Ani Difranco: This Year's Model

Anyone walking by Burlington, Vermont’s Memorial Auditorium on April 14th must have heard the bass-heavy, bumping funk that beat its way out of the building that night. It was often followed by the girlish screams of a packed house that harkened back to the days of live Beatles performances. For most passers-by, the question would be; “Who is playing tonight? I didn’t hear anything on the radio about a big show tonight, what band is drawing all these people?” A look of surprise and scepticism would probably grow on the face of anyone who found out that the band with the sub-basement bottom end and the fire-breathing organ is led by a woman just over five feet tall playing an acoustic guitar.

Packing the house at Memorial Auditorium on her most recent visit to Burlington was none other than famously independent artist Ani DiFranco. On tour behind her new album, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Ani is proving, with bombast, that she has finally assembled a band to back her up. When Ani came to Burlington nearly four years ago to play the Flynn Theatre, she was accompanied by the ever-able and eminently funky Andy Stochansky on drums and the relaxed, smooth, Sara Lee on electric bass. The duo perfectly blended the dynamics of Ani’s style, playing soft and subtle in all the right places, and exploding when DiFranco’s bicep would suddenly drive the band through the bluegrass-tempo power chords and thumb-picked arpeggios that have characterized her guitar playing over the last decade. A few albums and a handful of years later, Ani’s back, and she’s got a brand new bag.

The recording of Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, follows Ani’s most widely acclaimed and best selling record, 1998’s Little Plastic Castle. For Up, Ani brought together Castle bassist Jason Mercer, longtime drummer Andy Stochansky, and new keyboardist Julie Wolf on piano, organ, and Wurlitzer. The addition of Wolf on keys, and her high-register harmony vocals, provide DiFranco with bright new colors to mix from. Instead of crafting new songs and assembling different personnel to record them in the studio, many of DiFranco’s new songs capture the live sound of the group. The new sound, which is both rough-edged and confident funk, comes to life on tracks like, “Virtue”, “Jukebox”, “Angel Food”, and “Know Now Then”. These takes all capture Ani’s new quartet interacting, and often improvising through solo or bridge sections in ways that were never explored on previous DiFranco recordings. The last track, “Hat Shaped Hat”, is a glimpse of the band in the thrall of a groove of Pentecostal preportions that lasts over thirteen minutes on disc, and begins with DiFranco stating, “I will not be afraid... I will not be afraid to let my talents shine.”

Ani hardly ever has trouble letting her talents shine live, and she introduced her band and their new sound to an excited and energetic Burlington crowd by opening their show with two dance-heavy new tracks from Up. Whether or not the audience was expecting it, the room lit up with a syncopated Wurlitzer-drenched funk, anchored by wet bass sounds and punctuated with shimmering crashes and dry snare drum cracks. DiFranco’s own playing seemed to nearly disappear in the wash of sound, but as soon as she started singing, her voice drew cheers, and at every transition and pause, she was there, driving the band. Not only was the group hot, but each song became much longer than its recorded counterpart as the players continued warm up and started to stretch the tunes out into new territory. Often after a roaring chorus the band would settle into laid back, slinky improvs, and cheers from the fans proved their surprise and approval of the new element the band brought to Ani’s performance. Indeed, much like their predecessors, Ani’s new players handled her dynamics perfectly, gliding from funky madness to serene grooves like they were born to.

As always, Ani’s rapport with the crowd was as if they were all old friends, and she had just gotten into town to visit. She laughed self-consciously as she talked to the audience and she introduced her band with wide-smiled enthusiasm. Though the band’s new-funk intepretations of DiFranco’s music brought a whole different feel to the show (they played P-Funk-y arrangements of classics like “Anticipate”), Ani was still her best during her politically outspoken and acoustic moments. DiFranco introduced her new song, “‘Tis of Thee”, by explaining how the privitization of prisons is becoming a profitable and disturbing big business. “‘Tis of Thee”, the first track on Up, illustrates in startling detail how our society demonizes our poor, “criminal[izing] the symptoms / while [we] spread the disease”, until we eventually, “put everyone in jail / except the Cleavers and the Bradys”. Other acoustic performances of the evening included Ani playing a beautifully honest solo version of her song “Independence Day”. Soon after, a duo performance of Up’s first single, “Angry Anymore”, featured Ani on acoustic guitar, Julie Wolf on accordian, and both women laughing and singing harmony into a shared microphone. Watching Ani on stage alone made one feel like you could almost see her on stage ten years ago, just as excited and just as self-conscious, playing to an empty house, or to a few coffeehouse admirers.

As many artists evolve over time and start to explore new sounds, the purists in their respective camps often squirm in their seats and grumble about the “old days”, or selling out. When hearing some of the tracks on Up, or seeing gaggles of teenaged girls singing to the title track of Little Plastic Castle, DiFranco old-schoolers may romantically pause and remember the days of solo acoustic performances and early recordings, like Not So Soft and Puddle Dive, dismissing the “new crowd” and Ani’s new sound. But Ani DiFranco’s fans are notoriously supportive.

Unlike the great majority of her peers (if any truly exist), DiFranco is not signed to a major label, she owns and operates her own label, Righteous Babe Records. Ani has complete control of every aspect of her music; its release, its promotion, when she tours, when she records. When DiFranco tours, she doesn’t rely upon some huge hype-fest promotion; she knows her fans are out there. How has she forged her own path and developed an undying fan base? Every step of the way, from playing out in bars in Buffalo, NY at age fifteen, to driving across the country at twenty, selling copies of her debut album out of the trunk of her hand-painted car, DiFranco has done things herself.

Major labels started courting Ani early in her career, when they realized she had a potential market, and she said, “No, thanks.” Nearly ten years and a dozen albums after starting Righteous Babe Records, the majors still try to coax DiFranco into a deal, and she still says no. After all, what’s the point? While producing and releasing her own music, DiFranco has been nominated for a Grammy, toured four continents, had her face on the covers of a dozen magazines internationally, and even had her music featured in Hollywood and independent films. She’s already accomplished what the majors can offer her, and she hasn’t given up revenues or creative control.

In owning her own label, DiFranco proves that small businesses can be successful and give back to their communities. Ani knows her roots, and she funnels money from touring and record sales into local Buffalo businesses, having her T-shirt, poster, and CD manufacturing all done by people she knows, in her hometown. Righteous Babe Records, is, as Ani puts it, “a people-friendly, sub-corporate, woman informed, queer-happy small business that puts music before rock-stardom and ideology before profit.” Most of those descriptions would probably make people like record industry mogul David Geffen snicker and break out in hives.

The key to DiFranco’s home-spun success lies on the face of every audience member at every impressively packed house for DiFranco’s performances, like the recent one in at Burlington. Ani’s fans love the way her songs take on the messy, the difficult, and the widely undiscussed subjects of human life with an honesty that makes critics uneasy, and DJs reluctant to put her in rotation. Ani’s fans have spoken; she has sold over 2 million records, released fourteen recordings, and she is currently playing to halls with an average of 2500-6000 seats. The British music magazine Mojo has called Ani, “One of the great communicators of our times,” and Guitar World Acoustic has agreed, calling DiFranco “The most engaging folk singer of her generation... Not just a great singer, but one of the most important folk musicans of our time.”

Praise simply fills a room like sunlight for Ani DiFranco, and it is easy to brush away the people who only want to pigeonhole her or distract from her musical talents by focusing on questions about her sexuality or why she’s “so angry”. Clearly, these people are not paying attention to what is happening around them everyday, and they have probably never sat down with one of DiFranco’s discs and listened to not only the level of her poetic talents, but her often underated and refreshingly original guitar playing. In a world of pre-packaged plastic idols with names like Alanis and Jewel, Ani writes, produces, sells, and continues to create her own new music. While able to capture the tenacity and energy of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea on her acoustic guitar and the poetic insight on society and life that Bob Dylan was able to harness in the early 60’s in her words, Ani retains an originality and ability to write songs that follows in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie and Joni Mitchell. With a her new album, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, and a fresh, funkified sound, Ani DiFranco continues to prove to her fans and every person that has doubted her, that she has 32 flavors and then some.

J. Matthew Bushlow wrote the viperHouse cover story in this very issue.