Every ANI DIFRANCO show is memorable. Her loyal fanbase will attest to the fact that no matter what album she’s working on at the time, whatever its flavour and content, the Little Folksinger as she’s come to be affectionately known delivers each time and reminds us that we’re in the presence of greatness and inspiration. Always one to experiment with her music and lyrics, pushing boundaries where we may not even realise boundaries exist, she also rarely misses a chance to voice her political and social concerns from the stage. All of this makes her not only one of the most valued living songwriters and guitar-players in music history, but also a hugely significant and sometimes controversial cultural figure.
The last time we saw Ani was in Brighton and London two years ago during the Which Side Are You On? Tour, when Ani was perfectly vocal about her thoughts on society at large and where she feared the US was heading politically. In light of the Occupy Movement, she voiced deep appreciation and support for all who fought to highlight social injustices. Taking full advantage of the soapbox that she has been working to build for herself since the age of 19 when she founded her own record label RIGHTEOUS BABE, performing stripped-down on that tour, she successfully smashed the Union Chapel and Concorde stages, leaving an indelible imprint on UK minds as well as the simple message that she would be back soon to make an even greater permanent impression and to assure us that even when she’s not in town, she continues to commit and exists with us in spirit.
So here we all are again. At her enormously productive pace of pretty much one album release per 1 to 2 years, she’s back to promote songs from her latest album Allergic to Water – her 18th studio album no less, and due for release in November. Ani fans are in force, and the minimally packaged album is selling like hot cakes. Ani has always been able to reach out to a wide range of people, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, and tonight’s audience demonstrates her success in this respect.
I know we’re in for a treat with this new tour, especially with double-bass player Todd Sickafoose and drummer Terence Higgins in tow, but in a venue where it’s hard to see anything on stage unless you’re among the front ten lines of bodies and with acoustics that don’t easily lend themselves to the best sound, Manchester Cathedral may not be the place for the ultimate Ani show.
Delectable Londoner SHABSI MANN, whose EP Whispers of Stardust Ear Hugs is out 29 September, first takes to the stage with an edgy set, leading the way for Ani who receives a beyond rapturous welcome. She seems genuinely blown away by the response, leaping straight into Angry Any which sets the tone for the night – we’re witnessing the evolution of a woman and artist who has come to terms with many aspects of her life over time, including her relationship with her parents, and who continues to wear her heart on her sleeve.
Without further ado, ever-humble, Ani introduces her band, and between each song, tuned guitars are switched, as she pops out classic after classic, with new songs slipped in mid-way through the long set. Big hits with the crowd included the timeless Not a Pretty Girl which is rocked out in spectacular full-band action, Ani closing off the song to wild applause with a boisterous “Game over!” The beautiful Joyful Girl is preceded by a swift crowd Q&A: “What’s it like being a mum?” “Um, being a mom is pretty awesome… and completely debilitating… but awesome!” She’s also eager to state her belief that “all organised religion is patriarchy!” and appeals to the public that we all look beyond thought-police barriers laid by certain belief systems and work to find common ground. Wise words, indeed. Crowd-pleaser Gravel from excellent 1998 album Little Plastic Castle closes up, followed by a rousing encore.
Although magical to see Ani DiFranco smash the cathedral stage, the sound was pretty poor, any generated sound seemingly dissipating into the atmosphere within seconds, and some crowd members irritating with their boozy sing-alongs, at one point a guy yelling into my ear every single lyric before I was forced to squeeze into a quieter spot just to hear Ani’s vocals. And if you were any less than 6-foot tall, you were likely to see nothing more than the top of Ani’s head. Not my favourite gig experience.
Onwards to London, and with that the hope of a special two-day Ani experience. It’s a Monday night, but that doesn’t stop masses of diehard fans from queuing early and rushing into the Union Chapel for a prime seat. I arrive just before local singer-songwriter Shabsi Mann takes to the stage with amazing cellist Mikatsiu, who wins hands-down best hairstyle of the night. There’s a distinct buzz in the air, and the duo do well to warm us up with some exotic sounds. Anticipation at its highest, Ani and band enter to massive applause and whoops. Hairs stand up on the back of my neck as Ani soaks up the adoration and breaks into Dilate – it’s hard to imagine a fiercer opener. The atmosphere is electric, she voices her delight to be back in “this gorgeous space” and Manchester is well in the past. The set list tonight is more intense and emotive, with a breathtaking performance of spoken word Coming Up, blistering rendition of Alla This and the heartbreakingly haunting Hypnotized which near reduces me to tears.
“You guys are alright! You’re game for a little blaspheming…” is received with a “Hell, yeah!” after which Ani talks about the venue and its spiritual connection: “Yeah, I’m so beyond help…” she jokes with the crowd. She warns us that her new repertoire contains a healthy number of married-with-kids songs, and vows that she did try to raise her daughter gay “but it’s so not working…” Ensues a slew of classic Ani tracks including Shy, Shameless and early number The Whole Night, leading her to aptly refer to tonight as the “this is your life” set. Fire Door from her 1990 debut album is a nod from Ani that she is fully embracing every stretch of her career, taking me back to the first time I heard Ani’s vocals and killer strokes.
The only question left for me on Tuesday is: Can day 2 better day 1? It’s Ani’s birthday – a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by tonight’s fans, so this could be what makes tonight very special. A card is being circulated in the crowd by a committed fan, signs are being hand-drawn. Shabsi serves up a fabulous opening set, including a Noor Jehan cover Sanu Nehar Wale Pul Tay Bula Ke.
Not too weary from a boozy celebration night, Ani immediately blows the roof of the chapel with Anticipate. The concertina birthday card is brought out and Happy Birthday resounds around the building. Ani promised a totally different set from the previous day, and bar one new track, she delivered just that, proving her commitment to her audience and her non-commercial sensibility. She seems much looser tonight, beaming throughout and loving every second on the stage, very much ‘with’ her audience. At one poignant moment, the band pause for a break, abandoning instruments, and together with the techs, race up the stairs into the giant pulpit for an a capella version of Utah Phillips’ Dump The Bosses led by Ani herself – a very symbolic statement (#PulpitTakeover) and documented HERE.
Swan Dive is one of the highlights of the night, with Ani’s raw vocals and angsty guitar moves, as well as Gravel which closes the set. Unable to do any wrong tonight, Ani returns with the melodic Both Hands, ending her UK sprint with 32 Flavors, movingly accompanied by the audience, as we bid farewell once again to this powerhouse of a woman who has inspired so many on this side of the pond to play music and build their own soapboxes. We all come out of the show feeling slightly dazed after days of spectacular performance and warmth from none other than the legend that is Ms. Ani DiFranco. I always suspected that we all need an Ani performance at least once every two years to stay moderately sane in the face of an insane world, and this run ought to last us all a while at least…