[16 May 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Hi. My name is Filmore and I’m an Ani-holic. I own most of her vast back catalogue, and now her third concert DVD. Sadly, although I consider her multi-disk live albums and a few disks in her bootleg series to rank among her best work, I have never seen her perform in the flesh. Recorded on September 11 and 12 of 2007 in the converted Buffalo church that is her home, Live at Babeville popped my cherry with a loving passion.
The date of the recording was very important for two reasons. One should be obvious, at least to anyone who has heard a George Dubya speech since the day the terrorists won. The other is a much simpler story. Ani bought a 135-year-old church in her hometown. It took about ten years for her to take it from the brink of demolition to the main concert venue and head office for her label, Righteous Babe. These two nights marked its grand opening. She mentioned that she may make the event a yearly happening, but I seem to recall them saying the same thing about Woodstock. In any case, history has been rebranded in the shape of a bicep flexing woman. This was like the opening of the Hacienda, only far better attended and less free jazz.
Ani’s set those nights glossed over her entire career to that point, as well as including a couple of numbers that, as of this writing, have yet to be released. Todd Sickafoose joined her on stage with an upright bass, drummer Allison Miller, and a man named Mike Dillon. Mike’s vibraphones were brilliant and larger than life. He spent much of the night chiming on those, occasionally pausing to add timely bits of tabla. DiFranco’s older material received a second wind through new arrangements with this line-up, and the gravity of the evening added a unique weight. From all the performance of hers I’ve heard, every concert has its own energy, and while sometimes she can be a little on the jittery side, these nights were absolutely sizzling. I hardly recognized some of her early ‘90s tunes.
As opposed to the full rock band version of “Shy” that was seen on 1995’s Not a Pretty Girl, the rendition on this DVD is merely Ani alone with a happily clapping audience. I dare not call it “stripped down”, because she fills the stage by herself, like a rare few can. The show opening with “Napoleon” is an inspired choice. It gives her a verse alone with her acoustic, instead of the studio’s electric guitar, before the rest of her band joins in. The original “Not a Pretty Girl” had a completely different feel to it. There, it was electric guitar and angry, while Babeville‘s cut comes off more virtuous and victorious. The relaxed presentation, in large part due to those soothing vibes, gives it an air of confidence.
Older material wasn’t the only thing to benefit from this happening’s aura, though. Two tracks from Ani’s last released Reprieve are practically new songs. That 2006 album was something of an experiment for her, as sparse instrumentals were fleshed out with synths and field recordings. The tone of the work was downplayed and contemplative. Here, “Unrequited” and Hypnotized” are invigorated and more dynamic than ever before. What she went for and achieved with Reprieve cannot hold up under her firecracker stage presence and this event of a show.
So often, the rock and indie bands presented to us are awkward, peculiar people, usually men with a token tambourine girl or bassist here and there. They pop out from behind a curtain, impose a quiet awe like the Wizard of Oz, nod, shuffle, make topical chatter, crack a bad joke, and generally go about their business on autopilot. When Ani performs, she is naked. Her awkwardness makes her endearing where it makes so many others uncomfortable to watch, due in large part to her unerring humility and brutal honesty, and she doesn’t ham it up all girly-girly like Feist or Jewel. She lays it all out there for everyone to see, similar to a less drunk Cat Power who reads blog news. Nothing is hidden or off limits. Ani draws in those with an open mind and makes it seem like she’s playing just for you.
However, to those poisoned by the bigoted commercial hipster culture propelled by Vice Magazine, she is the proverbial Ani-Christ. I’m so sick of people bagging Ani and brushing her off as a mere “dyke” when I bring the little folksinger up. Many act as if her social liberalism somehow puts her in a niche no one has to deal with, like how society doesn’t look to cattle rapists as a moral barometer. Vice and chat boards everywhere negatively reinforce the notion that it’s okay to ignore what someone is saying, especially if you don’t agree with it, as long as you can label the speaker with the most fashionable insult, often based on sexuality or ethnicity. Ignoring the fact that she’s bi, let’s quit kidding ourselves and look at the facts. Ani DiFranco is one of the greatest acoustic guitarists alive, one of the most important folk artists since Bob Dylan, and one of the best live acts since the Grateful Dead. Live at Babeville proves all three beyond a reasonable doubt.
Part of the reason she evokes such a fervent response is her lyrics. They are smart with a sense of humor, politically aware, and spiritually penetrating, sometimes all at the same time. That cuts deep a huge cross section of the prospective audience. But she is on point socio-politically, and that should be obvious to anyone who can see through corporate censored news networks. I know I’m not the only one, and when all the frogs and bees go extinct, it’ll be hard to ignore. What’s more, just because many of her songs are along the lines of “Hey, buddy, you fucked up”, instead of the “Hey, baby, I wanna hit that, yeah” or “Yeah, buddy, touch my body” drivel that 90% of MTV-approved acts spew forth is not an attack on my manhood. I’m comfortable enough in my albeit hetero sexuality to get past the fact Ani’s material isn’t geared towards the same blind phallic worship that engulfs the majority of pop culture.
Regardless, none of that matters when you watch her sing. Yeah, she hits on a lot of situations where men abuse their ill got dominance of Earth and expect to get away with it. No matter what year it is, civilized society can’t seem to get past the image of a working husband and a barefoot, pregnant wife. Ani is working to change that, and she does so with her ultimate message of love. That’s what you feel when you see her with open eyes. To quote a line from one of her new songs, “Love is all over the place / There’s nothing wrong with your face”. Like the Beatles and Jesus before her, she’s promoting real, judgment-free, sustainable, all-encompassing love. When we finally get over ourselves, some thousands of years from now, Ani’s music will still be felt.