Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Ani Difranco @ The Colonial Theater, Pittsfield, MA, April 21st, 2009
For most of the beautiful drive to Pittsfield, up in the Berkshires, I listened to a Grateful Dead channel on the satellite radio that came with my rental car. One of the things that I learned about the Dead when I was in high school was that, from night to night, their sets changed. They would play different songs from night to night, and they would play the same songs in different ways. I can remember rifling through the pages of Relix magazine, looking for anything Jefferson Airplane or Neil Young related and, instead, looking through Grateful Dead setlists, marveling at how many different songs the same six people knew how to play together. And they seemed to be touring constantly! Over the years, I learned about various band personnel changes and, now that the Dead are touring again, I have been reading stories in the New York Times about the degree of Deadhead sophistication when it comes to understanding what different periods in the history of the band reveal about changes in the band’s music.
A quick perusal of www.onherown.net reveals many of the same things about Ani Difranco. Her sets don’t vary quite as much as the Dead’s—whose do?—but she and her band mix things up quite a bit. And her sound, like the Dead’s, has somehow managed to simultaneously change while still being unmistakably Ani. Since she and her bands haven’t jammed with the same degree of improvisatory abstraction as the Grateful Dead—the Dead were never, ever as tight as an Ani band at its loosest—there isn’t as much variation between performances as you’d hear in Dead recordings. Ani Difranco, after all, cares too much about songs to mess with them too much; for the Dead, the songs were simply an excuse to jam. But for the faithful, the small details with which Ani and her bandmates infuse performances of familiar material are little treasures, adding new shades of meaning or, for me, eliciting joyous smiles at the band’s musicality. Oh, and one more thing…both the Dead and Ani’s various bands are anchored by a singer-guitarist of enormous power and charisma. The late Jerry Garcia, I am told, interacted less and less with audiences as the years went by. Ani Difranco, on the other hand, is conversational and informal.
I was thinking about the Dead and Difranco together for the entire ride to Pittsfield, and then the performance verified everything I had been thinking. After greeting us, Mr. Difranco played the opening lick to “Shy,” and the four-piece band made the song sound both different from the versions on Not a Pretty Girl (1995) and Living in Clip (1997) and the various other live recordings I own, and somehow the same. It occurred to me in the middle of the second song, “78%H2O,” that this is my favorite band in Ani’s history. Perhaps that has more to do with me than with her, but Allison Miller and Mike Dillon and Todd Sickafoose make her music jump and groove and careen forward with a very cool mixture of tightness and lively energy that makes every single song raise the levels on my internal emotional thermometer. Even when I found myself listening more to the music than to the words, I found immense satisfaction in everything. And there was, of course, the charismatic stage presence. Ani talked about all the new songs she’d be playing for us. After we cheered, she told us that “this isn’t one of them,” before ripping into “Manhole,” to our collective delight. It was most satisfying night of live music I’ve experienced in months.
Last night, Ani’s set was focused on newer material. There were four or five songs that have yet to be recorded, including “Promiscuity,” which she told us that she’d written after compiling the material for the Cannon (2007) anthology, which revealed to her, she said, how much she’d lied to herself over the years. There was also a wedding song, performed on solo guitar, and a song about appreciating one’s own life, set to a very danceable Latin rhythm. There was “Here for Now,” a great song from Evolve (2003) that I’d forgotten about, until I felt it shake my hand hello from the stage. She talked about Katrina and New Orleans before and after “Red Letter Year,” atomic energy before and after “The Atom,” and Barack Obama before and after the unrecorded “November 4th, 2008.” There was also “Good Luck” and “Smiling Underneath” from Red Letter Year (2008), both songs sounding better in front of an audience than they do on record.
While picking out a particular high point from the show is tough, there was a definitely a pivotal moment in the second half of the set. Ani announced that she had been invited to attend Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday party at Madison Square Garden, before performing the song that she had been asked to perform at the party: “Which Side Are You On?” She updated the lyrics a bit, and the band piped in to harmonize. She also invited us to sing along, reminding us that, after all, this was folk music. And from there, she dedicated an intense version of “Alla This” to Utah Philips. And finally, after telling us that we’d warmed up our singing voices, she pulled out one of the warmest of Difranco oldies (what she would call “a crusty old one”), “Both Hands,” to end the set.
We screamed for more, of course, and we got more: the percussion-heavy arrangement of “Every State Line,” plus the biggest sing-along moment of the show, “Gravel,” and, finally, a gentle “Hypnotized” to send us home.
I listened to more of the Grateful Dead on the way home. Heard a version of “Sugar Magnolia” that rocked. It went on for about 15 or 20 minutes. Hmm. Anybody ready for a half hour jam on “Shamless”…? Thought not.