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Ani DiFranco opens with the old classic “Little Plastic Castle” at Symphony Hall in Boston on Sunday.
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Ani DiFranco

Supported by Erin McKeown

Symphony Hall

Nov. 16, 2008

The Little Folk-singer isn’t so little anymore: with more than sixteen studio albums in her catalogue, ownership of her independent label Righteous Babe Records, and now a mother to a two-year-old daughter, Ani Difranco has built a career that’s unparalleled by that of any other female solo artist. Her poignant lyrics are both bitingly honest and elegant, a result of her prior study of poetry at The New School. Erin McKeown supported DiFranco last Sunday at Symphony Hall, playing a short set of simple yet clever songs with just one guitar and her voice. She opened with a fast-paced tune in which she questioned “what kind of lover am I?”

The acoustics of Symphony Hall instantly brought McKeown’s performance to an intimate level. She herself commented on the sound of the room, exclaiming that “even [the audience] sounds good!” McKeown continued through a set of both slow and fast songs, attributing one song to the theme of claustrophobia: three verses made reference to the death of her uncle, her discomfort with riding a tour bus full of smokers, and the media’s exploitation of Terry Schiavo. A mantra-like chorus of “I can’t breathe,” followed every verse, uniting the three distinct scenarios. Though she stood at just over 5 feet tall, the little performer took outstanding command of the stage and ended with a song that had the audience on their feet pumping fists in the air (at the request of McKeown, that is).

After a short intermission, the crowd voluntarily rose as DiFranco entered. Without hesitation, she strummed the opening chords of “Little Plastic Castle,” a song that dates back to 1998. After an animated rendition of the live classic “Swim,” DiFranco announced she would play a “really new song” explaining that “the new album just isn’t new enough anymore.” She celebrated the recent historic election and the power of democracy in an engaging, upbeat number. Her delivery of the line “President Obama, it’s an honor just to say it,” caused an audience uproar, and DiFranco couldn’t hide her smile.

Filling out the stage was long-time DiFranco collaborator Todd Sickafoose on bass, Allison Miller on drums and Mike Dillon taking care of marimba and various other percussion instruments. Dillon’s sustained tones permeated DiFranco’s precision-calculated fingerpicking, adding an exciting element to old songs. The band successfully transformed “Evolve,” which was originally recorded as a solo piece, into a heavy and pulsating rock song. The beginning line to the third verse, “now let’s get talking reefer madness,” achieved new relevance: the voters in the crowd rejoiced at the recent decision to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in the state of Massachusetts.

Five songs from DiFranco’s latest release, Red Letter Year, made it into Sunday night’s set. As a new mother, new themes appear in DiFranco’s songwriting. In a stunning performance of “Present/Infant,” DiFranco sings “now here’s this tiny baby … and yes i will defend to the ends of the earth her perfect right to be.” She also tackles issues of science and technology on “The Atom,” a track which she claims she is most proud of on the new record.

With a hard-working band to revitalize new and old arrangements, a child to bring perspective to her worldview, and an admirable touring schedule, DiFranco is still a tour-de-force in the music business. Her ability to accomplish such success through her independent label proves that she will always, at heart, be the Little Folk-singer — and not the Big Corporate Folk-puppet.