City: Buffalo, NY Venue: Shea's Performing Arts Center Date: 2005-05-01
Tiny, self-made folk rocker, Ani DiFranco clicked her heels three times and, WOOSH, ended up at home, performing at a nearly sold-out crowd at the Shea's Performing Arts Center in Buffalo, New York. Like the pristinely renovated, near-century-old, European style opera house, DiFranco is a city treasure. And there's nothing like playing a show for a few thousand of your closest friends.
DiFranco's two-hour set featured the singer, her guitar, and Todd Sickafoose, an excellent upright bassman -- that was it. Besides those items it was just the stage and DiFranco's voice, caressing the fine-tuned acoustics of the theater. Fans came from as far as Chicago and as near as a block away to see DiFranco graciously perform.
For a performer with over 15 albums recorded, it's probably difficult to make a set list, particularly to do a show for people that have followed your career for about as many years. I couldn't even imagine with what she would begin or end. Luckily, DiFranco plucked and cradled her guitar for an extra amount of time, playing many of the songs from her newest album,Knuckle Down, as well as songs from her earlier beginning. She even played a few recently conjured, not yet released, songs for the crowd. DiFranco owns a record company, Righteous Babe Records, yet thrives on touring and songwriting, always creating a mix of crafty lyrics and reinventing her sound. This excitement for her craft is displayed on the purest level at every one of her shows.
DiFranco began with the twangy intricacies of the title song from her newest album. Two minutes into the show, DiFranco's energies set off a guitar string. The broken string set a tone for the evening, promising to display much more of DiFranco's escalating excitement to play for the hometown crowd. DiFranco also included many of the other songs on her recent album including the prodding yet gratuitous "Studying Stones", which includes memories of her family, the up-tempo "Lag Time" which featured not only DiFranco's excellent guitar picking but Sickafoose turning the upright bass into a percussion instrument.
The teamwork was fabulous, with DiFranco's vocals melting over the audience, building up into an all-encompassing crescendo. She also displayed her exuberant skills on "Modulation", delicately hemming a bittersweet tune of loss and rediscovered freedom. "Manhole" bit the audience with her bluesy-yet-punk calling-out of emotion and wrongdoing and lessons learned. The Knuckle Down selections were certainly ethereal for the audience, as this album has been named one of her best, tightest songwriting ventures in years.
And of course DiFranco, being DiFranco, paused from the music to take a brief journey into her recitation of spoken word poetry. She is, of course, known for her politics and for not hiding them. And so she provided the crowd with an excellent round of questioning and criticism, attacking government irresponsibility while also acknowledging her respect and appreciation to be able to say what she wants -- her words represent a true love for the roots of her country and the centers of democracy and free speech.
The songstress also treated the audience to a few tunes from one of her most successful albums, Little Plastic Castles. The crowd erupted into squeals and applause at the first pluckings of "Little Plastic Castles", and watched as DiFranco swirled and bellowed her prized lyrics with the joy of a child. Her other songs -- the vivacious, raging female favorite, "Gravel", and the brooding, tinkling, muted "As Is" were also performed and accepted as old friends, and DiFranco could be seen enjoying the highest enlightenment an artist can get from playing their songs -- having fun.
A surprise was hearing one of DiFranco's older, rapidly strummed singles, "Shameless", which was also one of her first hits. She dedicated a song to a staffer and a friend in the audience's birthday, with the crowd also basking in the cozy, familiar old favorite track.
Reluctant to leave the stage, DiFranco came back for several encores, including the empowering "32 Flavors" and the pounding twang of "Evolve". The audience gave the Buffalo philanthropist and native a five minute standing ovation.
The theater did an excellent job of amplifying DiFranco's intricate chord and tempo changes, which included gorgeous lines and that voice -- that entrancing voice. Sometimes at shows one can barely hear the words uttered by the singer but, at Shea's, DiFranco's voice entranced and rose above the instrumental accompaniment to a perfect balance. The sound could not have been any better. Every word was crisp and every note sharp.
A delightful set by fellow Righteous Babe recording artist, Hamell on Trial, revved up the audience with his one-man acoustic/punk guitar hacking. Hamell's high energy and pounding guitar agreed with the audience, awakening them with songs of roaring thunder. Hamell sang mainly about politics and the lessons he has learned from his three-year-old son. His audience interactions and stage delivery agreed with the down-home intent of DiFranco's show -- he was hilarious. I don't believe the f-bomb had dropped that many times in the delicate Shea's Theater. His white, glowing face performed his signature "face solo," to his fans glee, and the songs were easily understandable and personable, with Hamell creating a tough spoken word commentary with only a minor accompaniment from his guitar.
One song claimed of his difficulty to care for his kid -- "hard to take care of a child/ when the president has gone wild." The vicious entertainment which criticized hate crimes and pushed civil disobedience had the crowd yelling "Fuck It" along with him for about three minutes during a song with the same chorus. DiFranco shows provide that liberal, open sense of community. Nothing like comfortable rationality in a tough city like Buffalo.
And as for DiFranco? Well, there really is no place like home.
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