Words by: Cal Roach
Ani DiFranco :: 09.22.07 :: Auditorium Theatre :: Chicago, IL
The trouble with being a folk singer these days is that there's no real movement, socially or musically, to be part of. There's the "freak-folk" tag being bandied about referring to weirdoes like Devendra Banhart, but the social consciousness that's essential to traditional folk music is left almost entirely to curmudgeons like Neil Young and John Fogerty. Outspoken frontmen like Eddie Vedder and Thom Yorke wax indignant between songs, but is either of them poised to pick up an acoustic guitar and write the next "Masters of War"? Maybe not, but Ani DiFranco has been developing her manifesto for two decades and pouring her heart out in song all over the world. As her music has shifted from one-woman acoustic folk to all manner of jazz, rock and funk explorations, her social commentary has sharpened to make up the slack. Regardless of stylistic labels, she now stands as the most important American folk singer since Bob Dylan.
| Ani DiFranco|
Having toured essentially solo for several years, DiFranco brought a band for this tour, each member revered in his or her own right, all of whom had helped out on DiFranco's recent retrospective set, Canon. The group started out with a beefed-up, churning arrangement of "Napoleon," drummer Allison Miller propulsive and precise from the get-go. Bassist Todd Sickafoose has been the backbone of DiFranco's live shows for years, and his presence was a thick glue holding this eclectic quartet together, intuitive and in step with a frisky DiFranco. The group flowed effortlessly, following the balls-out opener with the subtle, intricate "78% H2O," DiFranco's guitar picking showing no signs of her bout with tendonitis, although the newer tunes do shy away from the brutal, percussive guitar style she perfected on 2002's Educated Guess. Percussionist Mike Dillon played as if he'd been a part of DiFranco's entourage for years, breaking out with a mad xylophone solo during "Manhole," then providing an esoteric electronic backdrop for the spacey exploration of "Coming Up," which featured fantastic, eerie forays from all four musicians.
"Present/Infant," beginning a slew of new tunes, was a touching tribute both to DiFranco's daughter and a gentle but empowered renewal of self-esteem. "Way Tight" is possibly the least dysfunctional love song in the DiFranco catalog. Her voice oozed heart and soul as she purred the lyrics, switching next to the epic "Atom," espousing a grand worldview in a clever juxtaposition of science and sacrilege. One of the biggest highlights of the night was "Alla This," where the band took off on a concise, high-energy jam, then backed off into a sublime, relaxed coda. The musical intensity reflected a heightened urgency that's apparent in the new political songs, and DiFranco's face was often a window into her global unease. She has the odd talent of conveying an almost world-weary wisdom one moment and childlike giddiness the next, as if all her life experiences and up-to-the-minute revelations are gushing out of her in the act of performing. It's hard not to get caught up in that rush of untamed honesty.
| Ani DiFranco|
As DiFranco's political musings have become more anguished, her more personal new songs are more relaxed, however, she still pulled out plenty of old heart-wrenchers. "Dilate" has lost a bit of its bite (the studio version is hard to top for sheer vocal dynamics) but it was still a showstopper, the band sculpting a stark, minimal backdrop for this bitter testimonial. "You Had Time" is a heartbreaker that would be sweet if it weren't so passively condescending. Miller's spare harmony vocals were a perfect complement to DiFranco's reluctant resignation. She pulled out a solo "Fire Door," a song that's become almost an institution. Once a bitter rant, DiFranco really seems to have fun with it nowadays, as does the crowd.
"Both Hands," another song from DiFranco's debut album 17 years ago, was reworked for Canon, and tonight's funky version was enjoyable but sacrificed all the intimacy that made the original so touching. However, the band was just getting back into the swing. "Recoil" was amazing, the band proving equally adept at creating a stunning, collective surge of energy as they were stretching out in a jazzy, collective free-funk improv swirl. "In The Way" featured a fantastic, fleet-fingered staccato jam, and the classic "Shameless" tore the house down to end the set with Dillon's percussion rack shaking and the whole band in perfect sync at full throttle, keeping pace with DiFranco's blazing acoustic guitar. Opener Melissa Ferrick joined them for the encores, a couple of classics in "Little Plastic Castle" and "Overlap," leaving the crowd in awe of this latest chapter in the ever-evolving career of a visionary artist.
JamBase | Illinois
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