It has been fifteen years since the last time the Indigo Girls put out a live album. I still remember getting my copy of 1200 Curfews for Christmas and nearly wearing it out from playing it so many times. Neither Curfews or the new live album, Staring Down the Brilliant Dream truly capture the experience of a live Indigo Girls show, but they both do a decent job of attempting to do so.
I have seen the Indigo Girls live at least once a year for the past fifteen years, and nearly every time I was surprised to hear some old favorite pulled off the dusty archive shelves and played live. The arrangements would be slightly different, of course. You can’t do the same thing in the studio with additional musicians and studio magic when you’re on a stage somewhere with only a few instruments and a few musicians. But, the important thing is that they played from their entire catalog, not just the latest and greatest.
Staring is a good snapshot of what you might hear at an Indigo Girls concert today. The set list leans heavily on the last two albums, reflecting where the duo is now, but also includes some old favorites (i.e. “Cedar Tree” or “Watershed”) aside from the standard radio hits (i.e. “Closer To Fine” or “Become You”).
It’s not uncommon for the Indigo Girls to invite members of the opening band to join them on a few of the classic sing-along tunes. Staring includes several instances of this collaboration, including the old gem, “Closer To Fine.” I have heard several renditions of this, both from guests who knew the song well enough to do it justice and those who probably should have rehearsed it a few more times. The guests are usually given an entire verse, and in this case, the tight harmonies and slight variations delivered by members of the band A Fragile Tomorrow are spine-tinglingly well done.
Michael Stipe of R.E.M. sang counter-point for the song “Kid Fears” on the Indigo Girls’ eponymous album, and usually his part gets sung by the audience if there isn’t a guest vocalists. In this case, Trina Meade (Three5Human) nails the part to the wall, slaps another layer of paint on it, and turns it into one of the most kick-ass rendition of the song I’ve ever heard.
There are a couple songs missing from the album that I wish had been included. “Chickenman” is one of my all-time favorite songs, and in recent years, Ray has been incorporating parts of “Bitterroot,” another favorite, in the middle of the song along with Saliers’ breathtaking guitar solos. In addition, I would have loved to have had a few of the audience sing-along songs like “Power of Two” with the audio from the audience to capture more of the essence of the live concert experience.
If you are a fan of liner notes, this is definitely one where you want to get the physical album or make sure you get the digital download that includes the booklet. For each song, they have included the recording location/date and a few sentences about the performance from the primary songwriter or lead vocalist. Scattered among these notes are photos from on and off stage taken by fans or members of the tour crew.
In summary, Staring Down the Brilliant Dream is a great album for anyone. New fans get a taste of some of the best of the Indigo Girls catalog and the live experience, and old fans get to hear wonderful variations on their favorite tunes. Truly a win-win.