From cars and vans to planes and sightseeing buses, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have happily traveled together for their concerts since they started the Indigo Girls 36 years ago.
But that changed dramatically during the Grammy Award-winning duo’s current tour, which gives an orchestral concert here on Sunday night with the San Diego Symphony at the Rady Shell in Jacobs Park.
Saliers, who contracted COVID-19 in August despite his full vaccination, is traveling on the Indigo Girls tour bus. Ray, who is also fully vaccinated, behaved in concert to avoid getting infected.
âEmily is very immune now because she had COVID and is vaccinated, so it’s not as dangerous for her to be on the bus,â Ray said.
âAs careful as we are, our guitar tech got COVID and then gave it to our monitor mixer (onstage audio),â she continued. âMy sister is an infectious disease epidemiologist and she told me that a tour bus is a difficult place to be during a pandemic.â
âWe test all the time,â said Ray. âBut I decided to drive separately because we can’t afford to lose any more gigs now. We’ve lost seven or eight gigs (due to Saliers contracting COVID) – and, when you cancel – it’s hard to reschedule. I am vaccinated but I am afraid to pass it on to others, in addition I have a child. I love to drive, but it’s hard to drive all the way around.
Saliers, speaking in a separate phone interview, revealed she was diagnosed with COVID-19 after attending a writer’s workshop in August. Her illness resulted in a number of postponed and canceled concerts, which the Indigo Girls announced online without specifying who contracted the potentially fatal illness.
Citing “an abundance of caution and concern for the safety of the group, the team and especially our fans”, Saliers and Ray postponed some concerts from late August and early September. Other dates were canceled, a costly blow to any musical group that had not been able to tour for over a year due to the pandemic.
âI had COVID and had to quarantine for two weeks,â Saliers said. âSubsequently, a few other people on our team tested positive. So our road crew is among the most rigorously tested people I know. We run rapid tests every day and PCR tests every three days. We wear masks all the time. And we have strict protocols for our shows, including vaccinations and masking (for attendees). “
Despite recent health woes, the harmonious bond between the two co-founders of the Indigo Girls 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 is skillfully inspired by folk, rock, country, blues, jazz, Celtic and more.
The hand-in-hand vocal harmonies of Ray et Saliers are a trademark. As is their dedication to various social causes and their advocacy for inclusion, in their songs and personal actions.
The two still marvel that a duo co-led by two proudly left-wing lesbians was signed by a major record company in the 1980s, then made several million albums sold and achieved mainstream success.
âIn terms of how we write and arrange music, how we think about it and how we play together, not a single thing has changed,â said Saliers. “Our resources have grown over the years, but the spirit behind our music has not changed.”
âWe believe,â added Ray, âthat it’s important to connect with people who don’t share our views – but love our music – to break down boundaries.
âI live in a very conservative rural town. This is Trump’s country and they are my neighbors. So, I just try to be open-minded, to hear what they have to say, and not to alienate people. It doesn’t change my point of view, and probably not theirs either. But there are places where we can work together.
âI am an eternal optimist. Although, in a way, it’s so frustrating and you feel paralyzed, like, “How can we be so opposed in the way we think? The pandemic just made (this division) even bigger. But I still have the hope that we go beyond that. The majority of our audience is quite progressive and will be wearing masks and being vaccinated, so we are not in a foreign environment during our concerts. “
New orchestral perspectives
The Georgia-born duo released their 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”.
Ray and Saliers’ concert here on Sunday with the San Diego Symphony comes 20 years after the two first performed with the Atlanta Ballet and an orchestra – and nine years after their first orchestral tour in 2012.
Such collaborations are now almost second nature to the Indigo Girls, whose early career saw the group open shows for REM, Neil Young, and the Grateful Dead. But the duo’s first orchestral forays were the cause of great anxiety.
âI was extremely nervous because I felt it was way beyond my skills! Ray remembers. âIt was really fun working 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 scary.
It was, Saliers agreed.
âWe played the first full orchestral concert in Chattanooga. My legs were shaking and Amy said she wanted to throw up, âSaliers said.
âIt’s a big event that requires enormous concentration,â she replied. âBut we’re much more comfortable and it’s a great honor to do these concerts. Most of the time, I almost prefer to stop singing and just listen to the beauty of the orchestra. Amy and I find it a huge privilege to play with orchestras. It’s so exciting for us.
The Indigo Girls’ repertoire with the San Diego Symphony on Sunday will feature fan favorites such as “Power of Two”, “Come a Long Way” and “Galileo”.
Perhaps because of the fancy setting, it won’t include “Shame on You” and “Pendulum Swinger,” two premier Indigo Girls numbers that feature carefully chosen profanities to emphasize the hustle and bustle of their lyrics.
With so many songs in their catalog to choose from, are Ray and Saliers making their set list choices solely on the basis of musical considerations? Or are there other factors?
âThere are songs that lend themselves to orchestration, like ‘Ghost’ and ‘The Wood Song’ that had strings when we recorded them,â said Saliers.
âBut a song like ‘Power of Two’ (seemed) to fall outside the realm of obvious choice. Amy and I selected songs that lent themselves to orchestral arrangements and others that would be surprising.
One of the Indigo Girls’ most dramatic and powerful songs is “The Rise of the Black Messiah”, inspired by racial injustice, from the duo’s 2015 album, “One Lost Day.” Like âSorrow and Joyâ from their last album, âBlack Messiahâ sounds like it could be improved considerably with the addition of woodwinds, strings and percussion.
Are their plans to have either song orchestrated?
“Ah yes, yes! Said Saliers.
“We will, for sure,” agreed Ray.
âWe want to regain stability with our tours, and then we’ll hire our arranger, Sean O’Loughlin, to do some extra orchestral scores for our songs. ‘Black Messiah’ is the one I really want to do with an orchestra. I think it could be super dramatic and meaningful. Making full orchestral arrangements is expensive, so we’ll have to tour more to pay for them.
The road ahead
Ray is 57 years old. Saliers is 58 years old.
The two point to folk music icon Joan Baez – who was 78 when she retired from touring in 2019 – as a model of 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.)
âJoan for sure is someone we admire,â said Ray. âHer decision to step down and step down with such good timing was very gracious and I think she did it the right way. This is what she wanted.
âI am looking at Bonnie Raitt, who is also very gracious in the way she manages herself and her life. And Emmylou Harris kisses like a matriarch, someone who’s older and still has it. She’s not trying to be someone she’s not. Neil Young and Jackson Browne are also good examples.
âBecause I also see artists who are aging and trying to hold on to their past lives. When they sexualize each other, it can hit you the wrong way. So how do you stay authentic at your age? And how do you stay relevant in your composition, and do it gracefully, without chasing the tiger’s tail?
âI don’t know. If I’m with a friend and I see something that makes me cringe, I say, ‘Make me quit before it happens!’ “
Ray thinks about it.
âWhen people go to concerts it’s sentimental and fun, and it reminds them of the good old days,â she said. âI don’t want to be a purely sentimental act. And it is hard. Because when you love what you’re doing, you don’t want to stop.
âEmily and I say, ‘We want to keep doing this while we’re having fun. And I’m like, ‘What if we’re still having fun and looking like fools?’ And, sometimes, who cares? It won’t be like 30 years ago, so what does this mean? Does it matter?
âI ask myself a lot of these questions, because of our age, and I think about them probably too much. But it’s so much easier for men, because they can get scaggly and cranky while still being iconic. “
The Indigo Girls, with the San Diego Symphony
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Or: The Rady Shell in Jacobs Park, 222 Marina Park Way, downtown
Tickets: $ 38 to $ 95
Call: (619) 235-0804
In line: theshell.org