A study in contrasts this past weekend, as two different kinds of performers dominated two different kinds of stages. On Friday night, Denise and I attended the Ani Difranco concert at Town Hall, the first of two nights for Ani at that venue. Saturday night, however, we traded the screaming Difrancophiles and the concert hall for the more quiet, but nearly as passionate folkies at the Postcrypt Coffeehouse of Columbia University for a trio of fine local singer-songwriters: Jack Hardy, Tim Robinson, and Chris Fuller.
The Town Hall show began with Pieta Brown. I learned, several songs into her set, that this was the daughter of the great Greg Brown. She has a lovely singing voice. Rather like the Cowboy Junkies, Denise suggested to me during the set. True, that: you could hear a bit of Margot Timmins in the singing. I don't remember the songs as well. Bo Ramsey played guitar with her. This is a guy who has played with a lot of the greats, from Iris Dement to Lucinda Williams to Greg Brown. I just now went to peruse his website (www.boramsey.com) and I see that he has even played with Ani. Quite a resumé. Anyway, his fills and flourishes were very good. In fact, they were my favorite part of the performance. I think I'd like to see Pieta Brown again, but at a place like the Postcrypt, with a bit more intimacy. I bet she would have been at home in a round robin-style set-up with Jack Hardy and company.
Ani took the stage with energy and excitement, leaping to the front of the stage as she launched into "Little Plastic Castles." Unlike the Ani show I saw up here in Massachusetts back in July, this one really focused on new material. Half a dozen songs from her newest album, Red Letter Year (2008), and several songs that have to appear on an album, along with representative songs from each of the four albums from Evolve to Reprieve. The band was in fine form, with Mike Dillon hammering his percussion devices, Allison Miller pounding away and harmonizing beautifully, and bassist Todd Sickafoose taking a turn at the pump organ at stage left.
The new songs all sounded good; no surprise there. The real surprise was hearing a song about Barack Obama. Has Ani ever written a song that praised an American politician like this? I don't think so. She also complemented the President Elect three songs into the set as she replaced the line about "Tweedledum or Tweedledumber" in "Fuel" with "fucking Barack Obama." Nice touch.
Highlights? I think my favorite moment was the performance of "Nicotine." I've noticed that, not only does the Reprieve album improve every time I listen to it, but its songs improve enormously in concert. I suppose that's true of most of Ani's material, but it's particularly noticeable for Reprieve, an album that I didn't immediately make contact with but now enjoy almost as much as its predecessor, Knuckle Down (2005). Anyway, Ani played the opening chords to "Nicotine" before stopping to fix one of her nails. Then, she resumed playing, as her bandmates accompanied her quietly. It was one of the subtler moments of the performance, and a great one. From the new album, "Present Infant" and "Landing Gear" were particularly good moments too. I had been hoping for "Way Tight," but no such luck.
As I mentioned a moment ago, she played fewer old songs (say, anything before 2000) than she did when I saw her earlier. "Napoleon" came about halfway into the set. "Gravel" ended the set. For the encore, all four musicians took up percussion instruments and played a guitar-free version of "Every State Line," which was very satisfying. Finally, to send us off into the night, "Overlap" from Out of Range (1994).
It was a satisfying show, Denise and I agreed. The crowd was energetic, although it didn't dance, we were sorry to see. But we sang, we cheered, we screamed for our Ani, and she gave up the folk and the funk for around 90 minutes. Ani's songs are good-to-great, but in concert I'm moved by the sound of the band, and this is a real good one. I do miss Andy Stochansky, but the Miller-Dillon-Sickafoose band just keeps sounding better to me. Denise didn't care for Mike Dillon's percussion, and I admit that, the first time I heard him play with her at the Beacon in 2006, I didn't much like his contributions either. But every time I've heard him since, I've liked him more and more. Just the same, the simple fact of the matter is that Ani Difranco is one of a small handful of performers I can think of who absolutely own the stage they walk own. Her guitar playing is a miracle of intensity and precision, and she's one of the most brilliant and talented popular singers I've ever heard. What more do you want?
At the Postcrypt (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/postcrypt/coffeehouse/), on the other hand, all the performers have to work with is songs. There is no sound system, and there is no room for a band. Ani herself played the Postcrypt stage in her early days (May of 1993, according to www.onherown.com), a show I would have loved to have seen. Who shared the stage with her, I wonder? .... Okay, I just checked at the Postcrypt's website: the answer is Amy Correia, a pretty good singer-songwriter in her own right, but not someone I'd put in the same league as Mr. Difranco. At any rate, on Saturday night, there was a round-robin style performance from 9 to midnight.
Denise and I arrived at around 9:40 to find a packed Postcrypt. For the last few years, the fire marshal has been cracking down on the 35-person limit. That's unfortunate. I have a lot of great memories of Postcrypt shows with the room crammed full of 50 or more people, many of them sitting on the floor. This time, Denise and I spent the first half hour or so standing at the doorway. But it was a typical Postcrypt crowd: they were there to hear the songs. They were utterly silent during the performance, except when the songs elicited laughter or singalong moments.
The performers on stage were part of Jack Hardy's crew. As I wrote in a previous post, if you don't know about Jack Hardy and his accomplishments (musical and otherwise), you owe it to yourself to check him out (www.jackhardy.com). On stage left, closest to where Denise and I stood (and, later, sat), sat Chris Fuller who, I believe, is a more recent remember of Jack's songwriting circle. He was good. The standouts were a song about a Mexican woman wrestler and another one called "Get a Room," which was what he demanded of "church and state." Pretty clever. Tim Robinson has been with Hardy for 10 years or more, if I'm not mistaken. Again: a very talented guy. His singing voice is an acquired taste, I've often thought, although Denise approved right from the outset. His stage presence is wry and relaxed.
But Jack was the man I was most excited to see. He performed a number of new songs (included a few that he played before Denise and I arrived, I was told). The ones we heard included "Kansas," the first song we heard him perform that night, and, to close the evening, a song that might have been called "Ask Questions," which was marvelous. In between those two, Jack took some requests, and he treated us to several recent, and a couple of older songs. First came "Johnny's Gone," which was a real delight. It's a favorite of mine, from the album Civil Wars (1994). The recording features a firm, but slow rock beat and an electric guitar solo: not arrangements you usually hear on a Jack Hardy album. Saturday night, however, the man played it solo on the acoustic guitar. If Ani Difranco is a cunning, canny singer, blessed with a plastic, pliable singing voice and a brain that knows how to use it, Jack Hardy is all heart and passion. He can't do the things that Ani can do, but his natural instrument is so beautiful that he can put over his love ballads and political songs and story songs with ease. This is a man who has made a career, an entire lifestyle around songwriting. A week does not pass without him writing a song, and that has been so for over 30 years. His talent is immense. He played "The Bells of San Blas" and "I Oughta Know" (which turned into a singalong), "The Zephyr (Take it Slow)" (also from Civil Wars), and my favorite single moment of the evening, the title track from White Shoes (1981). "White Shoes" is a beautiful ballad and, by the end, the entire audience was singing softly along with the refrain.
It was a sweet Postcrypt homecoming for me. Matt Winters was there, along with his father. Jack Hardy's daughter, Morgan, was there, and she introduced me to Jack, which was cool. I think I recognized a couple of the other older folks in the audience from Postcrypt shows of years past. It felt like home, somehow. Town Hall had felt different. There was a communal feel to both shows, but the communities were quite different. Denise and I went home feeling tired but content.