Ani DiFranco, Tsongas Arena, Lowell, Massachusetts, March 28, 2001

 

I've been sitting in my car for the last fifteen minutes, stuck at the very top of the parking garage after the show, when it occurs to me, I might as well start writing my review now. What better time? Ani's new double album, Revelling and Reckoning, has already taken up what will likely be a lengthy residence in my CD player. All around me there's a chorus of horns; anywhere else they'd be noise of frustration and building anger, but here they're celebratory and probably in accompaniment to music. The car ahead of me is jouncing enthusiastically, an umbrella twirling out its window. Passing me are girls in hippie/counterculture dresses, every piercing and hair color imaginable; club kids, mohawked punkers, shaved heads, dreadlocks, hip huggers, a boy in a T-shirt pleading, "Feed Kate Moss" and others more obscure, political, and offensive. A boy skateboards up the ramp, slapping hands of girls dancing around and on the cars. Why am I writing details like this in a concert review? Because there is no good way to capture just what Ani's music is, without trying to capture what it does, and this ? this ebullient cacophony ? is what it does.

Let's make no mistake about Ani: she is playing an arena show, as she generally has had to for the last few years. Big sound, big lights, stadium seating. Not the sort of place in which you'll expect to make an intimate connection to your performer. But you know early on, even before the show starts, that this is no typical rock star. I come in between the opener and Ani's set, and on the floor, at the opposite end from the stage, where the crowd is sparse, a boy is doing acrobatic manoeuvres and the audience is cheering him. In the next ten minutes, a succession of people runs out to entertain themselves and each other with walking-on-hands, somersaults, back flips, a human pyramid, and, in a self parody, even jumping jacks. This is not a crowd waiting before a Pearl Jam show. This is the modern folk audience, and though she's got an electric guitar and a drum kit with her, there's no question that Ani is the modern folk performer. With her own label (Righteous Babe Records, arguably the most famous independent label in America), thirteen full length albums and several singles, EPs, and collaborations under her belt in the last decade, and a cult following (especially among the young, female, lesbian/bisexual, and liberal), Ani has demonstrated beyond doubt that she has plenty to say and an audience hungry to hear it.

Ani takes the stage with a line-up new to me: her usual drums, bass, and keyboards (including wurlitzer, melodica, accordion, and clavinet), and two additional performers, one sticking primarily to trumpet and one taking on saxes, flute, and clarinet. She wields this little band to terrific effect, opening with a rocky, staccato version of an old favorite, "Shy," with the sax and trumpet punctuating the vocals with a pseudo-ska sensibility. She follows it with a new piece, influenced by R&B and funk, voice distorted. The third offering is another new song, "Ain't That The Way," driving, pounding, the words rapped out and woven through with minor progressions on the flute.

It's soon apparent we're going to be treated to a succession of tunes from the new release, and to my delight, Ani seems to be focusing hard on getting the message across. At some shows, she seems to be going more for catching the audience up in a whirlwind of sound and fury, but this time, each piece is disparate and crystalline. "Subdivision," the next piece, is slow and pleading, a hymn to emotional desegregation:

White people are so scared of black people They bulldoze out to the country. And put up houses on little loop-de-loop streets And white America gets its heart cut out of its chest The Berlin Wall still runs down Main Street Separating East Side from West

Then she says she'll put her "little folk singer brain juices" to the task of shrinking the room down, to create a space about the size and intimacy of a coffee house (where she got her start), and asks us, passionate and silly and yet not sentimental, to work together on the task. This is the essence of Ani-the-folksinger: always trying to connect.

"Done Wrong," which follows, is from the period in which she has self-described as "distracted": it is from an album focusing more on internal issues, i.e. a broken heart, than on external issues, i.e. the fissures in our society, with which she often concerns herself. Even when broken-hearted, Ani's songs are rarely solipsistic: "Done Wrong" mocks and excoriates herself as "the jerk with the heartache." She'd make a lousy country music writer. And as is clear in the next song, another newbie, "Marrow," she rarely lets others off the hook either, prodding with questions: "Where was your conscience? Where was your consciousness? And where did you put all those letters that you wrote to yourself, but could not address?"

Questions pepper Ani's work; the next song contains nothing but. In a fascinating amalgam of genres, "What How When Where (Why Who)" starts out with an 80's drumbeat and upright bass cello, then flows into repetitious vocal style that replicates electronica sampling techniques, and melds it with a jazzy exchange between the flute, sax, and trumpet. I saw members of the audience break-dancing to it, where they'd been doing handstands earlier. Then "Whatall Is Nice" takes us into a melancholy, amorphous head space, which contradicts the self congratulation of the lyrics. A couple of early pieces follow: both "Firedoor" and "You Had Time" serve to remind of Ani's incredible gift with lyrics, even in her freshman years, and of her constant questioning even of her own work, her tendency to re-examine and experiment with her songs. "Firedoor" (originally just Ani and a guitar) takes advantage of that sax-trumpet duo and breaches itself with a peculiarly soul-influenced verse of "Amazing Grace" in the middle, and "You Had Time" opens with a delicate piano solo and bowed bass. Then she jokes that her next song is "evidence of what happens when little white girls from Buffalo listen to too much Cuban music." Do I need to explain what it sounds like? Interestingly, this is the second song too new to have made it onto Revelling and Reckoning, which hit stores the week after the show.

Ani wears her politics on her sleeve (and for that matter, on her skin, and shot through her hair). She is an incarnation of the old feminist slogan that the personal is political. Conversely, she takes politics very personally. At her best, she is a crucible in which the two become inextricably fused. At this point in the show, she dismisses the band and launches into a passionate and polemical tirade against the establishment and against the conservative element in particular. "Are you still reeling from the recent coup?" she asks us. I'm surprised (and perhaps she is too) at the muted reaction, until I remember that I'm surrounded by high school and college-age kids. "I'm talking about the so-called election of George W. Bush," she clarifies, at which point everyone is with her and screaming again. She sends out props to the ultra-progressive weekly, The Nation, for its coverage of the events, then suggests that, after the show, we all get on a really big bus and go to Canada ? a not-unfamiliar theme of hers. Then she plays one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful, agonizing songs I have ever heard, "Your Next Bold Move," a piece about the fulcrum between hope and despair.

The mighty multinationals Have monopolized the oxygen So it's as easy as breathing For us all to participate Yes they're buying and selling Off shares of air And you know it's all around you But it's hard to point and say ? "There" So you just sit on your hands And quietly contemplate Your next bold move The next thing you're gonna need to prove To yourself
I weep.

The band returns for an unrelenting series of harder, driving pieces. "My IQ," originally a poem, has become a barrage of drums (including djembe, drum kit, and Ani on doumbec), keys, soprano sax, and a piercing flute line, over which Ani raps with the trance-like rhythm of a slam poet. "Letter to a John" invokes almost universal dancing in the audience, clearly a big crowd-pleaser. She follows with a ska opening into "The Diner," which goes into an extended vocal jam, again reminiscent of electronic sampling. For the first encore, she tosses off a work in progress, also a common Ani trick, with the excuse that it wouldn't be a folk show if she didn't.

I feel a bit unsatisfied yet, and I'd leave still hungering for more if she hadn't come back to satiate us with two more gems. First is "Coming Up," another poem, which this time is performed straight and solo. It's incendiary stuff, dating back to smack-dab in the middle of the Clinton administration, lest anyone get the impression that her politics are in-line with the Democrats either:

Whoever's in charge up there Had better take the elevator down And put more than change in our cup Or else we.are coming.up.

How can she possibly top that? With a song from her debut, having weathered a decade and easily capable of weathering a century, "Both Hands," a stark and yet lyrical song of sex, passion, loss, beauty, and ? like so much of her music ? the need to get through to each other, to connect. The crowd sings along, and I am reminded of a line from "You Had Time": "You'll say, Do they love you or what? And I'll say, They love what I do; the only one who really loves me is you." It's hard to believe, as revealing, intimate, and unique an artist as Ani is, that what we love isn't her ? that we aren't being treated to a biopsy of her, through her music and presence. But if all we can love is what she does, that'll be plenty enough. I waft out of that stadium with thousands of other people, and I hope for them all that they're as inspired, charged, and awakened as I feel at that moment, and hope for myself that I can hang on to that, the lasting benediction of Ani.

By the way, I was trapped in my car after the show, perched at the top of that parking garage, for half an hour. I enjoyed every minute of it.

[Colleen Campbell]