About half a dozen songs into Ani Difranco's recent Calvin Theater show, I had as emotional an experience as I've had at an Ani show for many years. The singer-songwriter-bandleader had already knocked my socks off by opening with "Anticipate" and following it up with "Swan Dive." And she made me want to revisit To The Teeth (1999) by following that with "Providence." And then there was one of her new ones, "Promiscuity." But the truest, realest, awesomest moment came next. After thanking her friend Animal for the inspiration, and with Todd Sickafoose playing a keyboard part, she began singing "She Says."
My reaction had less to do with the greatness of the song and more with my own personal history. I cannot really identify with what goes on in the song. But from the opening line, I was transported back to my lonely college dorm in the fall of 1995. The previous summer, my friends and I had seen Ani play the Newport Folk Festival, and it seemed that everyone I knew had to buy a copy of Not a Pretty Girl after that. Me, I was pretty uptight about saving my pennies at the time. But, a couple of months into college life, I shelled out the big bucks to buy the only Ani album I could find at the local CD store: Like I Said (1993). I listened to it constantly for the rest of the academic year. Hearing the opening to that tune, "She said forget what you have to do / pretend there is nothing outside this room" actually made my chest clench up a bit and brought tears to my eyes. When I was a college freshman, I didn't think nearly enough about the world outside my room, outside my own head, and I was a scared little pup.
So, this isn't about Ani's greatness. It's about the fact that I came of age with her, as I've written in previous entries.
The greatness was on display elsewhere, namely in the the depth of her catalog (which is, by now, astonishing, prompting her to say, early on, that she's had to learn new old songs, "to the keep the old new, as it were") and in her freakishly intense guitar playing and singing. But let's dwell for a moment on her back catalog, shall we? That's where "Swan Dive" and "Providence" and "She Said" came from, and it's also where "Garden of Simple" came from. Other old ones were "old" old ones: "Fuel" and, for the first encore, "Both Hands." She whipped the crowd into a frenzy toward the end with "Alla This" from Red Letter Year (2008), and she also did "Present/Infant," one of the best from that album. She played new songs, like "Promiscuity," "Albacore," a cute ode to anarchism, played on the ukulele, and, for the second encore, "If You're Not." She closed the regular set with her take on the old union song, "Which Side Are Your On." I winced a bit when she talked about, when she changed some of the words, she did so in the folk music tradition of "fucking with the past." That's not exactly what they do, Ani, although I know what you mean. Made me think about Patti Smith's declaration: "I don't fuck much with the past / but I fuck plenty with the future" or something like that.
Ani was charming, as usual. After the opening song, she said something that I've often thought: "Northhampton, Massachusetts--well, well, well!" with emphasis on the last "well." After "Albacore," she stared incredulously out into the crowd and repeated what a fan had just screamed: "You just got your swine flu vaccination?! Good for you! You clearly understood the subtext of that last song." And, after taking up the ukulele for a new song, said something like, "Well, "Dilate" would sound kinda funny on the uke, so...." She laughed, she stuttered, she semi-sermonized, she joked. That is, she was herself.
Oh, and she led a reformed band. Todd Sickafoose remains on bass, but Mike Dillon is gone, and the new drummer is a guy named Andy something-or-other. He's good. At first, I thought he was a real rock drummer, kinda like Allison Miller, but as the show wore on, I realized that he bears a stronger resemblance to Andy Stochansky, a drummer who *can* rock out, but is every bit as interested in swinging and adding quiet, subtle touches to the songs that require it. I had grown to really like the Dillon-Miller-Sickafoose band, but I sense that I'll grow to like this one even faster. His playing on the opener, "Anticipate," was especially great, starting off by slapping a wooden box positioned in front of the drum kit for a couple of verses before moving to the kit to hammer out the rest of the song. He made "Alla This" sound like the raging storm that it is. Verdict: this guy is good.
Kudos to Gabby Moreno for opening the concert with 30 minutes worth of music. She has a big strong voice, and the high point was a medley of Spanish-language songs. She is from Guatemala and speaks English with a slight but very charming accent. Her embarrassed stage patter was comparably charming, not cloying in the way that a lot of Difranco openers have been over the years. Thank goodness.