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all words: Joel Mittleman
all photos: Internet

Tuesday night brought the great Ani Difranco to the 9:30, a place she described as “one of the classiest clubs in the country.”  And, boy, was I excited.

There’s no artist who has been a part of my life for as long as Ani Difranco.  I was twelve when I first heard her, discovering her then new CD Little Plastic Castle.  Her songs had the same rebellious, political edge as the crappy punk bands I listened to at the time, but they were so much more than that.  They were complex and poetic in a way that Anti Flag or NoFX just wasn’t.  Ani’s songs pushed me to the liner notes and rewarded repeated listens.  Hearing her music, I felt like I was hearing the theme songs for the person I wanted to become.

And I’m not the only one.  Ani’s  shows are less like concerts and more like religious services. For over twenty years and across eighteen albums, Ani’s been cultivating a kind of secular faith, of which she stands as the perfect embodiment.  Her church combines a championing of queer and feminist liberation, a rejection of American consumer culture, a reclamation of the interconnectivity of people, and a demand for defiant self definition and expression.  Ani shows provide true believers with the space to join in communion and sense what it will be like when the Revolution finally comes.

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photo by laura griffin

The first ritual of an Ani show is having one of her friends and (usually) label mates open.   Of the five Ani openers I’ve seen, this show’s, Erin McKeown, was the best (with the exception of Regina Spektor…sorry, Erin).  She swaggered onto the stage with a hollow body electric guitar, a seersucker suit, and an Elvis updo.  Her first song grew like an incantation with its almost too fitting chorus “Every day, give me the strength of a thousand babes.” This was basically the lyrical equivalent of wearing the t-shirt of the band you’re about to see, but she performed it with such playful machismo that I’ll forgive it.  Her forty minute set worked through songs from each of her seven albums, but the highlight was the incredibly catchy “We Are More off her 2005 album, We Will Become Like Birds.  This fun, springtime song has been in my head (and on my grooveshark playlist) nonstop since the show, and its inspiring chorus served as a frame story for the rest of the night: “We were never good fighters, not very good soldiers, but through this we are more.”

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At 8:45, Erin was off and the excitement was palpable. All around me, women (and some men) shared stories of past Ani shows.  “I can’t even remember” seemed to be the most frequent answer to the question “How many times have you seen her?” Most the crowd was much older than I am, making me reflect on the strange fact that I was just four when Ani released her self-titled debut.  The age of the crowd also made me realize another strange fact: Ani’s getting old.  As she casually walked out and began her characteristic stage banter, her age showed.  Gone were the dreadlocks or shaved head of the woman on my posters growing up; instead, Ani looked a little tired, showing the kind of wrinkles you might expect from a new mother who’s almost forty.

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photo by acesshowbiz.com

Still, she brought it.  Her hour and forty minute set was driven by fan favorites: “Shy” “Dilate”  “Untouchable Face” “Two Little Girls” “Overlap”  “She Says.”  It was a tour de force.  Most exciting for me was the first song of her encore, “Gravel,” which was the first Ani song I played on my parents’ CD player in our study.  She also debuted at least six new songs, one of which she had written three days before.  This is the downside of an Ani show: she’s so prolific that you’ve never heard half the set.  And, truthfully, the new songs didn’t stack up.  They felt formulaic and throw away, each with some obvious applause line to get the crowd cheaply riled up (“Can no longer watch TV cause that shit melts my brain” or “If you’re opposed to abortion, don’t have an abortion, and teach your kids how to avoid ‘em.”)

But, I have no doubt that as she continues to write and write, more gems will rise to the top and stand the test of time.  One of the better new songs she played seemed to summarize her mission clearly: “Pour your love into your children until there’s nothing left to say.” For Ani, I can’t imagine that moment will come any time soon.

Introducing the last song of her set, Ani told the crowd “Go crazy, lefties.  I need you.”  We did, responding with the kind of ecstatic, extended applause that punctuated the night.  We needed her.

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