Ani DiFranco | 09.22 | Chicago

Words by: Cal Roach

Ani DiFranco :: 09.22.07 :: Auditorium Theatre :: Chicago, IL

Ani DiFranco
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.

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.

Ani DiFranco
"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.

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.

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[Published on: 10/31/07]

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Comments

breadloaf starstarstarstar Thu 11/1/2007 05:42AM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Excellent review, Cal. It is interesting to note that reviews like this one seem to garner little or no attention while the faintest mention of one of the "heavy" jam bands results in page after page of comments. Ani has more talent in her pinkie than most of us musicians will ever have, including some of the aforementioned (or hinted at) bands. She is a veritable legend and pioneer as a writer, player, and business person.

olaffub Thu 11/1/2007 06:49AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

I agree. Nice review. A well-written look at the evolving career of an artist who's managed to remain relevent and influential for many years. Makes me want to check out an Ani show again.

aaronjl1 starstarstarstar Thu 11/1/2007 08:22AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

aaronjl1

well put - i never thought i'd be into ani until i saw here live. there are very few artists out there who give performances as ture and pure as difranco. while most are content with playing their songs, she becomes them. also, mike dillon is a madman!

Shirls starstarstarstarstar Fri 11/2/2007 10:19AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Shirls

Ani is amazing. I am not a folk guy for the most part but the energy of her spirit is so strong that you can't help soaking it all in at her shows. She is really one of my favorite acts to see these days. I just saw her a month ago and it was just great.

RedHeaven starstarstar Wed 11/7/2007 07:33PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

RedHeaven

"The trouble with being a folk singer these days is that there's no real movement, socially or musically, to be part of"

Um...ok....

NOT....

If you aint outraged you must not be paying attention.

Other than that, im not a big Ani fan, but I liked the article. It got me in touch with what shes doing today. Today = these are some wierd days...welcome to planet earth, where a revolution is always relavent.