Gig Review by Adrienne Frances with Photography by Katja Ogrin

Ani DiFranco

The first time I saw Difranco was probably 1998. I proceeded to see her at least once every year since, and even 3+ times in my especially obsessive years between 2001 – 2004.  I feel like I know her face better than many friends, her albums have accompanied me around the world, and she has been the soundtrack to some of my more intimate and lasting friendships.

The last time I saw her was in 2012 at London’s Union Chapel – beautiful venue, but irritating evening. The woman I’d fallen in love with for her fierce independence and outspoken feminism was once again outspoken all night long, but on the most unexpected topics – including a lengthy spoken word piece on how it’s a woman’s duty to have children, and how if you’ve reached ‘our’ age and you’re still not happy then you’re doing something wrong (see ‘If Yr Not’). It irked me into such a silent rage that I bobbed in my seat apoplectic with rage, eyes bulging and shoulders shaking, mouthing obscenities at my companions to the show.. and afterwards swearing NEVER to see her again.

Ani DiFranco

This was clearly a lie. I’ve sworn off seeing her on numerous occasions. I’ve become distanced from her newer material, as she distances herself from earlier versions of herself, but that time was by far the worst. And so, with a heavy heart I prepared myself to be enraged once more.

The Glee Club was busy but, not rammed full. Like her previous Glee gigs, it was standing, and the crowd was the usual mix of lesbians and now ageing hippies. I always love examining demographics at gigs. Despite being regularly proven wrong, I like to believe that those who share my passions must also be like me in other ways. Make of that what you will! Her merch stand, oddly, put me more at ease – it felt more authentic, more like olden days Ani, with a handful of interesting merchandise strewn across a set of tables lit by a couple of desk lamps, manned by a friendly American. Consisting of handmade ceramics, old school stickers and badges on offer (circa 1998 old school.. I had them on my school books!) and most excitingly, her forthcoming album was available to buy for only £7.00 as a preview copy without all of the supplementary artwork. I even discovered after my Union Chapel grump, I missed out on another album she’d released, so stocked up.

Ani DiFranco

Support was from Shabsi Mann. I’d not heard of her before, but was intrigued when she took to the stage with a beautiful cellist. I’m a sucker for anything remotely Rasputina-esque, and was hopeful Shabsi might offer something similar.

Shabsi played 6 tracks, mostly from her latest EP “Whispers of Stardust Ear Hugs”, including ‘Penny of Time’ and ‘Dericote St’. Cello was played by MIKATSIU, who Shabsi claimed she spotted playing out on the streets of Dalston and lured her in with an invite to join her harem. As you do. She kept the audience interested with banter around heritage, and her love of Bill Hicks. Vocally, Mann reminded me of a hybrid of Karen O and PJ Harvey – she has definite grit to some of her songs, but tempered with the aching dulcet tones of MIKATSUI’s cello. They made a good team.

Ani DiFranco

Next up, Difranco. I’d already spotted a double bass to the side of the stage, and was not disappointed to see Todd Sickafoose make a welcome return to the stage with her. The last few shows I’d seen her do had been Difranco alone, but this time she’d brought Todd and her drummer Terence Higgins, so I was expecting a bigger sound than previous shows. She opened with ‘Dilate’, a regular crowd-pleaser, followed by ‘Angry Anymore’ – which she dedicated “to those of you still suffering from a family” – at which my heart jumped for joy! Could it be that she’d ended her lectures on family/motherhood/everything-is-so-great-in-Ani-land?

Ani DiFrancoAni DiFranco

In the early years of seeing her live, before the internet looked anything like this, I would trawl forums to find snippets of quotes from stories she told at gigs – anything to gain a sense of who she is, what she thinks, outside of her lyrics and music. Any dialogue with the audience would be lapped up – the crowd hanging off every word. Some tours she’d be chattier than others, and it felt very hit or miss as to whether we’d be treated to her thoughts.. so I’m peppering this with direct quotes from the lady, for anyone as obsessive as I can sometimes be.

“It’s amazing being in an English speaking country after the last few weeks.. You say something, and I say something, and we just understand each other. English speaking for everyone!.. Errr.. don’t tell them I said that!”

Ani DiFranco

Next up, ‘Manhole’ – grittier sounding than previous iterations, particularly hammering out the chorus “and maybe it was I who betrayed his majesty with no opposite reality” and I felt myself fall back in love with her all over again. So far, fingers crossed, no toe curling lectures. This was followed by ‘Promiscuity’, a song from her previous album ‘Which Side are You On?’ which was one of the albums I’d missed entirely in my Difranco veto, but which she introduced with a call-to-arms:

“Here’s a song for all the sluts.. Sluts aren’t just girls you know.. Slut pride! For anyone who’s young and obeying natural law as you do.. I recommend going about it with a lot of pride. Take it from an old lady. This is written to my younger self – too bad you couldn’t accept yourself for who you were.”

After this I zoned out a little – songs like ‘Half-assed’, ‘Alla This’ and ‘Welcome To’ don’t really do much for me, though she did include ‘Coming Up’ with a brief spiel over the Yes/No debate: “Yeah this country’s ‘too large’..[skeptical face] My opinion? Stay together! We need a world without borders.. yeah why don’t we become one big lumpy country? That’d make our lives easier fo shiz!” – though she did admit to not really understanding the politics surrounding the decision.

Ani DiFranco

Things got back on track with the crowd-pleasing ‘As Is’ and ‘Shy’ during which she answered the question: how many guitars do you have?

“How many guitars.. I have 6 guitars! 3 different regular guitars, and that little baby guitar which hasn’t come out yet, then I got a tenor guitar and a baritone guitar. I have less socks than that… Favourite tuning? Ooh, I don’t have one.. Different one for every song.. Though I’m really into ‘c’ right now.. Don’t know what it means.. Hopefully I’m graduating from ‘b’…”

‘Happy All the Time’ had a comedy false start where she stammered after referencing Isis: “I DIDN’T MEAN THE ISLAMIC STATE, I MEANT THE EGYPTIAN GODDESS!!” and I once again felt like the worst kind of person for grumbling internally over the sickly chorus.. until she giggled to herself at the end, and said: “Here’s a new song that disputes that last one” and followed it with ‘Careless Words’ – a track from her new album, whose lyrics made me do internal fist pumps at her return to darker subject matter.

“So after about 10 years in marriage.. Some days are better than others… But here’s a song I wrote about meeting mine..” – this was her precursor to ‘Genie’, another new track from “Allergic to Water”, which continued to keep my hopes up for her return to balanced, less rose-tinted material, and didn’t disappoint, with ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Mariachi’ following.

“I thought I’d throw this song in there like it was just some song (it’s usually my encore! But we’re gonna pique early and see where we go from here..) I wrote this back when I was a chump and this was my idea of playing guitar!” ‘Both Hands’ made a surprisingly early appearance, followed by a slightly manic ‘Shameless’ to finish the set. The new tracks, whilst interesting lyrically (and far less rage-inducing than her previous album), aren’t as musically dynamic than her older material, despite her belief that she used to be a ‘chump’. The newer material really blended into one sound, almost dropping any melody to be a basic beat with picked strings overlaid that supported the lyrics. Perhaps her interest in spoken word is overtaking her interest in music, or perhaps any material created since the split from both Andy Stochansky, and latterly the partnership with Mercer/Wolf/Hahn just doesn’t have the same depth and vibrance. Thankfully the encore consisted of ‘Gravel’ and ‘Overlap’ so thoughts of new music were wiped from my brain, and I robotically found myself back at the merch stand stocking up on anything I’d missed out on to date.

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