Twenty feet away from me there’s a pair of young ladies dancing joyously, without a care in the world. They are, I suspect, highly inebriated.
Swinging around and around and around. Arms extended until one slips and falls – causing the other to collapse in a fit of giggles. They roll around on the floor for a second or three trying to stand. And then? In a moment of tenderness, they share a quick kiss before clambering back up to do it all over again.
I avert my eyes for my part, feeling as though I’m maybe playing at voyeurism — privy to a secret, beautiful moment with which I have no business. As though bearing witness to their young puppy love is somehow intrusive. It’s special kind of awkwardness, being an older, straight male fan of Ani DiFranco. I’ve mostly gotten used to it over the years, but still.. Sometimes it manages to sneak up and catch me unawares.
It’s a difficult thing, if you weren’t there — to truly understand how completely radical Ani DiFranco was in 1992. I suspect that neither of these girls were alive back then, when another (at the time) young woman first handed me a cassette with this music on it. A kind of introduction to radicalization. A cementing of the fact that I had chosen a side in a movement.
Back in those days, public acceptance of what we now refer to as LGBTQ rights was a non-starter. Gays and lesbians legitimately feared for their jobs (if not their lives) should they step out of the closet. A disease, which through the efforts of Ronald Reagan’s previous administration had successfully been branded a kind of Gay Plague, was running rampant. To our south, the monstrous Jesse Helms had been pushing laws into existence making it all but if not completely criminal to engage in anything other than hetero-normative sex. Public beatings of homosexuals were generally responded to with a shrug from polite society. While things are far from perfect in this area today, it’s a damned far sight better than it used to be.
For a traveling singer-songwriter to so openly brandish her queerness was a startling act of bravery. To do it while looking the way Ani DiFranco looked? Shaved head? Nose piercings?
Well.. That took a special sort of courage.
In the here and now of where the fight for identity-rights has taken us, how far we’ve moved on that front was simply not fathomable for most of us back then. Speaking with Ani directly during our advance press interview for this show, we touched briefly on the topic — but the long and the short of it: Dark though the ascension of the 45th President may be? If you care about gender equality of all shapes and sizes, these are in many ways a breathtaking moment to be alive. Few of us could have imagined that the future would would hold the kinds of out-in-the-open exchanges about the right to freely express a non-cis identity. It gives one a bit of hope maybe, that tough topics about income inequality or mental health access or pacifism might actually see advancement as well.. That humanity might move to a brighter place.
. . .
So much ink has been spent in the service of talking about DiFranco’s solo path to success, bereft of managers and record labels at a time when such an effort was simply unheard of. It seems silly to mention it here, but the truth is that anyone engaging in a DIY-arts based business model today owes this woman a debt. She forged a trail, and provided a great deal of inspiration for many of us. Her example was invaluably instructive to my own path as a working artist. Hell, I’d hazard that the initial founding of AltDaily probably employed more than a few of the tactics she developed. There’s an argument to be made that you wouldn’t be reading this now in the manner that you are were it not for Ani.
The years have been kind to our heroine. Her voice is strong. Her musicianship is top notch, and she’s not lost a single step as she winds her way through an extensive catalog spanning near to three decades.
I’ve retreated to a stool in the corner far left of the stage to give my legs a rest after a rare bout of what the Greek bards referred to as “Booty Shaking.” To my left, there’s a little boy.. Three years old if he’s a day, all zonked out in his mother’s arms. I noticed him earlier in the evening, his people had put headphones on him before the show started and the little man was dancing his tiny heart out. In that completely honest, utterly with abandon way that only small children can. Poor guy is completely tuckered out now, but still his little feet are tapping to the staccato rhythms as he struggles to keep awake.
To my left I note an old man — stark raving bald — getting his shimmy on as Ani brings the funk. This has become a generational event, not so much a concert as an old school hootenanny. Where the like-minded gather for a sort of progressive church, to feel good in each other’s company. This makes sense, of course.. Many of us who were here at the beginning have had children. Indeed, my oldest remarked earlier in the week that the music I was enjoying in preparation of tonight seemed intensely familiar — in the same manner that Mother Goose or other nursery rhymes might feel to us.
The older songs are what the crowd came out for, to be sure. She brings out faithful yet spirited renditions of most of the fan favorites, yet it bears noting how well the audience responded to the raucous flavor of Binary’s title track. Make no mistake, this is a woman at the top of her game, making powerful, complex music. DiFranco hasn’t gotten as much press this go-around. Perhaps in an age where the music industry has all but collapsed, the media no longer finds her story of going her own way all that compelling. But this is no nostalgia act — there are songs on the new record that will take a rightful place on her set list in the decades to come.
Pre-order it here
You might like it if: You can smell da funk.More than simply a must have for completeist fans, this album digs deep and features an all star virtuoso cast of guests built around the core of a stalwart trio including Difranco, Todd Sickafoose, and Terence Higgins.
High Points: The kickass romp of “Binary.” The playful “Zizzing” featuring a member of Bon Iver.
. . .
For my own part, I quite simply wouldn’t be who I am today without this woman’s work. I’m grateful for all of it, but there are specific numbers from over my own lifetime that especially speak to me. The initial bars of “Both Hands” still thrills. I used to play Not a Pretty Girl track by track while working in a cellphone store at Lynnhaven Mall, much to the chagrin of my fellow employees. I lost my virginity with “Overlap” playing in the background. I fell into the great, tragic love of my life to an obsessive soundtrack.. Little Plastic Castle‘s “Pulse” serving as an ill-advised romantic anthem.
But above all? It’s when she plays “Dilate” tonight that I’m emotionally plugged in to a core only she has ever been able to express for me. Magically transported way back to ’96. To ’98. To 2000. Again and again and again — this song coaxed me through heart-sorrow, darkness, and despair. Through days I didn’t think I would survive.
There’s a lesson there.. In these grim times.
Because we did survive. We survived it together.. Most of us, at least.
And so shall we survive this, too.
Poetry rock-star Andrea Gibson burned the stage down with their explosive work before Ani came on. Us poets have known about Andrea for years and years, but if the name is new to you here’s the 411: They’re a four-time Denver Grand Slam Champion. They’ve placed multiple times in National poetry slams over consecutive years. Their work tackles difficult subjects with grace and poise, and they’re pure fire. It’s rare as hell to see a poet opening a concert these days. Kudos to all involved for bringing them here.
Okay.. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got.
Now go buy their book. It’s hard as hell out here for poets and they probably need the money. You dig?
Yeah, you dig.
All photos by Jeff Hewitt. He shot this solely with manual focus lenses, which is tough as fuck to pull off. Not that you really care but he thought you should know. You can see more of his photos at Jeff-Hewitt.com. On his off days he enjoys long slow walks in the park, hanging out with his cat, and talking about himself in the third person.