Notes & Queeries: Returning to the Indigo Girls

Notes & Queeries is a monthly column from Malinda Lo that focuses on the personal side of pop culture for lesbians and bisexual women.

Last Tuesday night, I went to my second Indigo Girls concert. I had initially thought it was my first, but a friend reminded me that I had seen them play at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival a few years ago. Thus prodded, I finally remembered their closing number — "Closer to Fine," of course, sung outside beneath a black night sky, with all the other musicians who had performed that night joining them onstage.

I felt a bit deflated when I recalled this. It made me wonder if somehow my night was going to be less memorable because I wasn’t an Indigo virgin.

My girlfriend, a longtime Indigo Girls fan (yes, she’s that kind of lesbian), had bought the tickets months ago. "You don’t have to go with me if you don’t want," she said when she told me about it, knowing that I didn’t own a single Indigo Girls CD.

"It would be my first Indigo Girls concert," I said in error. "Of course I’ll go." I envisioned some kind of lesbian anthropological research opportunity: Gay girls in their native habitat, here I come!

Amy Ray (left) and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls

We drove north to Yountville, Calif., in the heart of Napa Valley, to see Amy Ray and Emily Saliers perform. Earlier that week lightning storms had struck Northern California, and by Tuesday more than 700 fires were burning. Wine country was hazy with smoke, turning the setting sun an intense red-orange.

As we drove past neat rows of grapes curving over the hills, I wondered whether the smell of smoke would infiltrate the fruit. "The wine has a distinct smoky flavor," joked my girlfriend. We slid the air control vent closed, recirculating the air inside the car instead. My eyes stung.

When we arrived at the Lincoln Theater, we were a little late, and the parking lot was almost full. One car went zooming past the parked tour buses, the driver yelling out, "We love you Amy and Emily!" Sprinklers watered wide stretches of lawn, even though California is now officially in a drought. Inside the theater, a concessions stand sold wine and champagne rather than cocktails. Welcome to Napa, I thought.

The theater ushers looked like retirees who had volunteered for the job; they seemed slightly uncomfortable about being surrounded by so many lesbians. Our designated elderly usher fumbled with her flashlight as she attempted to read our ticket stubs, and then led us to our seats in the dark — the opening act, Brandi Carlile, had already begun.

Brandi Carlile

Photo credit: Simone Joyner/Getty Images

A singer-songwriter from Seattle whose songs have been featured on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, Carlile was playing to a packed house. Her voice, in one word, is incredible. She wore cowboy boots and jeans so skinny they looked like they were painted onto her legs; when she tapped her foot in time to the music, the boots rocked back and forth, giving them an oddly remote-controlled look.

She was so thin I wondered if she were chasing Hollywood glory. But then she covered Johnny Cash’s "Folsom Prison Blues" with nothing less than butch enthusiasm, and I could feel all the lesbians in the audience falling in love with her.

When Amy Ray and Emily Saliers came onstage, they looked comfortable, older, calmer. Amy wore gray plaid pants; Emily wore jeans that looked like jeans. They carried their guitars right in front of their bellies, like instruments — not manifestations of machismo.

A group of young women ran down to the front, clapping their hands and dancing. Amy cracked a smile at them, but an usher hovered nearby and soon enough asked them to move to the side, where they bounced in place for the rest of the show, singing along to every song.

When I looked around at the audience, it looked like a pre-Dyke March rally. There were butches and femmes, together and apart, granola dykes and straight-looking lesbians, grey-haired women and girls too young to have heard "Closer to Fine" when it first came out in 1989. The audience wasn’t entirely lesbian, of course. There were men, too, and probably plenty of straight women. Men who like the Indigo Girls enough to buy a concert ticket: Those are my kind of men. They probably adore Joss Whedon, too.

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