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Show review: Amy Ray with Mount Moriah at Sonar Club, Baltimore, MD, November 20, 2010

It’s Live Music Week here at Driftwood. We’ve had the honor of covering some wonderful shows in our few short months, and we’ve got some live albums on tap, too. We’re going to start this week off with Michael Tager’s write-up and interview from Amy Ray’s latest trip through our hometown. Be sure to stick around for the interview (with a couple unusual questions and revelations) at the end.

Amy Ray
with Mount Moriah
Sonar Club, Baltimore, MD
November 20, 2010

The line starts at six p.m., though doors here at Sonar won’t open until eight and Amy Ray won’t even get on the stage until well past nine. There are some super fans here. Like Cheri and Ann who approach the man wearing the houndstooth sport coat and writing furiously in a notebook. After ascertaining his musical cred (yes, I know the Indigo Girls and yes, I can even sing along with a few of the bigger numbers), they talk about their feelings toward IG in general and Amy Ray in particular:

“We travel all over to see her. Down to Florida, New York, here …”
“She’s great. We love her.” “We’re like Deadheads, except … you know, Indigo Heads.”

Throughout the night, people come up and discuss Amy Ray and how awesome she is. You might think it’s because I’m a dude, but about 10% of the audience is male. Really, it’s because the fans are incredibly stoked to be here and they want to share it. There are over two hundred fans and from the moment the lights dim, the energy in the room crackles. It sparks. A few small kids are running around and getting into things. There are a lot of couples and hands are most certainly being held (one couple in particular starts dancing when the music starts and they don’t stop until the lights come up … 3 hours later). Most of the audience is female, but the age range is huge, and every demographic seems represented. There are truckers and prom queens. One girl is inexplicably wearing a sequined dress. There’s another woman who stopped on her way back to Jersey from Florida; a co-worker told her the show was going on and she figured, “Why not?” Everyone here is excited and ready to rock out. Sonar feels like a semi-odd venue for an Indigo Girls spin-off: dingy and warehouse-esque, but according to the staff, Hanson played the week before and Wu-Tang Clan is coming in a few weeks. With that in context, maybe some folk-punk makes perfect sense.

The opening band, Mount Moriah, does a more than credible job of warming up the audience. In fact, aside from making one wonder just how much they like The Lord of the Rings, they pleasantly surprise. One doesn’t always expect much from opening bands, but these guys make you worry they might just upstage the headline. (They don’t.) The singer, Heather McEntire, has an outstanding voice and soulful style. The band sounds like … something, but you can’t place your finger on it. At one moment, they sound like something familiar (Nina Simone meets Deep Purple) and the next, they’re altogether different (like Deep Purple covering Nina Simone). That’s a good thing. The keyboardist is also so good that it makes you think, “Why don’t more bands have keyboardists? Didn’t The Doors prove that it can be done?” It isn’t until after the band is finished playing their hearts out on this final leg of their tour, that I realize that the keyboardist is Julie Wolf, a member of Amy Ray’s band. Ah-ha!

Good move, that.

When Amy Ray takes the stage, the crowd goes a little nuts. She’s familiar with a bunch of people in the audience, and two of them take the stage at different points to sing. Mount Moriah joins the stage in the beginning and toward the end of the show, “Happy Birthday” gets belted out by Kaia, the guitarist, who also does her own number that’s a bit reminiscent of the Breeders. There’s some serious friendliness going on, almost a communion. There’s old friends, new songs, old tracks, and new devotees. This isn’t the Indigo Girls, but the sentiment is the same. The tempo is faster and the aesthetic has a more raw, urgent quality, but the message is clear. It’s about taking a stand and coming to terms with who you are, whatever you are.

It only takes about two bars before everyone starts singing along. Opening a show with “Put It Out for Good” off the album Prom sets the tone. It’s about punks and freaks and queers. It’s also rocking, with wicked guitars and a drum line that makes your heart match the beat. And that seems to be what Amy Ray’s music is about. It’s conscious, it’s telling a story. And it’s badass.

There isn’t a bad moment in the show, which is a peculiar kind of problem. You can’t pull out one particular song to identify as great, because they all kind of were. That’s banal, but true. And talking about the negative moments, just for some contrast, doesn’t do it justice. It’s like getting flustered at a candy store because there’s too much good stuff so instead you buy Almond Joy. Since there was not one particular moment when the crowd wasn’t dancing or pogo-ing (depending just how rollickin’ the music was at the particular moment), it might be easiest to just focus on the seven song stretch in the middle of the concert that seemed to evoke the most from the audience. Maybe it got the most because the songs were off the most recent solo album, Didn’t It Feel Kinder. Who knows?

When “Birds of a Feather” starts, and Amy Ray begins to channel some deep, cutting emotion, the crowd reflects that heartfelt tone right back. Alternatively, when “She’s Got to Be” rings out (which has one of the most infectious bass beats since “Billie Jean”), feet start moving and don’t really stop. “SLC Radio” was another crowd favorite—the refrain is just awesome. The first encore song, “Mts of Glory” off Stag was another powerfully exciting song. The Donnas must eat their knuckles in frustration, assuming they’ve heard it. It’s that dynamic and engaging.

There are some treats, too. Two new songs from the upcoming album are played: “I Didn’t,” which is a slow, sensual song that builds some real excitement for the new release, and “From Haiti,” about the recent disaster. It’s piercing. It grabs hold of your attention and squeezes and squeezes. If these are an indication of the new album, I for one, can’t wait.

While everything was exciting, maybe “Rural Faggot” was where the concert really clicks. It was poignant and it was clear and honest. The sound enveloped and wrapped and held. Amy Ray’s voice came along clear, like a clarion call and maybe she wasn’t talking about herself, but there was an authenticity that doesn’t always come across when you see a band live. Amy Ray is speaking some truths, both universal and personal. She’s not a preacher, she’s a storyteller. And her stories are true.

If you get the chance, see her live, with or without the Indigo Girls. She brings it.

Interview:

Mike Tager: Thanks for agreeing to this interview.
Amy Ray: Absolutely.
MT: I’ll start it off easy, you’ve done a thousand of these, I’m sure.
AR: Oh, no problem.
MT: If you were to go into your ipod (or your cd player, I don’t know which you have), what music would you find there?
AR: (laughing and pulling out ipod) Let’s see … Last thing I listened to was a Replacements compilation. Then the Distillers and Detroit Seven – they’re a Japanese punk band. The Japanese know how to do punk.
MT: On your website, you said that singer Heather McEntire [singer of Mount Moriah] had a voice that reminded you of Bjork, Dolly Parton and punker, Thalia Zedeck … those are three very different singers.
AR: Yes, they are (laughing). I really like voices that are distinct. When Bjork came out, she was cutting edge. And Dolly is totally a hero of mine. Thalia, she was in a band called Come. There is just something unique about all of them that I love.
MT: Come is a punk band. Would you say that you are a fan of punk and that your music has punk influences?
AR: Well, my music is rock with punk and country influences. The DC punk scene – Fugazi and all – that philosophy was important to me. The whole DIY, breaking down barriers … opening things up to gender and race. The true ideals of punk relate to folk music, fighting against authority. When we first started, we played a lot of punk bars and behind punk bands. A lot of our friends were in punk bands and they would give us a spot opening for them on the college circuit. Back then, playing at CBGBs and those kinds of places, there was a lot of punk around. After awhile, more women would show up and eventually it would be lot of college kids and frat kids on one side of the room and women and gays in the same room.
MT: Would you say you write for a particular audience?
AR: No, not really. Just try to write. I don’t think I write to try to capture a particular attitude. I try to write from an honest place. I try to think, “If I listened to this, would the story come across.”
MT: I read on your website that you are coming out with a new album. How’s that coming along?
AR: (smiling) We’re going to start cutting tracks in January and hoping to get it done in Winter. We have about 8 tracks right now. It takes time. This is something in between the gaps. Some of us have real jobs, some of us play in other bands.
MT: I know that when you aren’t playing, you are really into political causes, activism, things like that.
AR: Yeah.
MT: This is kind of a random question to close this with, but could you tell me your thoughts on the Tea Party?
AR: Well, personally, I welcome anything outside the two-party system. I find myself disagreeing with 75% of what they say, but I support anything that shakes things up. They are represented by the media as being for the working class. But are they just taking up the mantle of the working class to further their agenda? I don’t know. It’s a puzzle. But I like dialogue. I like shaking things up. We need to welcome their platform and then debate them, talk to them.

—Michael Tager (Baltimore, MD)

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