When she was a music-loving kid in Decatur, Ga., Amy Ray often listened to her older sister's well-worn recording of the 1970 rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar."
Little did Ray imagine that many years later, as half of the mega-successful folk-rock duo The Indigo Girls, she would appear in a free-form revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice oratorio.
Alongside about 80 cohorts from Atlanta's thriving music scene, she plays Jesus on the eve of his crucifixion, with her Indigo Girls partner Emily Saliers, as Mary Magdalene, crooning the show's best-known song, "I Don't Know How to Love Him."
All this has come to pass thanks to fellow Atlanta-based drummer and "Jesus Christ Superstar" fanatic Michael Lorant. Lorant persuaded Ray and Saliers to sing those key roles on a rough-edged, hard-rocking new double CD of the gospel-based musical. Titled "Jesus Christ Superstar: A Resurrection," it was released in November on the Daemon label.
And though Ray insists, "We're really not actors at all," the Indigos also signed on for Lorant's tribal stage version of the electrified oratorio. Performed to ecstatic reception for one night in Atlanta, and two nights at the South by Southwest music booking conference in Austin, the free-form stage extravaganza begins a three-evening stand in Seattle on Friday.
Consider it the most offbeat item on this year's outdoor Summer Nights at the Pier concert schedule.
And, maybe, the final chance to see the youthful, exuberant floating commune of a bible pageant that Lorant has concocted. Along with the Indigos, the show features such independent Atlanta bands as Lorant's Big Fish Ensemble (Lorant himself plays Judas), the string-based Opal Foxx Quartet, the funk group Social Insanity and the Seed and Feed Marching Abominables.
And it is certainly the last local opportunity to see the dynamic Indigo Girls for a spell. The pair, who have been a popular Seattle attraction for nearly 10 years, plan to soon take a long break to rest, refuel and work on new tunes.
Perfect for the Pier
As with the three Southern shows, proceeds from the Pier dates will benefit nonprofit, grassroots anti-violence organizations - in this case, the gun-control organization Washington Ceasefire, and the local youth-oriented educational group, Mothers Against Violence.
But this down-home "Jesus Christ Superstar" revival, unlike a much slicker rendition now crisscrossing the country on the way to Broadway, never was intended as a touring item. In fact, it is coming to Seattle only because One Reel Productions program director Renee Duff happened to catch it in Austin, and convinced Ray and Lorant it would be perfect for the Pier.
"I was really stunned by the show," Duff recalls. "In the opening number the whole huge cast came on stage, and a spotlight picked out Amy in the audience.
"She was dressed in simple carpenter's clothes, with a hammer hanging from her belt. She started wailing out her first song, and everyone went crazy. It was such a thrilling combination of theater and rock concert, so raw and exciting."
A labor of love
Speaking from her home near Atlanta, Ray said she initially viewed Lorant's concept of re-recording "Jesus Christ Superstar" as simply a good fund-raising gimmick.
"I thought it would be a great project for my not-for-profit recording company, Daemon Records," she explained. "We produce benefit records for specific causes, and whatever money we earn goes right into the next project."
Ray also loved the idea of releasing the Lloyd Webber-Rice musical from the polyester '70s glitz of the film and Broadway versions of the show, and zeroing in on the rock power and passion.
"Michael's vision was that the rock aspect of `Jesus Christ Superstar' has been lost over the years. He wanted to get that back, and to bring together a really eclectic group of artists who represent the whole spectrum of the Atlanta scene, which is very diverse musically and ethnically."
Re-enacting the martyrdom and resurrection of Jesus in a grittier style and simpler, more direct format also meshed well with Ray's own religious views.
"I'm a spiritual person," explained the forthright singer-songwriter, in a deep twang redolent of her native Georgia.
"I was raised a Methodist in a good church, but I don't consider myself strictly Christian. In college I majored in religion and discovered a lot of other spiritual traditions moved me, too.
"I love nature and I worship in the woods now, but I can still appreciate the historical as well as the religious perspective in the story of Jesus. I believe in that story."
Dealing with controversy
Ray considers Jesus "a completely androgynous role, because it has a spiritual essence that transcends gender. I decided the kind of people who'd be troubled by me doing this are the same people who have trouble with the whole concept of `Jesus Christ Superstar.' When it was first produced on Broadway in 1971, it was considered kind of sacrilegious and there were some protests."
Though Georgia and Texas are considered part of the conservative Southern "Bible Belt," Ray reports that "we never heard anything negative about the religious aspect of the piece. Doing it as a benefit for gun-control groups in Texas was much more of an issue! Some of our fans were very angry about that."
But Ray is sticking by her guns, so to speak.
"This is an important issue for Michael, because he was mugged and shot a couple of years ago. Personally, I'm not against people having guns, but I want a really regimented way of buying them. I just think it's too easy for someone young and irrational to get one, too easy to commit a murder or suicide.
"I know that I can be somewhat irrational at times, and like a lot of artists I've gone through periods of depression. I'm really glad that during those times I didn't have a firearm in my own house."
Social activism and outspokenness have been part of the Indigo Girls' image since 1983, when Ray and Saliers fused their appealing voices and soulfully poetic songs into a duo act on the alternative-music circuit.
Friends since grade school, the women are frank about their lesbianism. (They were, but are no longer, involved romantically.) And their commitment to ecology issues and Native American rights shines through in their own songs, and in their financial contributions to numerous causes. The excellent sales of their fifth and most recent release, the Grammy-nominated "Swamp Ophelia," only increased their activism.
A tour with a purpose
"This spring we did a month-long tour to raise money for grassroots Indian movements that help the environment," Ray says. "These groups do language recovery, save sacred sites, create social projects. We raised over $300,000, and played on five reservations around the West."
One of the most memorable dates occurred, she says, "in Alaska, where we attended a hearing about clear cutting in Prince William Sound. Altogether it was a great tour, really moving, and we're going to do it regularly." Ray adds, with a hoarse laugh, "You could say we're slightly evangelistic on this issue."
After the Seattle run of "Jesus Christ Superstar," the Indigo Girls will make their annual summer appearance at the Newport Folk Festival.
"Then we're taking off for two years," Ray says. "We're tired. First we'll put out an album of live performances, but then we're going to just relax, and write, and work on our next record.
"We've been traveling nonstop for years now, and that's not healthy for your ego, your family, your relationships or your spirituality. As much of a gypsy as I am, I'm a homebody, too."
Still, Ray insists it won't be hard to summon up the adrenaline for one final go-round of "Jesus Christ Superstar." Sharing the stage with four score friends and fellow rock believers, she says, "is really a wild and wonderful thing. I think Seattle's gonna be a great big party."
------------------------ WHERE TO SEE `SUPERSTAR' ------------------------
The Indigo Girls and the biblical rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" come to Pier 62/63 in a Summer Nights at the Pier presentation, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Seats are still available for all three shows at $28 each; proceeds benefit Washington Ceasefire and Mothers Against Violence. Tickets: TicketMaster, 628-0888, or the Summer Nights Box Office at Pier 62/63. Information: 682-4-FUN.