Saturday, October 16, 2021
Oct. 16, 2021

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COVID-19 slowed Indigo Girls’ tour

Duo travels apart after several in crew contracted virus

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From cars and vans to planes and home-away-from-home tour buses, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have happily traveled together to their concerts since they launched the folk-rocking Indigo Girls 36 years ago. But that has changed in a dramatic way on the current tour by the Grammy Award-winning duo.

Saliers, who contracted COVID-19 in August despite being fully vaccinated, is traveling on the Indigo Girls’ tour bus. Ray, who is also fully vaccinated, has been driving herself from gig to gig to avoid becoming infected.

“Emily’s very immune now because she had COVID and is vaccinated, so it’s not as dangerous for her to be on the bus,” Ray said.

“As careful as we are, our guitar tech got COVID and then gave it to our (on-stage audio) monitor mixer,” she continued. “My sister is an infectious disease epidemiologist and she told me a tour bus is hard place to be during a pandemic.”

She sighed.

“We test all the time,” Ray stressed. “But I decided I’d drive separately because we can’t afford to lose any more gigs now. We’ve lost seven or eight concerts (because of Saliers getting COVID) — and, when you cancel — it’s hard to reschedule. I’m vaccinated but I worry about spreading it to other people, plus I’ve got a child. I love driving, but it’s hard to drive the whole tour.”

Saliers, speaking in a separate phone interview, disclosed that she was diagnosed with COVID-19 after attending a writer’s workshop in August. Her illness led to a number of postponed and canceled concerts, which the Indigo Girls announced online without specifying who had contracted the potentially fatal disease.

Citing “an abundance of caution and concern for the safety of the band, crew and most importantly our fans,” Saliers and Ray postponed some late August and early September concerts. Other dates were canceled, a costly blow for any music act that had been unable to tour for more than a year because of the pandemic.

“I got COVID and had to quarantine for two weeks,” Saliers said. “Subsequently, we had a couple of other people on our team test positive. So, our road crew is among the most stringently tested people I know of. We’re doing rapid tests every day and PCR tests every third day. We wear masks all the time. And we have strict protocols for our shows, including vaccinations and masking (for attendees).”

Sweet harmony

Despite the recent health setbacks, the harmonious bond between the Indigo Girls’ two co-founders remains as strong and resilient as ever.

The arc of their music between the 1980s and now has seen the group create a diverse body of work that expertly draws from folk, rock, country, blues, jazz, Celtic and more.

Ray and Saliers’ hand-in-glove vocal harmonies are a trademark. So is their devotion to a variety of social causes and their championing of inclusiveness, in their songs and personal actions.

Both still marvel that a duo co-led by two proudly left-leaning lesbians was signed by a major record label in the 1980s, then went on to make several million-selling albums and earn mainstream success.

“In terms of how we write and arrange music, how we think about it and how we play together, not a single thing has changed,” Saliers said. “Our resources have expanded over the years, but the spirit behind our music hasn’t changed.”

“We feel,” Ray added, “that it’s important to connect with people who don’t share our views — but like our music — to break down boundaries.

“I’m living in a rural town that’s very conservative. It’s Trump country and they are my neighbors. So, I just try to be open-minded, hear what they have to say and not alienate people. It doesn’t change my perspective, and probably doesn’t change theirs either. But there are places where we can work together.

“I’m an eternal optimist. Although, in ways it’s so frustrating and you feel paralyzed, like: ‘How can we be so opposite in our thinking?’ The pandemic just made (that divide) even greater. But I still have hope we’re moving beyond that. The majority of our audience is pretty progressive and will wear masks and be vaccinated, so we’re not in a foreign environment at our concerts.”

New orchestral vistas

The Georgia-bred duo released its 16th studio album last year, the lovingly crafted “Look Long.” It follows their ambitious 2018 double-album, “Live with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra.”

Such collaborations are now almost second nature for the Indigo Girls, whose early career saw the band opening shows for R.E.M., Neil Young and the Grateful Dead. But the duo’s initial orchestral forays were the cause of great anxiety.

“I was extremely nervous because it felt like it was way above my skill set!” Ray recalled. “It was really fun to work on the arrangements and I was like a kid in a candy store. But when it came to playing live with an orchestra, it was nerve-wracking.”

That it was, Saliers agreed.

“We played out first full orchestral concert in Chattanooga. My legs were shaking, and Amy said she felt like throwing up,” Saliers said.

And now?

“It’s a big event that requires tremendous focus,” she replied. “But we’re much more comfortable and it’s a wonderful honor to do these concerts. Most of the time, I’d almost rather stop singing and just listen to the beauty of the orchestra. ”

With so many songs in their catalog to choose from, do Ray and Saliers make their set list choices purely based on musical considerations? Or are there other factors?

“There are some songs that lend themselves to orchestrations, like ‘Ghost’ and ‘The Wood Song,’ which had strings on them when we recorded them,” Saliers said.

“But a song like ‘Power of Two’ (seemed) out of the realm of obvious choices. Amy and I selected some songs that lent themselves to orchestral arrangements and some that would be surprising.”

One of the Indigo Girls’ most dramatic and powerful songs is the racial injustice-inspired “The Rise of the Black Messiah,” from the duo’s 2015 album, “One Lost Day.” Like “Sorrow and Joy” from their latest album, “Black Messiah” sounds like it could be dramatically enhanced with the addition of woodwinds, strings and percussion.

Are their plans to have either song orchestrated?

“Oh, yes, yes!” Saliers said.

“We will, for sure,” Ray agreed.

The road ahead

Ray is 57. Saliers is 58.

Both point to folk music icon Joan Baez — who was 78 when she retired from touring in 2019 — as a role model for musical consistency and longevity they hope to emulate. (The Indigo Girls were on hand in 2017 to induct Baez into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.)

“Joan, for sure, is someone we look up to,” Ray said. “Her decision to pull back and retire with such good timing was very graceful and I think she did it the right way. It’s what she wanted.

“I look at Bonnie Raitt, who is also very graceful in how she handles herself and her life. And Emmylou Harris embraces herself as a matriarch, someone who is older and still has it.”

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