IOWA CITY — Mood Indigo swept through downtown Iowa City on Friday night, jamming every nook and cranny within earshot of the Iowa Arts Festival main stage.
Some of us had to settle for earshot when our clear sightline to the stage was obliterated by fans standing and grooving to the beat of the Indigo Girls. I tried to move, but there was no place to move to, so I settled in to listen to the sublime harmonies and melodies of musical mavens Amy Ray and Emily Saliers.
The time has come for Summer of the Arts to consider adding a big screen or two so people on the periphery can bask in the energy the early birds felt in front of the stage. Fortunately, I got to experience that electricity toward the end of the show, when a space opened up so I could join a friend who set up her chair front and center at 5 p.m.
Being up front was sublime, and totally saved my evening. I knew I had been hearing some fabulous fiddle, but to actually see Lyris Hung in action was beyond incredible.
She tore into the music for nearly two hours, and was nothing short of incendiary on the final encore, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Fire flew from her fingertips as she played her fiddle hard, causing a heavenly shade of hell to break loose, ending the show on a hoedown high.
That wild homage to the Indigo Girls’ home state was the exclamation counterpoint to the first encore, “Closer to Fine,” the duo’s first and hottest hit, catching plenty of mainstream radio love from the 1989 self-titled debut album. A huge cheer erupted from the crowd on the opening strains of this singalong song, stripped down to just Ray and Saliers on acoustic guitars, with Hung adding an ever-so-sweet violin line.
Ray and Saliers surpassed fine years ago.
The passion of their lives and the courage of their convictions are woven through their folk rock that runs the gamut from quietly contemplative relationship elegies to spirited calls for action. Even at their most pensive and heartbreaking, they are anything but blue.
They pump up the fun factor with electric bass and drums on the zippy “Fill it Up Again,” the bouncy “Get Out the Map” and the “lalala” chorus on the kicky “Shame on You.”
Their trademark gorgeous, unusual harmonies pierced the perfect night air on “Leaving” and “Dairy Queen,” the latter deliciously dipped in Ray’s harmonica sprinkles.
The only song where the outdoor setting didn’t mix well with their wide-ranging, complicated harmonies was “The Wood Song.” Their intonation strayed too far apart, but the lyrics breathed so much poetry into the night air, that the briefly rocky ride was easy to bear.
I doubt the fierce fans cared about such a little blip on an otherwise stellar evening. They were there to sing and dance to ’90s favorites “Galileo” and “Power of Two,” as well as revel in the haunting romance of Ray’s “Share the Moon” off the 2011 album, “Beauty Queen Sister.”
Hours before the moon came out, Colorado band Euforquestra returned to its Iowa City roots to get a groove on through horn-soaked blasts of funk and reggae. Fueled by two tenor saxes and trumpet, with electric slides from guitar and keyboards, the crowd-pleasing sound is layered over driving and loping beats. Sometimes one melts right into the other.
The evening’s best surprise was the master blast of “Fire,” a retro Tower of Power meets Moog synthesizer piece with a popping groove. Written by keyboard player Matt Wright, who returned to Iowa City a week ago to get married, it’s a great way to jump-start a crowd already primed for a free evening of wonder.
The Iowa Arts Festival continues Saturday with main stage headliner Steve Earle & The Dukes, and wraps up Sunday with more music, food and fun for all ages, as well as booths showcasing painting, photography, pottery, jewelry and more from artists near and far. For details, go to Summerofthearts.org