For much of Thursday night it was hard to tell who was having a better time at The Progressive's centennial celebration concert, the audience or the artists. But when Dar Williams and Melissa Ferrick lifted a young girl up onto the Orpheum Theatre's towering stage to join them for the second all-star jam to end the evening, it was pretty clear they wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
Based on the lineup for tonight's salute, it might have seemed the organizers were catering to a specific audience. And based on the crowd, it would seem the organizers succeeded. As Ferrick joked during her set, "how many lesbians does it take to get all the lesbians out?" "Three," she answered amidst wild cheers. "Emily... Amy... Melissa."
More important than the obvious crowd appeal that binds these musicians together is the fact that they are known for being outspoken on the rights of the people, not just women, and are unafraid to criticize the government when those rights have been violated -- just like the magazine they were celebrating. As headliner Ani DiFranco profoundly pointed out in her patriotic poem "Grand Canyon of Light," "Why can't all decent men and women call themselves feminists?" In case we missed the point, she paused from her recitation to insert the definition of feminist, "a person who believes in the equality of the sexes."
DiFranco even changed her set list based on the reception the Indigo Girls got. "I was going to do a little set of new songs," she claimed before playing "Both Hands," "but after listening to all of you sing with Emily and Amy, maybe I'll do some you can yodel along to."
Good thing The Progressive was founded when it was, because it is impossible to imagine what this centennial event would have been like even a year ago. The hope generated with Obama's election was obvious in all the performers' sets, from Difranco's "November 4, 2008" with its chorus of "Yes we can," to the borderline-inappropriate story the performer Hamell on Trial told about Michelle Obama.
At first the two men on the bill might seem out of place, but the booking actually did make sense. The aggressive Hamell on Trial is on DiFranco's Righteous Babe label, and the two are currently working on a political project together. Master of ceremonies Peter Mulvey, perfect for the job with his razor sharp wit and mesmerizing voice, has played with both DiFranco and Dar Williams.
Like the female artists, the men chose to play some of their more political material. For Hamell it was "Don't Kill," in which God himself explains what he meant by that commandment. Mulvey went with "29 Cent Head," a less than complimentary look at the previous administration, and "Abilene," about Dwight D. Eisenhower and a time when "we had presidents that both read and wrote books."
With any event like this, part of the draw is the potential to see the musicians collaborate. Tonight did not disappoint. Early in the night Mulvey, Catie Curtis and Williams joined Ferrick for Woody Guthrie's "Union Made." The encore found everyone on stage for Florence Reece's classic protest song "Which Side Are You On?" which was updated with new lyrics, and a powerful sing-along of the Indigo Girls' hit "Closer to Fine."
Despite the fact that two of the musicians who performed tonight have played shows in my basement, this is not the type of music I normally listen to. Even so, it was impossible not to get caught up in the spirit of things. Every word of every song seemed to resonate with the enthusiastic audience. With everyone playing short sets -- even the Indigo Girls barely played more than 20 minutes -- no one overstayed their welcome. (Except maybe Hamell with that First Lady bit.)
I had to agree when Ferrick gushed at the end of her three song set, "I'm pretty sure this is going to be the best night ever!"