denverpost.com: amy ray @ the fox theatre
It’s frustrating to see a talented artist pushed aside because of this or that — he was in that niche band in the ’90s or she was all over the tabloids because of a string of failed romances. An artist is only as great as his or her music — the old, the new and what’s being written for the next record.
By those guidelines, Amy Ray is a genius rock songwriter — one of the most important voices making music today. Ray is half of the Indigo Girls, a Southern folk-rock act known for their outstanding harmonies and insightful lyrics. Oh yeah, and they’re lesbians — and they write openly about their real lives.
And that makes it weird for some people. It’s stupid, but true. What’s the difference between the Girls and Crosby, Stills and Nash? They’ve both compiled a tremendous catalog of music, but the Girls are still writing music that resonates and challenges their audience where as the same can’t be said about CSN.
Ray is also a solo artist, and she brought her most recent solo tour to a close on Saturday at Boulder’s Fox Theatre — a place she loves dearly, she said. And she must, because Saturday’s show was one for the books. It was an emotional outpouring, a sweaty celebration and a coming together of friends.
Among Ray’s closest friends are her band — but they were unexpectedly joined for practically the entire set by Brandi Carlile, a singer whose career is thriving thanks, in part, to Ray. Carlile got a big boost a few summers ago when she opened up for the Indigo Girls on a national tour. Carlile had a way of winning over the crowd then, and she never stopped.
Now she’s selling more CDs and tickets than the Indigo Girls, and so her presence at the tiny, moderately crowded Fox Theatre was a big deal and had the entire crowd abuzz and sending picture-texts to their envious friends.
That said, it was still Ray’s show. And as she skipped throughout the material that makes up her three solo records, you could tell the show was a release for her – emotionally and physically. (Ray noted once during the concert that her band travels via van – as opposed to the comforts provided by the Indigo Girls bus.) Dressed in straight slacks, a black button-up shirt and a matching tie, Ray deftly created a setlist that showed off her brilliant rock persona.
Yes, Ray’s music is rooted in punk and rock — and that loses some of the Indigo Girls fans who followed her over. But the undeniable melodies are still there — as heard in the driving “Late Bloom,” the power pop-rooted “Black Heart Today,” the unflinching punk of “Blender” and sweet rock goodness of “Bus Bus,” all of which were showcased on Saturday.
“Bus Bus” is one of the best jams on Ray’s latest, last year’s “Didn’t it Feel Kinder.” Of the other new songs, “SLC Radio” came early in the set, and the activist-oriented track was an obvious stand-out. The ’70s-kissed “She’s Got to Be” was moody and sexy; and “Cold Shoulder” showed off Ray’s sense of humor and her ability to write colloquial songs that appeal to everybody.
Even though Carlile sang on most of the songs with Ray — and on four songs with opener Gregory Alan Isakov, who played a tremendous set with his band — she never stole the spotlight. She humbly sang back-up for Ray, adding the same harmonies she created in the studio sessions for “Didn’t it Feel Kinder.” And Carlile was especially careful is keeping her voice — known for its power and personality — in check most of the time, which was classy and respectful.
The brilliant, shining night of music was sprinkled with truly winning moments. You can tell Ray is still having a blast with the tongue-twister “Driver Education,” which falls on the lighter side of her songs on CD but becomes a different, growling beast in live performance. “Lucystoners” — which takes Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner (among others) to task — was a natural hit, with Ray giving into the song’s anger. The creeping “Measure of Me” was moving, a potently electric dirge of a ballad.
The encore was brief and bright. After Carlile sang one of her own, Ray joined her for a rousingly out-of-breath “Johnny Rottentail” — transforming the song into a mandolin-fronted bluegrass rager thanks to Carlile’s unique harmonies. A devastating, full-band “Laramie” — written in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s death — closed the night out, evolving into a number of elongated noise-rock jams.
Ray doesn’t require the attention of her other band or the fame she actually deserves, and that’s part of her appeal. She’s a punk at heart, and she’s writing music — and playing shows — like she’s never had so much fun in her life.