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Closer to Fine

The first of three events this summer at Appel Farm does not disappoint one avid fan of live music.

by Vincent Scarpa

In my previous column for SNJ Today, I wrote that what I missed most during the time spent in quarantine was the experience of seeing live music the old fashioned way—in person, with a live audience—rather than streamed over the interwebs.

Well, ask and you shall receive. In the kind of sticky, scorching heat where your shirt adheres to your skin and you’re grateful to the gods for something as essential and nourishing as an overpriced bottle of water, I—along with hundreds of other eager fans—attended last week my first post-pandemic live concert, put on at Appel Farm in nearby Elmer.

On the bill were The Indigo Girls, with special guests Dar Williams and Lucy Wainwright Roche. Quite the lineup for fans of acoustic singer-songwriters, and I count myself fervently among them. The concert was organized by the live entertainment company BRE Presents, which books concerts at many venues throughout the South Jersey area.

This was the first of their three events this summer at Appel Farm—the Tedeschi Trucks Band will be there July 18, and The Hooters will appear on August 14—and I was thrilled to receive a press pass in order to attend what was a remarkable, memorable afternoon of music and socializing.

Opening the show was Lucy Wainwright Roche, and if that name sounds familiar, yes, she’s probably related to whomever came to mind. Her parents are the beloved singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Suzzy Roche, and her half-siblings are the musicians Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright. Suffice it to say, Lucy Wainwright Roche has remained in the family business, and fans of music should be grateful.

She is a consummate performer, with a warm, inviting stage presence and a voice that could sing wolves to sleep. Her songs are rich with evocative lyricism, but she only played five of them that day; judging by the audience’s reception of her, those in attendance were surely left wanting more. It was one of her first shows since COVID struck, but you wouldn’t have guessed it. She was as assured and confident an opening act as you’re likely to find.

“Previous to the pandemic, I had been driving around in a car by myself for about 12 years, so I had gotten a bit strange,” Roche said from the stage. “And then the pandemic happened and I stayed in my apartment by myself for more than a year, so now I’m really pushing the envelope on strange.”

But she seemed not at all strange from where I was sitting, and I found her songs resonant, true, and not easily forgotten. She played songs mostly from her latest record, 2018’s Little Beast, but closed her set with a slowed-down, wonderfully melancholy rendition of the late Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.”

Next up was Dar Williams, and here I must make a brief concession in the interest of full disclosure: I am a Dar Williams superfan. I have been seeing her in concert several times a year since I was a precocious yet shy 12-year-old, and I turned 30 this year. You do the math on how many times I’ve had the great fortune of being audience to one of our very best singer-songwriters, with whose lasting and meaningful songs I can chart my adolescence, my young adulthood, and now—mercifully, miraculously—the start of my 30s.

Though I’ve had the chance to see Dar Williams many times, the enthusiasm I had for her and her music at 13 always resurges inside of my spirit whenever I get the opportunity to see her, my teen and college years long behind me. I wasn’t alone in this enthusiasm. Though it was clear that the vast majority of the audience was there to see the Indigo Girls—more on their diehard fans in a moment—there was no shortage of Dar fans in the audience, and she was greeted with raucous applause when she took to the stage for her eight-song set. She began with “As Cool As I Am,” something of a feminist anthem that we might call one of her “hits,” and the audience joined her in the chorus, singing, “I will not be afraid of women, I will not be afraid of women!”

“It’s so great to see so many three-dimensional humans,” joked Williams, who, like many artists during the course of the pandemic, played several digital shows livestreamed from her living room. Like Roche, this was one of Williams’ first gigs back in the flesh, and as ever, she delivered. Fans got to hear favorites like “The Babysitter’s Here,” a poignant, nostalgic song about the titular caregiver of Williams’ youth; “Are You Out There,” a song about—among other things—the power of independent radio; and “When I Was a Boy,” perhaps Williams’ best-known song, about growing up as a tomboy in a society hellbent on divisions of gender and sexuality.

Williams also previewed two new songs from I’ll Meet You There, her forthcoming record out this fall, and if those two songs were any indication, it’s bound to be yet another excellent record from the folk troubadour.

And then, finally, it was time for The Indigo Girls—Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, or “The Girls,” as they’re known by their fans. And boy, what fans they have! I spoke with Melissa Billings, of Philadelphia, who was there in the punishing heat with her wife Gretchen Schultz to see The Girls for more than her hundredth time.

“My first Indigo Girls show was in August of 1989 in Philadelphia,” Billings told me. “They spoke to me like few other artists of that era did, and their music has been a soundtrack to every important milestone in my life.”

This was a sentiment obviously shared by many in the audience, who gave The Girls much rowdy love from the moment they stepped out on stage and began “Power of Two.” Anyone who talks about The Indigo Girls invariably mentions their harmonies, and for good reason—they are distinctive and unparalleled in the world of music, and to hear them singing together is something special, indeed.

They went on to play other crowdpleasers like “Shame On You” and “Least Complicated,” and ended their set with perhaps their two biggest hits: “Galileo” and “Closer to Fine,” joined on the latter by Dar Williams and Lucy Wainwright Roche. As the crowd sang along at full volume—“the less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine!”—it was impossible not to feel encased, even if briefly, in a very special moment.