February 6, 2008

Righteous Melodies

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Last Saturday, a legion of passionate, discerning fans converged on the Ithaca Commons, ready to be inspired. The crowd attending the Ani DiFranco concert that evening at the State Theatre ranged from bright-eyed teenagers just beginning to identify with Ani’s penetrating lyrics, to middle-aged couples who had likely been fans since DiFranco burst onto the folk music scene in 1990. These devotees were anticipating a night filled with a distinct voice, unmistakably lush, percussive guitar-stylings and powerful, exquisitely phrased ideas about what it means to be a lover, a woman and a citizen of the world. Judging by the contagious enthusiasm pulsing through the theatre throughout the evening, these expectations were far from disappointed.
Although Ani and her opening act, Anais Mitchell, both played acoustic guitars, every note rang clearly to the farthest seat. Perhaps the intimate level of the venue — small enough that even a balcony seat feels like a personal concert — contributed to the mood of the crowd, which was receptive and enthusiastic for even the opening act. Mitchell, accompanied by another guitarist, shared her high, innocent vocalizations and rather peculiar puppet-like stage presence with an attentive audience. Mitchell’s earnestness and surprisingly haunting melodies conspired to a potentially worthy heir of DiFranco’s avid fan base and well-earned legacy.
DiFranco took the stage at 9 p.m. Casually dressed in layered blue and red t-shirts, Ani was a tiny, pixie-like powerhouse of strength, wit and infectious joy. From the moment she stepped before her clearly adoring audience, she had the crowd in the palm of her hand. After kicking off her set with a rousing rendition of “God’s Country,” she shared her enthusiasm for the generosity of Ithacans, thanking her audience for numerous gifts, including chocolate and the necklace she was wearing. Not meriting such enthusiasm, however, was the back-alley entrance to the venue itself: “It’s a fucking hole down there, man. Don’t be fooled by the twinkling lights.” Her banter added another dimension to the experience; while never overpowering the music, her disclosures added a level of embedded personality, vaulting the live Ani DiFranco experience beyond any recording.
Accompanied by Allison Miller on drums, Todd Sickafoose on upright bass, and Mike Dillon on xylophone and other percussion, DiFranco sailed through a 19-song set, including a crowd-friendly encore. Audience members sang along to old favorites like “You Had Time,” even helping Ani when she stumbled over the lyrics. While every song was eagerly received, it was clear from the cheers which were fan favorites. Highlights included exuberant renditions of older tunes such as “Manhole” and newer material such as “The Atom.” When DiFranco asked the crowd if she could “get an amen,” they responded with a roar. DiFranco seemed eager to reject old norms of oppression and find a new world of righteous justice to believe in — if she was a preacher of this new world order, the audience was already converted.
From this point on, the concert took on heightened significance. What had previously been a mere enjoyment of music transformed into a nearly palpable joy at being, for at least the evening, part of the world DiFranco spun. The venue was converted into a bubble of infinite possibilities, where a person could let go of one’s anger and rejoice in the natural world with full acceptance of all of one’s flaws and glories. The American Sign Language interpreter swayed euphorically as she translated, helping Ani turn language itself into a dance, into a celebration. DiFranco ended the evening with an unforgettable encore of two of her most popular songs: “Both Hands” and “32 Flavors.” As she soared through “Both Hands,” perhaps one of the loveliest breakup-songs ever written, a couple in the balcony danced a waltz. While at first it seemed ridiculous for two lovers to be dancing so formally to a breakup song, after a few stanzas it seemed all too appropriate. They were a summation of the evening: a remembrance of the universal ability to transform pain into love, injustice into change, anger into strength and the bad into something beautiful. Appropriately, DiFranco ended her performance by encouraging her devoted audience to sing along that they were “32 flavors and then some.” The evening on a whole was filled with grace and joy, leaving the concertgoers feeling that they had experienced something a bit more mysterious and wonderful than even the indisputable talents and showmanship of Ani DiFranco.