Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ani, in all her forms

I had been planning on writing on so many other things for so long--the Jack Hardy cannon, Robert Christgau's cool music reviews--but something else has come up. Thanks to a friendly trader I met on, I now find myself with several (more) hours worth of live Ani recordings, over four shows: one from '94, one from '97, and two from '08. This particular trader has a fine selection of boots, and I had to choose from among a pretty wide selection. I won't bore readers with extensive reviews of each one...but some commentary is definitely in order.

Let's start with the performance from July 7th, 1997. This is from her European tour, her last series of shows before an August jaunt, opening for Bob Dylan. The legendary Andy Stochansky on drums, Jason Mercer on bass--a Canadian rhythm section. After she introduced them, she proceeded to inform her audience: "If you have any rhythmic or melodic complaints, you can address them directly." No complaints here: after listening to this show, I regret my recent comments about Ani's current band being my favorite. With all due respect to Allison Miller, Andy Stochansky has so many tricks up his sleeve, he makes Houdini look like Bozo. What he does with "Fire Door" and "Worthy" and, in particular, "Buildings and Bridges," make both songs sound better than they have ever sounded. Meanwhile, Jason Mercer is every bit the Sarah Lee. But Sarah looked so cool on stage. I was fortunate enough to see both of them play bass for Ani back in the day. I can hear their comparable musicalities on recordings, but I have a very fond recollection of seeing Sarah Lee grooving to the music on stage, looking oh so cool. As I write these words, I realize that my enjoyment of this recording has something to do with nostalgia. I remember seeing this band at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore and being blown away by everything. I remember hearing her sing the then-new, unrecorded song "Glass House" at Newport in 1996, and being mesmerized. I remember being with old friends at the Providence Performing Art Center not long after that, when she opened with "God's Country," which I'd never heard before that night. Strange in a way that Ani Difranco would be someone that I would associate emotional growth and the transition into maturity with, but I do. Anyway, she and her band were on fire on July 7th of 1997. "Glass House" sounds great, but the peak moment, I think, is "Letter to a John" leading into her old poem, "The Slant." And before she gets to the poem, she offers her lapdancing services for "10 deutchmarks a song."

If Andy S. sounded subtle and sensitive in 1997, he sounded raging and hard in 1994. The show from February of that year, from the now-defunct Wetlands in New York City, was a drums-and-Ani show, and it features some really hard-rocking stuff
from Andy...on basically every song. She covers her early catalog in lots of detail, including stuff I've basically forgotten about, like "4th of July" or "Falling is Like This," which reminds me that I should give Out of Range (1994) another spin one of these days. "Pick Yer Nose" is introduced as "a little dance tune." "In or Out" is so intense, it's almost unhinged. She precedes "My IQ" by asking her audience if she'd mentioned how happy she was to be there, and Andy's percussion is on overdrive on "Anticipate." And, after "Not so Soft," but before the encore ("Out of Range"), she ends the performance with an a capella cover of Bruce Cockburn's "Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long." Now, I can totally understand her affinity for Cockburn...but why that song, I wonder?

The material from 2008 is outstanding. The band captured on these recordings is the one that she continues to tour with today. It's been her touring unit since around 2006. Alison Miller isn't as subtle a drummer as Andy Stochansky, she's more of a power drummer. Todd Sickafoose has been playing bass for Ani since 2002 or thereabouts and is excellent, maybe her best bass player ever. And Mike Dillon handles vibes and a bunch of other percussion devices.

The recordings of her April 6th and July 13th shows from 2008 show off a slightly jazzy band, looking back at what has become a huge catalog of good and great songs. The April show has a tad too much audience noise for my taste, but the performance shines through anyway. What I love is the way that the old material shines through with Mike Dillon's contributions. When they play recent material, like "78%H20" and "Nicotine," he is spot on. For the April show, they opened with "Shy," and "Not a Pretty Girl" came a few songs in, and "As Is" a few songs after that...and Dillon is there with some subtle flourishes that elevate the material (and that goes double for "As Is"). This is something that her horn band didn't do (exhibit A: my recording of her April 14th, 2000 show at UC Davis, when the horns really muck up "Shameless," among other songs). On July 13th, a lot of oldies were performed, including "You Had Time," heartbreaking, and "Anticipate," harsh, but I was especially to hear "If He Tries Anything," performed solo. And "Untouchable Face" with a lot of vocal tricks and some typically subtle and effective touches from Mike Dillon's vibes. Final note on the April 6th show: they did "Evolve" to finish up. On record, it's just fine, or maybe slightly better than that. With the full band backing her, and a screaming audience, it becomes a fireball, a call to arms, a hard rocking rant. My recollection of her performance of that one at the Pines from last summer is a treasured memory.

Ani is one of very few touring musicians on the scene right now who I always go out of my way to catch, and these live recordings verify that I'm not making a mistake. Good thing too, because I have tickets to see her twice in November.


Matt Winters said...

Despite knowing maybe one-twentieth as much about Ani's musical catalogue and even less about the personnel from her bands over the years, I really found this set of comparisons quite interesting. Thanks!

3shells said...

I'm actually listening to some of this stuff right now. It's really choice material. This woman exudes musicality.