A real folk singerBy Fred Choi
To say that Ani DiFranco is a bit of an anomaly among modern rock musicians would be a gross understatement. Along with being undisputably the most successful musician on an independent record label, as evidenced by two Grammy nominations, as well as the albums that have appeared on Billboard’s music charts, and sold out concerts worldwide, Ani further sets herself apart from other rock musicians by touring almost constantly. A self-described folksinger, Ani tours not only because she loves it and because she feels that the immediacy of live performance better represents her songs, but also because she believes that it is an important aspect of being a folksinger -- to relate to “the folk.”
And relate she did to the audience, which incidentally was largely female at the Providence Civic Center last Saturday night. Ani is known for having a easy rapport with her audience, and it was conveyed not only through the incredible virtuosity and energy with which she performed her songs, but also through the comments she made between songs. The hour-and-a-half 20-song set was full of variety and amply displayed Ani’s prowess in both music and lyrics. The songs ranged from intimate ballads to energized funk to opinionated poetry, interspersed with Ani’s characteristic intelligence and silliness. The concert was only the second of Ani’s North American tour, whimsically called “George,” although she has already toured Australia and Europe earlier this year.
This time around Ani was backed by a new drummer, Darren Hahn. Although longtime drummer and goofball Andy Stochanksy was missed, Darren did an amazing job of integrating his sound with Ani’s and the rest of the band, especially considering that he’s only been playing with them for a few months. Jason Mercer, who has been touring with Ani since 1997, played bass and joined in on some background vocals, as did Julie Wolf, who has been around since last year and who also covered the keyboards with breathtaking proficiency. Not only did Wolf perfectly back Ani’s vocals, but she also impressed the audience with her playing on melodica, Hammond Organ, and electric keyboard. And somehow Julie was able to make the accordion -- an instrument that some people have nightmares about -- rock in a very cool way, on such tunes as “Little Plastic Castle” and “Angry Anymore.” When Ani wasn’t in the spotlight jumping up and down with her guitar and delivering her potent lyrics with force, she was wandering around the stage physically interacting with the other members of the band. The friendly and at the same time respectful relationship the people onstage had with one another was a wonderful and unique aspect of the show.
The majority of the songs performed were relatively new material from Ani’s two most recent albums, Up Up Up Up Up Up and Little Plastic Castle. Of these the highlights included the funky, energized “Jukebox” and the heartbreakingly beautiful, “‘Tis of thee,” two of the best tracks off of the new album. New versions of older songs, such as “Cradle and All” and “Pulse” were also very welcome and thoroughly enjoyable. However, two of the very best songs of the night were by far the two unreleased songs; according to Ani, one of them had only been performed the night before, and which she humorously described as being “very polished.” The other, possibly titled “Birmingham,” is a deeply affecting interweaving of three separate but related accounts, one concerning the bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, another -- the shooting of an abortion doctor in his home in Buffalo, and the third -- Ani’s own experience of having an abortion. One of Ani’s greatest strengths is her ability to tackle controversial political material and communicate it in a serious and beautiful way, and the song was a perfect example of this. Another strength that Ani displayed during the evening was her ability to juxtapose the serious with the downright silly. This became apparent at several different times during the show, for example when she eulogized The Muppet Show as a spoken introduction to “‘Tis of Thee,” a song concerning the inequities within the criminal justice system in America.
Along with the great music and lyrics, the lights were also excellent, especially on the first song, “Virtue,” when they perfectly complemented the structure and some of the nuances of the song. In addition, the opening act, Drums with Tuba, was a unique group featuring drums, guitar, and, yes, tuba, that managed to make the audience reject their initial disbelief at a tuba being a valid rock instrument and appreciate the instrumental songs they performed. The group proved to be more than just a novelty act, as some of their songs were actually very enjoyable.
Although most aspects of the show were close to perfect, there were some that were far from ideal. Even longtime fans found that after the first four songs most of the rest lost their individuality, as songs tended to bleed into each other. This was because of their similar sound and rhythm, a problem that would have been remedied by including more contrasting songs, such as “Fuel.” In addition, there were definite problems with the sound, especially with Ani’s vocal mic. Many of her words were unintelligible, although one could solve this problem by sitting or standing next to one of the numerous audience members who insisted on singing along to every song.
For old fans, Ani’s performance in Providence was a chance to hear some gorgeous new songs, new versions of old songs, great versions of newer songs, and Ani’s amusing and sometimes enlightening chatter. For new fans, it was a chance to have the fun and unique experience of seeing Ani’s songs really come alive onstage and to see how much fun and how stirring Ani is to see live. For both groups, it was a completely memorable concert, as we saw Ani shrink the size of the stadium down to the size of an intimate room in a way that very few people can, and relate to “the folk,” giving us all something to think about and to enjoy -- like a truly great folksinger.