On July 12th, Ani Difranco paid a visit with her band to The Pines in nearby Florence, Massachusetts. The Pines is an outdoor venue, sort of a miniature version of what you find at folk festivals, with a small hill leading down to the stage and, at the top of the hill, a series of vendors selling food and young women pushing progressive politics. I positioned myself fairly close to the stage, a move that I would later reconsider as I found myself squeezed in by a bunch of drunken dancing Difrancophiles who didn’t treat me much differently than a tree that happened to be in their way. But, for the hour or so before the opening act took the stage, it was a nice area to sit and enjoy the warmth and the beauty of Look Park.
As usual at Ani Difranco shows, I was an outsider. Back when I was with Emily, I could play the part of the chastened boyfriend, attending because his girlfriend wanted to go, even though, in reality, I was always every bit as enthusiastic as Em. The past couple of times I’ve seen Ani (this past November, in Boston, MA; this past January, in Portland, ME), I’ve been on my own, and that meant being a single heterosexual man in a sea of folks who were…well…not. I’m a bit too old to let something like that bother me, but it sure is noticeable.
One big difference between this show and recent Ani concerts I’ve seen was the popularity of the opening act: Kimya Dawson. This is the young woman who wrote a bunch of the songs that appear in the movie Juno. In concert, she strummed a guitar and half-sang, half-recited a series of wordy flights of fancy that had me smiling with pleasure. She conveys a real sweetness of temperament and a sense of fun that I love in my folk music. I don’t remember much about the songs, to be honest. I do remember that she played a few songs from an upcoming children’s album, one of which included an audience participation part in which Kimya had us make animal noises (“okay now boys and girls…”). And she played a song written by her brother, a love song that had some fun with the name of that most classy of professional wrestlers, Randy Savage. She was on stage for no more than 45 minutes or so, and I’m glad to have seen her.
When Ani and her band hit the stage, the crowd let out a yell, and we were off. I couldn’t have been happier with how she opened: “Anticipate,” a chestnut from Not So Soft (1991). Her band’s accompaniment was supple and functional, supporting the song rather than taking it over. More to the point, the band was supporting the guitarist-singer. There was no mistaking whose show this was. Ani sounded fantastic; she was very much on. On “Anticipate,” she eliminated gender specificity, as she sang “Get a firm grip / before you let go,” dropping the “girl” that used to say all that needed to be said about her target audience.
From there, she took us on a tour through her two most recent albums, a few new songs, and a couple of visits into her back catalogue. There is plenty of room in an Ani Difranco set for fan favorites, “classic” material, and songs that sound like artist favorites. She played four songs from one of her best albums, Little Plastic Castles (1998). “Gravel” came four songs into her set, and triggered screams of excitement and an all-out singalong. I love that one myself. It features almost everything that makes Ani Difranco special, privileging her percussive guitar playing and exuberant singing. “As Is” came a few songs later, and that’s a song I’d forgotten about. There’s yet another sign of greatness: a song on her best album is easy to forget about but, when heard again, is like a warm handshake hello. The impact of “Two Little Girls” was enormous, coming as it did right after the lovely ballad to her “baby’s daddy,” “Way Tight.” “Way Tight” is such a cute song, played solo, that “Two Little Girls,” also played solo, felt like a raging storm. The guitar playing on that one is like a tornado, and I wasn’t surprised that, by the end of the song, she had broken one of her ought-to-be-patented Lee press-on nails that she uses to play guitar. “Little Plastic Castles” came later, as her second encore. I can remember seeing her last year with Melissa Ferrick joining her for this song to play the trumpet part and sing some harmonies. But it sounded just fine without her.
As I mentioned earlier, Ani’s song catalogue is awfully deep, and there were other welcome moments. I’m partial to “Modulation,” with its slinky groove, from Knuckle Down (2005), and “Angry Anymore” from Up Up Up Up Up Up (1999). This is a songwriter whose catalogue has grown so deep that, with an attentive band, she is capable of switching things around from night to night. A perusal of her setlists from recent gigs (see www.onherown.net) shows that she does just that. How will her career play out, I wonder? She’s been a model of under-the-radar professionalism so far, and her songwriting, singing, arranging, band-leading, and guitar playing are wonders to behold, now as ever. She’s so full of energy, I can’t imagine the new mother ever slowing down. Her gigs are, to be sure, a bit shorter than they were in the years when I first began seeing her perform. I don’t think she plays for two hours at a time anymore. But her discography and song catalogue are so chalk full of great material, with so few flubs, that I bet she could easily make a career out of recording at this point, if, say, motherhood or health problems became too much of a burden. But, again, I can’t really imagine that. This is a performer who lives for the stage.
Speaking of which, these days Ani Difranco’s touring band is a four piece: longtime bandmate Todd Sickafoose on standup bass, Mike Dillon on percussion and vibes, and Allison Miller on drums. Each time I’ve seen this band, I’ve enjoyed it more and more. Like many Difrancophiles, I miss the days of Andy Stochansky and Sara Lee, the band that was captured on her first live album, Living in Clip (1997). But the current band measures up, I think. I used to think that Allison Miller wasn’t as subtle a drummer as Andy Stochansky, and that may well be true, but she’s damn good. I think she’s more of a rock drummer than he was, a bit more balls-to-the-wall. Mike Dillon impresses me each time out with his fills and flourishes. During this show, I was close enough to notice he and Miller grinning at each other during some songs. Either they were sharing a private joke, or they were having so much fun with each other on stage that they were bursting with joy. My guess is the second: Ani Difranco’s stage looks like a fun place to be. Finally, Todd Sickafoose is clearly very comfortable onstage with Ani. He’s been playing with her since 2004 or so, after she disbanded her road bank of the previous few years. You can see him on the Trust (2004) DVD, and he looks pretty comfortable even then. He seems to blend into the sound of the band more completely than his bandmates. In part, that’s distinctive of the bass in modern popular music; so I recently learned from watching Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, a fabulous documentary about the great sound engineer, who worked the boards for artists ranging from Ray Charles to Ornette Coleman to Aretha Franklin to Eric Clapton to the Allman Brothers. Apparently, in some of the pop recordings of the 1930s and 40s, it was often very difficult to tell if there even was a bass.
Things wound down Saturday night with a new song, a rant called “Alla This.” It wound up not being the end of her political material, though. We all screamed for the encores, of course, and, before she had returned into view from backstage, she had already begun to play the opening guitar part from “Evolve,” one her best personal-is-political-is-personal-is… songs ever. I wouldn’t mind it if that became her standard concert closer; it’s a quite a feeling to chant along with her doing the instrumental parts, as the band turns the song into a rallying cry much bigger and more powerful than what you hear on Evolve (2003). “Little Plastic Castles” came next.
To send us home, Ani served up yet another oldie. “Overlap” featured Allison Miller’s harmony singing, as the band stretched out the ending of the song for a minute, chanting the final syllable of the song title with the band leader, as Miller, Sickafoose, and Dillon kept the groove going. It felt like a lullaby except that, instead of putting us to sleep, it left us wanting more. Like all of the greats, Ani Difranco knows how to pace a concert. What doesn’t she know how to do? I didn’t much care for the big band, but even then, that was a question of taste, not judgment. Album after album, show after show, I keep wondering what she’ll do for an encore, what she’ll do to stay fresh. Live her life, appears to be the answer. More than any other performer I can think of, Ani is a star for whose fans she can do no wrong.