Indigo Girls Kick Off Central Park SummerStage Series In N.Y.

Joan Osborne and members of Spearhead join them for encore of 'Midnight Train to Georgia.'

NEW YORK — "This was supposed to be our summer tour," Amy Ray said, laughing, as she and musical partner Emily Saliers greeted a bundled-up crowd on a damp and chilly evening at the Central Park SummerStage opening concert Tuesday.

(Click here for an overview and the schedule of the SummerStage concert series.)

The Indigo Girls kicked off the evening with "Peace Tonight," from their current Epic release, Come On Now Social.

The masses of people surrounding the stage were on their feet from the first note. As night fell and the stage lights went up, the front line of enthusiastic fans, bathed in a luminous light, seemed to hang on every lyric and note.

The Girls rolled through material from their 10-year career — including new tunes such as "Gone Again," "Faye Tucker" and "Ozilline" (RealAudio excerpt) as well as tried-and-true classics such as "Closer to Fine," which became an aggressive audience sing-along, and "Galileo."

They also dusted off "Kid Fears" from 1991's Back on the Bus, Y'All.

The first of many guest performers showed up early, with Joan Osborne contributing harmonies to the opening number, "Peace Tonight." (Osborne, with Sheryl Crow, Kate Schellenbach of Luscious Jackson, Meshell Ndegeocello and others, appeared on the Indigo Girls' Come On Now Social.)

On "Shed Your Skin," a hip-hop-like track from 1997's Shaming of the Sun, the band got a funky lift from show opener Spearhead's saxophonist. And an atmospheric version of "Virginia Woolf," from 1995's 1200 Curfews, sung by Saliers, featured Crow's violinist Lorenza Ponce.

"Get Out the Map," also from Shaming of the Sun, drew cheers from the audience, some of whom waved homemade signs at the band. But when they tore into "Go" (RealAudio excerpt) and invited the audience to raise their hands, the predominantly female crowd did just that, and a blanket of outstretched hands swayed in time to the tune.

"I wrote this because I was upset with the church," Saliers explained in an extended intro to "Philosophy of Loss." As she accompanied herself on acoustic guitar, she verbalized her feelings about the church's unwavering stance on homosexuality.

Over the course of their career, the Indigo Girls often have found themselves enmeshed in controversy because of their social activism — last week, for instance, they played at a concert in Washington, D.C., in support of "pirate" FM radio stations. In past years, concerts they've scheduled at Southern schools have come under fire from authority figures wary of their sexuality.

At one point during the evening they were joined by Come On Now Social co-producer John Reynolds, who coincidentally was in town. Also sharing the stage was the stellar band featured on the recent CD: Carol Isaacs on keyboards, accordion and percussion; Matt Brubeck on cello and percussion; Clare Kenny on bass and vocals and Blair Cunningham on drums.

Loved not only for their lilting, ethereal harmonies but also for their unabashed honesty, the Indigo Girls scooped up flowers offered from gushing fans at the close of the show.

The encore began with singer/songwriter Rose Polenzani — signed to Ray's label Daemon — with Ray and Saliers providing harmonies. Then, with lights blazing, all the guest artists — from the members of Spearhead to Osborne — returned for a rendition of Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Midnight Train to Georgia," a song the Girls included on 1200 Curfews.

The Indigo Girls show was the first of three benefit programs scheduled over the course of the summer to support the otherwise free, multicultural, multimedia SummerStage series, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this season. (Sonicnet.com is a sponsor of SummerStage.)