Ani DiFranco Live at Variety Playhouse Atlanta
Review and photos by Ellen Eldridge
A live show’s effect is directly related to the personal experience of the fan. For artists like Ani DiFranco, whose prolific and profoundly personal stories are told from the perspectives of a variety of people with whom she’s interacted, the meaning of these songs takes on a very idiosyncratic feeling. I can’t name every song that Ms. DiFranco sang last night by its title, but I can tell you where I was when I first heard it or what events in my life were shaped around the song. Had I been asked what song I wanted her to open with, I wouldn’t have known what to say; I felt content to be surprised. Her choice, “Little Plastic Castle,” instantly transported me back into Basic Combat Training (BCT). Actually, my journey was fairly choppy, jolting back and forth in time, because when I heard the line, “I picked up a magazine,” I heard “I started a magazine….” When Little Plastic Castle came out, I wore it out. When I joined the Army and left for BCT, I couldn’t exactly bring a CD player so I wrote down some of my favorite lyrics and hand-carried them in a journal. During those weeks I would often smirk to myself when I picked up a magazine to load into an M-16 rifle, and I sang to myself, “but be careful getting coffee, I think these people want to shoot us,” as I looked around at the soldiers trying to get to the head of the field breakfast line before the hot water for cocoa or coffee ran out. But, after starting Target Audience Magazine in 2007, the line held another new meaning for me, and so it continued through every song of the set – journeying back and forth through the parallels in my life to those stories in Ani DiFranco’s songs.
For anyone who doesn’t yet know, Ani DiFranco has fiercely occupied her position in the music industry by staying prolific and independent. She released an album on her own label, Righteous Babe Records, nearly every year since she was 18, and only recently took a break after having having her daughter in 2007. She married the man she describes in her song, “Unworry,” and she admits her qualms with the love-marriage-family model in “Promiscuity,” which she played before “Unworry” and after describing her capricious perspective on monogamy. Her genuine, joking demeanor, and the way the soft lighting made her face glow showed her to be a real person. Not just in the sense of taking her down a notch from an idealized icon, but really allowed her fans to see her clearly. DiFranco openly admitted to the crowd that she still over-examines her body trying to let go of what she perceives as imperfections. She also made jokes about her self-inflicted haircut, and blamed “too many long hours in hotel rooms with the wrap-around kind of mirrors” for the uneven layers. From where I stood, her hair looked professionally done. Maybe I just couldn’t tell from behind my own unkempt mop of hair.
After she played about two songs, a fan bellowed out, “I love you Ani,” to which she replied, “Well, that was easy.” She smiled and announced that she would continue the show until we’d had enough because she was sure someone out there in the darkness still needed convincing.
Favorites played included, “As Is,” “Two Little Girls,” “J,” and the crowd absolutely erupted at the first chord of “Shameless.” DiFranco acted the part of a “good little folk singer” and played requests including “You Had Time.” She made a mental note of the requests as we fans watched her face try to remember how to play them all as she joked that she was “backlogged” with requests.
She also announced she will participate in a panel during the April organization of Occupy Washington D.C., which is set to be a nationwide event. Included in the multiple day occupations will be training seminars on how to start a cooperative where individuals donate services in a barter exchange. Then she proceeded to play a very bass-heavy and intense version of “Fuel” where she changed words to fit the times (“who will be president maybe Barrack Obama” instead of “Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dumber”), and bellowed the word ‘fuel’ –stretching it out. Afterwards, she said, “I think I ruptured my spleen on that one,” and told us she’s not as young as she used to be!
DiFranco also encouraged the audience to act regardless of anyone’s particular politics. So as the theme of the title track, “Which Side Are You On,” suggests, DiFranco steadily persisted that each person should use his or her right to choose – and vote. She informed us that representatives in the venue lobby would register anyone to vote who was not already registered!
After playing “Everest,” DiFranco invited the opening band, Pearl and the Beard, back onstage to play “Which Side Are You On” with her. The three members of Pearl and the Beard gathered around a mic with tiny-but-powerful DiFranco in the center. She forgot the opening chorus and started right in on her verse, but then laughed as she remembered, and the foursome started again with the chorus. The most memorable aspect of this show was the pure elation from the joyful girl onstage. Even during Pearl and the Beard’s opening performance this energy and positive vibration washed over the crowd, which loved the trio on guitar, drums, and cello with splices of kazoo and other accompaniment. Pearl and the Beard was an excellent choice for an opening act, and they announced a future show March 18 at The Five Spot in Atlanta for the many fans that enjoyed the set.
Of course, DiFranco obliged her audience and returned for an encore. She could have played the song my husband and I danced to at our wedding, “Grey,” but those lyrics were printed on a shirt that I bought as a sign of kismet. She chose to close with yet another song that holds personal meaning for so many, “Both Hands.”
Those who saw the sold-out show fully enjoyed it from beginning to the end. Many newer songs that I have yet to learn the names of were played, which allowed me to again parallel my life, marriage, and daughter’s birth to one of my all-time favorite performers. My level of respect for Ani DiFranco is even more increased after her show, and I have dug out all the old CDs to relearn all my favorite songs.