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At An Ani Show: Managing My Obsession With The Mistress of Folk; Featuring That Crazy Bitch In The Front Row

by Rachel Pearl

I have this nostalgic feeling tonight. As I put on my photo pass and look out into a sea of anxious Ani fans, it occurs to me; I was standing in this exact same spot 13 years ago. At the time I was 16 reviewing an Ani show for a local paper. The piece was entitled, Ani Ani Ani Ani Ani Ani, after her release of Up Up Up Up Up Up.

In highschool I was given a mixtape; I didn’t know what it was doing to me at the time. Songs were impregnating me with ideas about self-reliance, tolerance and how to stick up for myself. I’m more obsessed with her now than ever. If you’re unfamiliar with Ani’s trajectory over the years, I’ll break it down with some numbers: 15, the year she was emancipated from her parents, 6, number of guitars on stage, 2, number of husbands (one past and one present/forever), 1.5, number of children (there is a bun in her oven), 21, official LPs, 15 (and maybe more), number of artists represented on her record label, Righteous Babe Records, 1, number of churches she’s converted into a theater, 1, number of Grammys she has received (for album packaging), and age, 42.

She enters the stage smiling. She has shoulder length wavy brown hair, a black tank top and wrinkled linen pants. Her footwear is unknown, but it’s a confirmed boot. She’s healthy. She’s pregnant. She’s followed by Todd Sickafoose on bass and Terrence Higgins on drums. She opens the show with Which Side Are You On. It’s a big marching down freedom plaza kinda song with haunting bass and drums: a song written by Florence Reece in 1931 and covered by everyone from Pete Seeger (who plays on the LP) to Natalie Merchant. This crazy chick in the front keeps smacking my arm while I’m taking pictures. AH! She just did it again and said, “How do you take pictures while dancing?” Carefully. The dude behind me just said, “Splinter,” to his friend. “I only heard the first chord and I know it’s Splinter, man.” OK. I see what’s happening. I thought I was the big freak in the room. I have a fish tank populated with tropical fish named Napoleon, Shy, Zoo, Evolve, Slide, Marrow and Joyful Girl. Those are song titles. But CLEARLY, we are with some of the rabid fans Ani shows are known for tonight. This should be interesting.

Next song is Dilate, the title track from the album. Dilate was the highest grossing and most critically acclaimed album. I think it’s paramount to note here that her artistic achievements and ideology is cherry topped with financial success. She flipped the bird to toxic, creativity-crushing suits and proceeded to build a career by selling mixtapes at concerts – for 20 plus years! You know how much you have to love something to keep at it that long under public scrutiny? Forgeddaboutit. She gets little to no radio time, tv time or Billboard chart listings and she employs 15 or so people to run her record label and gives opportunity to the talented buskers in the bars she hits along the way. She’s still selling out shows and I still get giddy when she appears on stage. She’s a goddamn hero.

Ani, as the little folksinger, is now transcending as Ani the mother or Ani the prophet. She’s not just regaling us with tales of heartache and activism anymore. She’s mothering us when she lectures in “If Yr Not” off the new album Which Side Are You On: “if you’re not getting happier as you get older / then you’re fucking up.” I love this Ani. It’s like a wagged finger to all her uptight fans. “If you’re not aware that what you put out / is what you get back / that you make the world through the way you act /you can’t harness the awesome power of that fact.” She’s mantra-ing patience and understanding to herself and schooling us at the same time. I like this very much. It’s so direct!

She’s also seeing into the future – a utopia she pines for for her family. But in her new song “J,” she suggests that universal happiness can only be achieved by a cooperative movement and the collective ‘we’ probably knows better, but will not change unless by force. “Cause if we all had to change / we all just would / and we would move closer and that would be good / And we would buy local and we would buy less / and we’d realize that wasn’t our happiness.” She skipped this song tonight.

Oh, man. This crazy woman is calling out to her AGAIN. She’s reaching her arms towards the stage until Ani walks towards her and shakes her hand! Wow, that girl has guts. “I just try to do what I’m told,” Ani says, as she returns to the mic, in a soft but sarcastic tone.

BAM! She’s playing “Manhole.” Nothing is slowing her down tonight. She’s got a sexy little hippie dance for this jam, too. The loudness of the bass decimates the crowd.

I hear the notes for the next one. I shove my friend Renn and say, “This one is for you dear.”

“Promiscuity is nothing more than traveling / there’s more than one way to see the world / And some of us like to stay close to home and some of us are Columbus / What can I say?”

Ani is banging a beat on the wood of her guitar, real coffee house like, now. Crazy is doing an interpretive dance with her arms swung over the railing. Ani closes her eyes. Long pretty soft notes punctuate the down home funk feel when the bass kicks in. Ani bends her head towards her guitar, slowly. The song is called “Nicotine.” It feels like a western stand-off, right as the sun comes up. I can see dust particles in the air. It’s like putting your boots on while he/she is still asleep. “I hate you sometimes / but I love to be your queen / you are my muse / got me smoking nicotine.” Dysfunctional relationships have a magical staying power, huh?

Alright, I’m gonna do a little request for the girl who’s been here since 9.” The crowd screams. So the crazy bitch gets her wish, Ani is singing, Out of Range! This song is 18 years old…AGHHH she just jumped the last verse by accident! She’s laughing and searching for the words. See what happens when you deviate from the set list? She’s about to leave, it’s almost time to go. “I hope you’re wearing your comfy shoes, cause this song ain’t about to end anytime soon.” Amendment. This song trenches through legalizing abortion, permanently. I don’t think anyone has put such a divisive issue to song more poignantly than this:

And if you don’t like abortion
Don’t have an abortion
And teach your children
How they can avoid them
But don’t treat all women
Like they are your children
Compassion has many faces
Many names
And if men can kill and be decorated
Instead of blamed
Then a woman called upon to mother
Can choose to refrain

Here’s our last encore song, everyone.
“……I build each one of my songs
out of glass
so you can see me inside of them
I suppose
or you could just leave the image of me
in the background, I guess
and watch your own reflection superimposed…..
’cause I know there is strength
in the differences between us
and I know there is comfort
where we overlap”

We’re nearing the end of the show and Ani is whispering, “Overlap lap lap lap lap lap.” It’s like a lullabye. “Goodnight”, she says. We’re screaming back, “thank you”. She’s handing off setlists and guitar picks to the looney toons in the front row. That’s nice. I’m going to go stand in line to buy a t-shirt of the opening band Pearl and the Beard; not only because they were awesome but because it says pearl on the shirt. I always liked my name in print. Start listening to your mother, Ani, when it comes to just about everything. This woman knows what she’s talking about. See you at the next show?