Photo credits: Jennifer Bendery
“If you can’t raise awareness, raise hell”
—Rita Mae Brown
It was a crisp evening in Austin, Texas, as thousands of girlfriends, mamas, and teenaged chicks herded down leaf-strewn trails and into the rustic Backyard concert venue to claim the best viewing spots first. With some fans swapping excited stories of “the last time I saw Ani Difranco”, and others insisting to disbelieving friends that Not a Pretty Girl was a far better album than the more recent To the Teeth, this estrogen-heavy crowd was jittery and giggly in anticipation of the tiny, fuzzy-haired woman who, in stark contrast to her physical size, is possibly the most larger-than-life folk hero this generation has ever seen.
The moon fattened up, the Oak trees took their places as the backdrop of the stage, and Ani Difranco emerged with her trademark grin and acoustic guitar in hand, immediately greeted with screams from smitten teenaged girls with blue hair and nose rings, shout-outs from long-time fans (including yours truly) loyal to Ani’s 14-CD repertoire of intensely personal ballads and pissed-off political rants, and “thank you God” prayers from fanatical front-row fans who kept slipping past security and draping themselves across the front of the stage in a dreamy fugue of delight.
After stirring up some hearty applause for opening act Toshi Reagon for “laying it out” with her soulful, solo, acoustic set, Ani ripped into her own high-energy set of songs, poems, and spoken word, touching on issues as diverse as harsh political condemnations, light-hearted stories of discombobulated moths, passionate relationship woes, and jamming, joyful celebrations of life, love, and adventure. She opened with the upbeat, road-trip classic “God’s Country”, later moving into a slower, introspective new song, “Swim”, about breaking away from suffocating love, and then offered a feisty rendition of “Swandive”, an anthem about the scary plunge into a serious relationship, which drew cheers from the audience with its bloody good lyrics: “I’m going to do my best swan dive / Into shark-infested waters / I’m gonna pull out my tampon / And start splashing around.”
Sandwiched between jazzy guitar riffs, gentle crooning, and strong words in support of pro-choice and anti-death penalty measures, Ani played a surprising number of brand new songs, including “Educated Guess”, which hints at her current personal affairs as it addresses a happiness at having “a whole new family and I’m in love with each of them,” but then speaks to someone who she wishes was stronger and fiercer, to whom she gives her love and doesn’t “care if it is more than you deserve”.
As nearly every fan in the audience could attest to, Ani’s immense lyrical quality and top-notch musical skill was in full effect that night. She kept the masses engaged, singing, dancing, and starry-eyed (I heard at least four “she is sooo cute” gushes from girlies around me). Which is why it might sound weird to say that, despite her expert skill in bonding with the audience, her moving stories and complex guitar rhythms, her seeming 110 percent heart and soul thrown into the performance, something seemed off.
Beneath it all, Ani just seemed sad.
She even said so herself. She is sad. Her flannel shirt and baggy pants hung from her body, a stark contrast to her more usual dazzling self in fabulous go-go boots or hot leather pants. Dreadlocks snaked around her shoulders and nearly down to her butt in the back. She was unarmed without her band, the musical sounds of accordions, keyboards, bass, drums, and horns that in recent years have infiltrated Ani’s music faded under the buzz of the spotlight centered solely on Ani. It was startling to sense this powerhouse of a performer seeming glum, going through the motions of performing, something likely unapparent to relatively new fans absorbed by her intense presence.
But hints of sorrow transformed into burning energy later in the evening as Ani appeared to shift gears and tackle directly the issues on her mind: she launched into passionate and gut-wrenching poems and vocals against the unjustifiable force the U.S. government threatens in the Middle East. It was most evident in this moment of the show that Ani’s mood was reminiscent of the more raw energy of her earlier days, a more pure, affected “Ani” that often gets lost in the musically complex, experimental sounds of her newer music. Indeed, it was in this moment that Ani allowed herself to be totally exposed.
From here, the mood of the show shifted. As blue and red spotlights illuminated droves of manufactured fog swirling about onstage, the smoke began to look like heat radiating from Ani’s body to the point of fire as she banged on her guitar and howled into the microphone, pushing pain and frustration and retaliation out through her voice, turning to primal cries and fierce guitar hammerings to physically fight back against feelings of insignificance, against those claiming to represent her, represent us, while making horrific war-time decisions in our names. She often faded in and out of the smoke, which added to the dramatic effect of hearing her voice booming but with no origin.
She quietly offered a toast to the families in Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq. She eloquently read a poem by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, a poem that she said “seems to come from a place I’ve been living in”, a poem that centers on a voice that yearns to describe the beauty it sees in the ordinary but feels unheard and insignificant. Ani then stood under a lone spotlight in the center of the stage, with no guitar, and slowly recited her poem that responds to September 11, “Self Evident”. This poem is her most harsh, most detailed, and most memorable yet, as it critiques U.S. corporate and government power: “take away our Play Stations/and we are a third world nation/under the thumb of some blue blood royal son/who stole the oval office and that phony election.”
Humorous but firm, this poem suggests that we “give the big oil companies the finger finally” and tells the U.S. “government to pull its big dick out of the sand of someone else’s desert.” Ani also plays with language from the Declaration of Independence in the poem’s title and in the lyrics: “and we hold these truths to be self-evident / 1. George W. Bush is not president / 2. America is not a true democracy / 3. The media is not fooling me.” The poem ends with a plea that we make sure the people who died on September 11 did not die in vain; that is, under a government that now seeks to use them as pawns for “passion play”. A pause followed the poem’s dramatic closing, which then drew tremendous, would-somebody-please-stand-up-and-hug-Ani applause. I don’t know if she felt better but the crowd went nuts in support of her frank opinions, and I just felt sad and changed, for the first time realizing that Ani might feel as helpless as I do in trying to make an impression on anything important. The fog and the show soon faded as Ani said goodnight to fans begging for more more more after only a one-song encore.
As a fan of 10 years, I see Ani Difranco as a faithful barometer of the U.S. social and political climate. She tirelessly uses her music and poetry to point out the things that bother her but that she, like us, may feel powerless against. So, while Congress members are one-by-one disappointedly giving into George Dubya, who clings to his own evil plans for obvious oil-based financial gains and vengeance for his daddy, at least we can count on Ani Difranco, with her articulate, on-target approach to so many issues, to be out there somewhere, immersed in the masses, keeping the silenced majority united, and reminding those who may be unsure of how to use their voices that they, too, can raise hell.