Last night, Ani DiFranco played in Madison's beautiful Orpheum Theater, and although it was the eighth time I had seen her perform, it was a very different version of the little folk singer.
For one, she's less little these days. At five-months pregnant, Ani has the cute "bump" that was, for the most part, covered up by a black T-shirt and her many guitars. But during guitar changes, and when she walked off the stage, it was evident that, indeed, a righteous babe is on the way.
Joined only by bassist Todd Sickafoose and multi-percussionist Mike Dillon, Ani delivered a deeper -- but much mellower -- version of her usual show. This time, she didn't bop all over the stage with dread locks whipping around like unruly Medusa snakes. Instead, she stayed mostly at center stage, sporting a simpler look: center-parted, red-tinted hair, the afore-mentioned baggy black T-shirt and maternity jeans that she tugged on, uncomfortably, a few times throughout the concert.
I couldn't see her shoes but kept wondering if the queen of platform footwear now sported more sensible sleds. My estimated guess is probably not.
The stripped-down form of last night's show sweetly echoed the style of friend and co-folkie, Bruce Cockburn. Snippets of Ani's fingerstyle almost sounded like samples from Cockburn songs, and Dillon's presence added to the Cockburn-ish-ness of the performance. The overlap of the two bands was evident last month as well, when Cockburn played Shank Hall with Julie Wolfe -- a keyboardist who has played and toured with Ani.
Although she didn't directly talk about her pregnancy to the audience -- she simply alluded to it with a joke about being "enlarged" -- the energy of the show and a few of the song choices reflected her intense, introspective state. Songs like "Knuckle Down" and "Lag Time" "(I gotta tighten down on the lag time") told us more about where she is in life right now than anything she directly said.
A few years ago, Ani said on her single's album that she's "not angry anymore," but I didn't really buy it until last night, when the radical songstress admitted to wanting to write happier songs. With that, she shared a brand new tune that is the most heartfelt love song she has penned to date. Written for Mike Napolitano, the co-producer of her latest record and her baby's daddy, it never faltered into cheese or toothache, yet revealed a deeply personal, moving story about her attainment of true love. (In a recent interview she described the two-year-relationship as "nutritious," and last night she said Napolitano was "sweet" and let her be herself without trying to control her.)
But don't get me wrong, "Mr. Difranco" is still not so soft. She swore like a sailor-ette and hopped up on her soapbox and ranted about the ridiculous nature of the United States blaming one man for all that is wrong. And although she sang and played her heart out, the sound of her rapid breathing in between songs exposed an enthused, but tired, mama-to-be.
Most of her material was from the beautiful and smart new record, "Reprieve," but, I admit, it was good to hear a few oldies. She encored with a rippin' version of "Shameless," even though she made it clear earlier in the evening that "old songs" are not her favorite to perform. For the second time, I heard her say that playing vintage material is like standing in front of a crowd and reading from her high school journal. She also confessed that before touring she relearns a few of her old songs by listening to the studio recordings. (A fan yelled out for "Deep Dish" and she admitted to not remembering the tuning anymore.)
Granted, I loved hearing "Napoleon" -- especially the cathartic sing-a-long that included the mostly-girl audience belting out the line "everyone's a f-ing Napoleon!" while flipping the bird into the air -- but after fifteen years of seeing, reading and listening to Ani, I cared more about her as a person than a performer. By the end, I just wanted her to get back to the bus, put her feet up and watch something mindless on TV. But maybe that's just the mom in me.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.