smoke machine entry, we got a fan testimonial from author Glennon Doyle Melton. She shared that the Indigo Girls had provided the soundtrack to her early sobriety. Getting clean in my own experience requires a playlist with stamina and vast emotional diversity. Melton said she listened to the Indigo Girls every day, I imagine to give that extra bump that only music can provide when all our other fixes had been flushed down the commode of admitting permanent powerlessness. Every day. She claimed she never stopped, so she had been listening to the Indigo Girls every day for more than a decade. Every day.
I haven’t been listening to Indigo Girls every day, and my much-needed reunion with their deep cuts and Amy Rays’s stunning solo work has been a long-time coming. We know from reading their interviews and studying their Web presence, that the Indigo Girls give back. They take social justice and Native rights and ecological sustainability quite seriously. They help fund albums by up-and-coming artists who might not have the means to produce a CD otherwise.
They do not fit the “alternative Christian” mode like many of last year’s headliners did. And while they reside often in the women’s music scene, they seem bigger than any subculture. Because they are, like their song “Second Time Around” reminds us, “God-fearing lesbians,” a perfect choice for the third Goose! Based on the time they spent with us during the day this August Saturday, by the time of their set, it’s pretty clear they felt the fit, too. Not once, but many times, they applauded the audience, not just for our singing abilities and our knowledge of their lyrics as mentioned above, but for our various commitments to practicing what we preach in tangible gestures to better our world.
To be frank, I have been to a lot of secular music festivals that pay admirable lip service to activism, but these did not feel like they were anything close to being part of a movement. Wild Goose, on the other hand, locates itself off the map of the postmodern festival scene, way past the last outpost where festivals-for-the-sake-of-themselves reside. Activism at these other well-meaning events was more of a name tag, where here it was more than a commitment; activism is the fiber of the festival itself.
This summer camp singalong is also training camp and bootcamp and recharge-your-battery-because-we’re-weary-in-the-trenches camp. It’s obvious to me and probably was to most everyone else that night that as the Indigo Girls played their hearts out, that they noticed this about us and our tribe of millennial meaning and movement for collective redemption.
Before the Indigos closed with their ever popular “Closer To Fine,” Amy Ray rocked through her solo anthem “Let It Ring” with such rugged abandon, shredding the mandolin, and piercing our sides with the prophetic lyrics about a church and a country that still marginalize minorities and wage wars. Ray sings in one stanza: “You can cite the need for wars/Call us infidels or whores/Either way we'll be your neighbor.” And then in the next: “And the strife will make me stronger/As my maker leads me onward/I'll be marching in that number.” Courageously concluding: “I'm gonna let it ring to Jesus/Cause I know he loves me too/And I get down on my knees and I pray the same as you.”