Above: The Indigo Girls performed Saturday night with the Spokane Symphony.
Showmanship is a skill that separates the best musicians from the crowd. Even a talented crowd.
As an example, I attended a New Year's Eve show sometime in the 1980s that featured Johnny Rivers. A musician who had several hit songs in the 1960s — songs such as "Mountain of Love" and "Secret Agent Man" — Rivers performed that night with a curious lack of energy. He seemed to talk more to his band than address the audience, even if he played and sang competently enough.
Then on Saturday night I experienced the opposite. Watching the duo The Indigo Girls — Amy Ray and Emily Saliers — perform with the Spokane Symphony, I watched a couple of talented musicians play great music, blend their musical skills seamlessly with the symphony and interact with a crowd that might have alienated someone with less patience.
Over the years, Ray and Saliers have amassed a large selection of songs that their fervid fans know by heart. And throughout the evening, some of those fans would shout out a title. Ray, at one point, explained that they were working from a set program. It was necessary to do so, she said, because she didn't think they had enough musical talent to improvise with the symphony.
She made the crowd laugh when she suggested that doing so might make for an interesting experiment. But she'd made her point. They were going to play the songs on the program and that was that.
Fans being fans, though, some kept shouting out their requests. And Ray and Saliers responded graciously, at times simply ignoring the shouts, at times laughing along with them, but overall taking them in stride. As those who know what good showmanship is tend to do.
The Indigo Girls proved something that Johnny Rivers forgot all this years ago: that good performance is more than merely playing good music.