Ani DiFranco delighted fans at House of Blues Cleveland last night with a brilliant mix of songs from throughout her quarter-century career.
Renowned for her folk-punk acoustic guitar prowess, political activism, and business savvy, the Buffalo native nonchalantly strode onstage in an orange tee and green cargo pants, but then rocked her way through the title track to her 1995 opus, Not a Pretty Girl. The confessional “Not Angry Anymore” (from 1999’s alliteratively-titled Up Up Up Up Up Up) followed—and saw drummer Terence Higgins pitter-patter his snare with gentle brush strokes while Todd Sickafoose thumped an upright double-bass to Ani’s left.
The show was filmed for broadcast on the internet via Yahoo! Live, but DiFranco didn’t let the cameras intimidate her. She’s been there, done that.
DiFranco said she’d been in town a couple days, but had been feeling under the weather:
“There were a lot of places I was supposed to be, but I’ve just been in the hotel ordering room service and not talking to anybody!”
DiFranco (who writes constantly) joked that her manager advised her to play some oldies for the Cleveland crowd (and Internet audience) rather than the untested new material she favors. But Ani did both, shuffling new songs from 2014’s Allergic to Water with standbys like the brisk, menacing “Shy” and choppy, shimmery “Swan Dive.”
“I wasn’t sure how this was gonna work out,” DiFranco conceded, eyeing folks seated in the pit down front.
Most nights find HOB concert-goers crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the standing-room only space on the club floor. Folding chairs were brought out for Ani’s online extravaganza.
“It seems to be working out. Are you comfortable?”
The chorus of cheers suggested that yes, peeps were good indeed, which gave the constantly-smiling guitarist all the feedback she needed to breeze through the accusatory “Careless” Words,” and provocative, samba-fueled “See See See See” with cool confidence.
Higgins was masterful on his red-shelled Pearl kit, alternating between sticks, brushes, and mallets, weaving playing rhythms and dropping exclamatory beats. He even played a kazoo solo on the bluesy “Harder Than It Needs to Be,” which DiFranco described as a song “about me getting a taste of my own medicine.”
The razor-stubbled Sickafoose manhandled his upright light a pro, underpinning DiFranco’s trebly chords and bright string sound with a steady rumble. He even busted out a bow at one point and sawed across the strings like a cellist.
Perhaps the evening’s most moving entry was “’Tis of Thee,” which DiFranco dedicated to the people of Ferguson, Missouri.
The song’s lyric—an indictment of institutionalized slavery in America and the still-lingering effects of segregation—took on new meaning in light of recent police shootings around the nation. DiFranco said she brought her kids to a rally in their New Orleans home—only to be taken aback when her daughter asked why protesters were chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!”
“Trying to explain something like that to a child brings forth the surreality of it all,” she reflected.
DiFranco swapped guitars a lot—practically after every song—but the trade-off was always efficient, with her roadie proffering fresh-tuned instruments like a batboy handing a major league slugger his weapon of choice.
In Ani’s arsenal on this occasion included a well-worn Gibson steel-string acoustic and an Epiphone Zenith treble guitar. DiFranco also played an elegant-looking 1930’s styled Cromwell with F-holes on the sparkly (if lyrically sarcastic) “Happy All the Time.”
She paused only briefly to adjust the black electrical tape on her fingers and apply superglue to her nails, but kept the pace with her playful banter. DiFranco seemed to be enjoying herself as much as her spectators.
She’s certainly come a long way since her DIY-days busking Beatles songs. But Ani’s hypnotic voice, considerable guitar chops, and independent streak remain intact, thank you very much.
And at 44, she’s probably just getting started.
Vermont songbird Anais Mitchell opened the show with a half an hour of lilting solo acoustic folk. Armed with a Kalamazoo guitar, angelic voice, and good looks, the 33-year old beguiled with a sampling of tunes from throughout her ten-plus year career.
“I just got a haircut,” reported the spiky redhead. “My husband said I looked like Rod Stewart!”
Not quite. The former Faces front man never looked this good in boots.
Mitchell issued her first disc, The Song They Sang…and When Rome Fell, when she was barely out of her teens. She’s done a couple albums on DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label (including 2007’s The Brightness and 2010’s Hadestown) and worked with bassist Sickafoose on 2012’s Young Man in America.
We heard a lot of chatter and white noise in the club while Mitchell strummed away. We weren’t convinced people were paying proper attention to beauties like “Why We Build the Wall,” but they were—and they rewarded Anais with generous applause and cheers whenever she finished a number.
Mitchell’s latest, XOA, dropped in September on the Wilderland imprint. Recorded in Nashville with producer Gary Paczosa, the album boasts re-workings of older Anais selections alongside a handful of new tracks.
Last year Mitchell collaborated with Colorado musician Jefferson Hamer (Single Malt Band, Great American Taxi) on a well-received collection of English traditional hymns (Child Ballads).
All Anais releases are for sale on her website (see link below).