In true Ani DiFranco fashion, tonight’s show at the Pabst Theater – on the eve of her 42nd birthday – was filled with unprecedented and endearing moments.
To begin with, her opening band, a folk-pop trip from Brooklyn called Pearl and the Beard, presented such a unique set which included, among other elements, cello, kazoo, glockenspiel and emotional harmonies, that the audience was silent for most of the performance and gave the band a standing ovation. We had never seen such a reaction to an opening act, and the crowd was demanding an encore – via hooting, hollering and stomping– from an opening band.
Pearl didn’t encore, but the lines for their merchandise and T-shirts during the break were three wide and at least 15 deep. Many performers wouldn’t want to, or would be too ego fragile, to follow such an act, but not Ani. She walked onto the stage with a mix of gratitude and confidence, as usual, owning the place and yet completely in awe of the space and the crowd.
"Well, hello there..." she said, opening her set.
The first song presented another concert first for us. She broke into "Which Side Are You On," the title track from her latest release and a pro-union, Pete Seeger cover that prompted an audience sing-a-long. The sing-a-long, in our experience, is traditionally something the crowd has to work into, after a few warm-up tunes and / or enough Tall Boys to lube the sing-a-long gene that some of us carry. However, perhaps primed by Pearl, the audience totally went along with it.
Interestingly, unlike other Ani shows, the sing-a-long did not continue throughout the almost-two-hour set. Instead, it didn’t regain momentum until the encore, and with final songs like "Gravel" and "32 Flavors," how couldn't it happen? (And now this review is turning out just as unconventional, leaking the encore songs before the rest of the set.)
As for the songs between the first and the very last, many were from her latest album, including the second song, "Splinter," and the third song "Promiscuity" (which she dedicated to her younger, sluttier self).
She also played "J," also from the new album, which many believe is a pro-marijuana song but seems instead to address the issue of toxic chemicals that the people of Louisiana are forced to live with (Ani, a native of Buffalo, NY, has lived in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans since after Hurricane Katrina). Coincidentally or ironically or neither, the song directly but obscurely addresses President Barack Obama, who was also in Milwaukee on Saturday, with the lyrics, "I mean, dude could be FDR right now / And instead he's just shifting his weight/ And the disappointment is the knockout blow / Filmed in torturous slow-mo."
She also played a few "super new songs" – thanks for having faith in us as an audience willing to embrace new material – and older tunes like "The Whole Night," which she claims to have not played live in 15 years, "Napoleon," "78% H2O" and "Joyful Girl."
She also performed unaccompanied the Woody Guthrie songs, "Deportee" and "Jolly Banker," the latter complete with updated lyrics that addressed unemployment, house foreclosure and, not surprising from the title, the heartlessness of banks.
Perhaps most interesting tonight was the fact no one booed, even though, as always, Ani was very vocal about her thoughts on politics.
Tonight’s band consisted of Ani, a stand-up bass player named Todd Sickafoose and a drummer, Terence Higgens, who smiled for almost the entire show. Ani introduced the band after the first song, again, a non-traditional approach to showpersonship. Ani’s appreciation for her band and the people behind the scenes was abundant and genuine. She also complimented the Pabst Theater and its staff, referring to it as, "a total class act in every way."
Work is an important issue for Ani on many levels, and she often speaks about her job as a singer. Tonight she said, shielding her eyes from the light and staring into the audience, "I love my job and I hope you love your job, too."
Tonight, it really seemed that Ani played the show she wanted to play. After three decades of fans yelling out requests and "I love yous," she definitely knows how to wade the sometimes mucky waters of unrestrained devotees. She delivers a genius mix, gently teasing them as much as she interacts with them, certainly not on any sort of between-song-small-talk agenda. In fact, one fan yelled out a mispronunciation of her name, saying "Annie" instead of "Ani" which is pronounced "Ahn-i" and at first she corrected him sassily and then went on, in her self-deprecating way that never seems to come from a place of self-hatred or low self esteem, shared that "Ani" means "anus" in Italian.
Ani has released more than 20 albums on her label, Righteous Babe records (originally called Righteous Records). Running her own label has allowed her a lot of creative freedom over the years.
DiFranco’s bisexuality has been the issue of many of her songs and much public discussion. It seems that she had more relationships with women in the ‘80s and ‘90s and attracted a large lesbian fan base that remains strong today.
She lives with with her producer / husband, Mike Napolitano, and their daughter, Petrah. Internet rumors suggest that DiFranco is pregnant with a second child, but she did not confirm this tonight. Motherhood has undoubtedly deeply affected Ani, like it does most women, and has been the subject of a few of her more recent songs.
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