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Joyful girl: Ani DiFranco

Untouchable

By John Brodeur

Ani DiFranco, Anais Mitchell

Palace Theatre, Jan. 29

‘We need the Solid Gold Dancers out here,” Ani DiFranco remarked, looking over the yawning space between her and the lip of the stage—and more importantly, between her and her audience. The close relationship between the performer and her audience has helped define DiFranco’s long and successful career; she would later respond to an adoring fan by saying, “I love you too, in the weird way that we do this thing.” So what would happen if there were a wall—or in this case, several yards—between idol and admirer? Easy: DiFranco stepped out into the neutral zone and took a little victory lap. It was a simple but important gesture, a wordless way of both acknowledging and thanking her supporters.

The deep, personal relationship that fans seem to have with Ani DiFranco, the performer, is because Ani DiFranco, the woman, leaves nothing out of the conversation. She puts her life on display, both in her songs and her language. Whether she’s discussing her mother’s recent bout with breast cancer, her current hometown of New Orleans (a new song on that topic carried the night’s best line: “You and I both know how to drink/so we’ll always have work in this town”), her one-year old daughter Petah (she was given numerous shout-outs on Tuesday night), her marriage (“I’m flying so high right now . . . I’m a little scared”)—or politics, naturally (she introduced “The Glory of the Atom” by saying “I seriously want to play this song at the Republican convention”)—she does so with an open and familiar tone. The patter may be entirely rehearsed for all we know, but it sounds perfectly relaxed and off-the-cuff, and it’s perfectly easy to see why Ani fans are such a devoted bunch.

It doesn’t hurt that Ani DiFranco, the musician, is an extremely skilled writer and performer. Backed by a drummer, upright bassist and keyboard-percussionist, she plucked and picked with a fervor reminiscent of late virtuoso Michael Hedges (this isn’t the first time she’s earned this comparison, and it won’t be the last). She swapped acoustic guitars of various timbres and tunings between nearly every song, she explained through her songs why she’s been such a musical force for all these years, employing a haunting chord progression a la Bill Frisell on “Unrequited” and heeding a fan’s request for “Fire Door,” although her band wasn’t quite up to speed on the tune. (The band fell into the groove handsomely, in case you wondered.)

The house sound mix was a little lacking in the low-end, and a few of the arrangements made the vibraphone seem superfluous, but these things are immaterial: DiFranco is simply a commanding performer, and nothing can stand in the way of that.

For her opening set, Vermont-based singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell drew songs from her 2007 release, The Brightness, as well as from an opera titled Hadestown, composed with guitarist Michael Chorney, who also supplied a second acoustic guitar for the set. Her writing-including "1984," which takes on the USA Patriot Act with a deep sense of humor, something lacking in so much political songwriting-was top-notch, and her voice is a real weapon. Well worth checking out when she returns for a show at Caffe Lena in March.


Stick it in the fridge: G. Love.

PHOTO: Julia Zave

Groove Me

G. Love and Special Sauce, the Wood Brothers

Revolution Hall, Jan. 24

 

When your bread and butter is groove-laden blues guitar, in the seated, back-porch fashion, and your name is G. Love, all you’ve evidently got to do to make the girlies swoon is to stand up. This was, at least, the first indication during Thursday night’s claustrophobically sold-out show that a crowd is but putty in this seasoned showman’s palm. And 15 years after a spot on the H.O.R.D.E. tour cemented his distinction as the universal soundtrack for the freshman dorm, it’s not mere sympathy for geriatric stage antics (ok, the dude’s only 35) that brings out the masses. G. Love can still party like it’s 1994.

More than a songsmith and an entertainer, G. Love wields immense musicianship, often belied by the sunny-day funk and reggae-light tunes he spins. No doubt, it’s his prowess on guitar and harmonica, pristine vocals and gift of gab that have given his act staying power. And the guy has some pretty talented friends—the Wood Brothers, for example, who opened the show.

The Woods’ griddle-popping Americana is an unusual pairing of Oliver Wood’s slide guitar, high-lonesome two-part harmonies and Chris Wood’s delightfully geeked-out bass playing (a la his usual gig with Medeski Martin and Wood). With this precedent, it came as less of a shock when, early in G. Love’s set, his longtime backing band Special Sauce drifted into Freddie Hubbard’s funky fusion standard “Red Clay.” While they weren’t about to stretch and dissect the tune the way other improv-savvy acts might, it stood as assurance that there was musical might behind that pretty face.

Owing a debt to both John Lee Hooker and the Beastie Boys, G. Love’s set was a non-stop barrage of his patented blues-rap—a style that has since been embraced by the likes of Jack Johnson and Donavon Frankenreiter. While the verses are virtually unintelligible live (except to the endless throngs who have committed every staccato syllable to memory), each song gives way to a melt-in-your-mouth hook that will leave even the doting wallflower with an uncommonly upbeat countenance. In dress-slacks and hightops, G. Love showed that his humble ease is part and parcel to his professionalism. While each song threatens to come apart at the seams under its own sloppy lilt, it’s the confidence in the swagger that keeps the acrobat from tumbling off the tightrope.

“Recipe” stood as an early highlight, complete with a seamless segue into Bunny Wailer’s “Walk the Proud Land.” Covering a number of tunes from his newest album “Lemonade,” he tossed in “Cold Beverage” and a perfunctory “Milk and Cereal” for the devotees. The show climaxed in its final moments as G. Love invited the Wood Brothers onstage for an amorphous rendering of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Trading off on the song’s iconic bassline, Chris Wood and Special Sauce bassist Jimi Jazz duked it out for low-end supremacy.

As it began, so it came to pass that G. Love was seated for his encore, acoustic guitar in lap, harmonica around his neck, kicking it the way he likes to—old-school and surprisingly fresh.

—Josh Potter


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