Music Review: Ani DiFranco at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz, California

[Article by Tapati McDaniels]

 Still Joyful

I feel certain that there is an alternate universe in which Ani DiFranco is a comedian. Her humor is one of the things I enjoy most about her live performances and why her live albums are my favorites.

Ani’s March 26th concert at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz, CA, was a joyful return to her early concerts: just Ani with her Lee Press On Nails and her guitar. The Rio was a more intimate venue than the Civic Auditorium where we last saw Ani DiFranco. Sean Hayes opened for Ani and I was pleasantly surprised. I hadn’t listened to his music before but now I’m excited to get his next album with the songs from that night, due out this fall.

I had taken a break from seeing Ani in concert. It got to the point that her fans were so unruly that you couldn’t hear her sing over their singing and stomping, despite her admonishments. I am happy that this is no longer the case. Her fans have matured along with her for the most part, although there is still a contingent of college-age fans who mill in front of the stage in a mellow mosh pit of sorts.

“Angry Anymore” was Ani’s first song and she was dressed for work—either painting a house or singing rousing, working-class songs meant to change the world. Ani is not about the clothes although her 5-year-old daughter is. “I’m not into the princess thing,” Ani admits and her daughter knows this. “She shoos me out of the room when her [Disney] movie comes on.” Ani says her daughter knows her really well. “She tells me I don’t like pretty things.” The song was a love letter to her parents, forgiving them both for the estrangement from her father and the “cold war with quiet charm” her mother taught her to wage.

We all cheered when she launched into “Dilate,” fueling our nostalgia for concerts past. Her fierce energy still drove her guitar despite the ear infection that had caused her to cancel a recent appearance. Before she moved on to the next song, she informed the audience that she was on antibiotics and steroids because “I tried to do it with garlic cloves” but that didn’t work. At one point she had to pause and blow her nose with a tissue. “Can I have that?” one of her enthusiastic fans asked, and we all laughed as Ani said, “No, no, no, that’s not going to happen.”

She introduced the next song by saying she had ripped it off to create one of her new songs, which she just wasn’t into singing tonight. I was delighted when she sang “Modulation,” one of my favorites.

Ani moved on to material from her new album, ¿Which Side Are You On? with the song “Splinter,” which started with a jaunty guitar riff suggesting tropical islands and drinks with umbrellas.  Comfort is definitely the theme—a quest for comfort so complete that we cut ourselves off completely from the natural world—“like we can’t even bring ourselves to sweat.”

My husband Dave and I exchanged smiles as Ani sang the first line of “J” while we could smell the ubiquitous concert pot smell wafting in the air. If ever there were a city that would receive that song enthusiastically, it is Santa Cruz where it is always 4:20. But the name of the song and the first line is deceptive, “J” is no pot anthem but rather a scathing indictment of the poisons we are subjected to and that destroyed Louisiana’s eco-system while the president “could be FDR right now/And instead he’s just shifting his weight.” That is also a sentiment at home in liberal Santa Cruz where progressives are disappointed with the many compromises President Obama has made with Republicans.

Ani’s guitar crashed and clanged through “Marrow” providing both melody and percussion and a break with new material.  I scribbled “Where was your conscience” in my notes, a question she turns on herself later in the song, as hard on herself as on anyone. I should mention that a few times Ani had false starts with her guitar and cheerfully laughed at herself in that self-deprecating way she has, yet it never comes off as self-loathing. She seems to have accepted her imperfections over the years and has relaxed into them.

“Unworry” just sort of washed over me without leaving much of an impression, less political and more personal.  It was followed by “Life Boat” which woke me up. Ani takes on the persona of a homeless woman with “red scabby hands and purple scabby feet” thinking about the child she didn’t want who ran away. There are many levels of homelessness and while that wasn’t mine, I was homeless once too and her words broke my heart. I wanted to hear more of her story. I wanted this lady to have a good meal and a safe, warm place to lay her head.

Ani turned to Little Plastic Castle for the next 2 songs: “Two Little Girls” and “As Is.” I love “Two Little Girls” so I was ecstatic and as always the live version trumps the studio version every time. Ani is one of those rare artists who is always best live.

“Albacore” was a sweet love song, an almost startled love song—what am I doing in love? Me? Really? Like anyone who’s been through relationship hell (and we’ve heard about some of these through the years) she seems to be trying to believe that it isn’t a mirage that will disappear.  In the course of  this song she has convinced herself at last that love is here to stay. “Mariachi” follows in the same vein, starting with their working relationship blossoming into love while Ani wonders “if it was just me?”

“Zoo” reflects Ani’s weariness, I think, as she contemplates years of singing about things that haven’t changed much. She sings about the mind-deadening effect of TV and consumerism and the effect on her mind. “I walk past my own self-loathing like I walk past animals in the zoo,” she sings. She concludes that all you can do in the end is “pour your love into your children.”  The next generation can continue the struggle.

“Imagine That” struck me as a strange song and I hadn’t heard it in so long I had forgotten it. I was at a loss as to what to write down for title or even a lyric to search with at the time. As I read the lyrics I can see why—it is very stream-of-consciousness and reflects what comes to Ani’s mind as she gets ready to perform. “Imagine that i’m on stage under a watchtower of punishing light…” I do sometimes wonder what it is like to be on tour and sing mostly the same songs night after night under the spotlights.

“Present/Infant “ is a love song to her daughter, who has taught her to accept herself. If our daughters look like us and they’re beautiful then maybe we always were, too.

“If you’re not getting happier as you get older/Then you’re fuckin’ up,” Ani sings at the beginning of  “If Yr Not.” It reminds me of the song “Back Back Back” from To The Teeth,< where she admonishes someone to pay attention to the language they use in their mind because in their old age they will be stuck there. I also pondered that Ani wouldn’t get away with some of the things she writes if she had gone the corporate music route all those years ago. They wouldn’t have known how to produce and market her work.  I don’t know what box they would have shoved her in but I’m glad she isn’t there.

Ani remarked that in venues without a back entrance it kind of spoils the mystery of an encore as you crouch behind the curtain. So we guessed that the next song would be her last before the “surprise” encore.

The tempo and the crowd picked up with the title song , “Which Side Are You On?” A re-purposed pro-union song previously recorded by Pete Seeger, Ani calls us to decide which side we’re on and get involved if we aren’t already.  Early fans often talk about which songs sound most like old Ani and it is ironic that this is one of them, even if she didn’t write the music.

Ani rounded out the show with encore performances of “Gravel,” a long time favorite, and “Hypnotized,” which soothed us into letting go of our time with Ani. “I had just enough sweetness to keep you hypnotized.” Indeed.

For links to Ani DiFranco’s music please visit her recording company, http://www.righteousbabe.com/

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You may contact the reviewer, Tapati McDaniels, via Twitter: @tapati