As elegiac as it is fierce, Ani DiFranco’s latest release bears witness: a tiny, heartbroken, polemical woman, a convalescent city, and a moment in American history so rife and so fragile, seven months after the towers fell and seven months after the president announced that “you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.” DiFranco’s performance in April of 2002 at Carnegie Hall confronts the national situation – its spiritual one as much as its political – with all of the folk-singer’s notorious tenacity and unrestraint.
It offers an effaced analysis, tough and withstanding, remarkable -remarkable, yes, but regrettable – for its continuing relevance and its bittersweet revelation that the work the singer asked us in 2002 to do, “so now it’s your job/ and it’s my job/ to make it that way/ to make sure they didn’t die in vain,” four years later requires the same diligence.
The performance focuses itself on the final pre-encore tracks, two lengthy sister poems, “Serpentine,” which DiFranco released on the then-up-coming Evolve, and “Self-Evident.” On its way, though, DiFranco covers a lot of ground. She reaches back to older tunes like “Gratitude” and “Names and Dates and Times” in a project to “remember new old songs,” she tells the audience, so as not to “become a broken record, a fucking cliché of myself.”
These, set against the then-new songs, establish something of an Ani genealogy: she gives the audience snapshots of herself at 18, “sitting in Kennedy Airport with [her] little shaved head,” and she nods to her various incarnations since then, her Little Plastic Castle self with “Two Little Girls” and her Out of Range self, banging the title-track out as her encore and playing the last sequence hard enough to knock her guitar wrenchingly out of tune – a lovable DiFrancoian trope.
This history unfolds by way of poetry as much as by music, as DiFranco dedicates a third of the set to spoken word, punctuating and animating the set with quick, witty autobiographical sketches. “Not So Soft,” a poem released in 1994 to mark the singer’s “first occasion to be down in the financial district with its old configuration of buildings,” assumes a spookily prophetic quality. “I look up,” she says breathily, “It looks like the buildings are burning/ But it’s just the sun setting in the windows.” And then, in a near whisper: “The rhythmic clicking on and off of computers/ The pulse of the American machine…/ It draws death dancing out of little countries.”
But, as DiFranco reveals in her liner notes, these poems are just primers for the performance’s real purpose: to unveil the final two tower-like poems at its end. Indeed, the twin poems jut out, stealing twenty minutes of the seventy-minute show. She writes, “In this particular recording, I can hear my nervousness increase as I approach” the two poems, which, in the wake of the still-fresh tragedy, ask of her audience strength, incisiveness and mercy-and, as always, action. Indicting as the poems are, their aftertaste is restorative and not unlike two monuments erected where there once was just space.