Live music, when it’s good, is a full-body experience. It is an energetic give and take between the artist and the audience. That’s why live albums have such a hard time capturing a concert well. At best, if you saw that particular show or tour, a live record makes for a nice souvenir. With a very few artists, live performances aren’t even just shows; they are communal gatherings of spirit, song, and celebration. That is certainly true for Indigo Girls, and their live recordings somehow always manage to reflect that, such as on their latest release, Live with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
From the opening strains of “Woodsong,” the capacity crowd in Boulder reacts with awe and delight at the sounds filling the room. And what awesome, delightful sounds they are. The majestic poise of the orchestra propels the utterly exhilarating arrangements from Sean O’Loughlin and Stephen Barber of 22 sublime compositions culled from across the Indigo Girls catalog. In person, the experience was, as evidenced by the audience’s responses throughout, absolutely electric. On record, it’s only slightly less so.
No matter their setting, the works of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers stand up, year after year. But, with the 64-piece UC Symphony Orchestra, they soar high, song after song. A number of them — “Virginia Woolf,” “Come a Long Way,” and “Ghost” — come ready-made for a symphony, thanks to Saliers’ buoyant melodies. Others, though — namely “Compromise,” “Go,” and “Chickenman” — run from Ray’s punk-rock aesthetic and require a more bombastic approach. Clearly not a problem for O’Loughlin.
For ride-or-die fans, the wingspan of these songs, from “Kid Fears” to “Love of Our Lives” to “Happy in the Sorrow Key,” is yet another thrill. Old classics, deep cuts, and newer choices, it’s all songs on deck. The fan favorites (“Galileo,” “Power of Two,” “Closer to Fine”) at an Indigos show are always going to be there for joy-filled sing-along moments. And all of those moments are made all the more special, here. But other high watermarks come in the swelling potency of “Fugitive,” the wistful transcendence of “Come on Home,” and the muscular urgency of “Go,” after which you can practically hear the audience leap to their feet.
Kudos for the recording’s success also go to mix engineer Trina Shoemaker, who created an intuitive, balanced sound, and to maestro Gary Lewis, who conducted the group with a studied sensitivity. Still, it’s the Indigo Girls’ timeless songs, stellar harmonies, and generous spirits at the heart of this particular matter that make it an absolute exception to the rule of live records rarely capturing the magic in a room. Magic was, indeed, captured.