a li’l folksinging: Ani DiFranco at Proctor’s Theatre.
Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen.
Say You Want an Evolution?
By Bill Ketzer
Ani DiFranco, Hamell on Trial
Theatre, March 16
Without an introduction, Ani DiFranco galloped into the auburn
lights at a newly refurbished Proctor’s, dreadlocks ablaze
and looking generally quite shatterproof, much like what Max
Cavalero from Soulfly would look like if he were a) Italian,
b) attractive and c) singing like Ella Fitzgerald these days.
This is the same young woman who used to show up at Caffé
Lena or the Eighth Step Coffee House on Albany’s Willet Street,
the young skinhead in army fatigues who inflicted ungodly
punishment on her old guitar for two dozen loyal fans. Except
for that last bit, not much has changed. If anything, the
Buffalo native has grown hungrier—more intense through time—playing
very little in the way of audience favorites, punctuating
her sentences with placekicks, swaying in a Baptist-
redemption sort of way immediately into “Two Little Girls,”
and the heroic “Swan Dive,” which at 5 years old each would
be the oldest tunes we would hear all night.
While her latest disc, Evolve, was recorded with a
full band, somewhere along the way DiFranco decided to take
these songs on the road alone, and it suits her beatifically.
Indeed, she seemed more comfortable without the perfunctory
distraction from self required to suitably advance a solid
team effort, and for all the talents of Julie Wolf and company,
DiFranco is truly in her element alone—almost as if she can
better reduce songs like “Welcome To” and “Rock Paper Scissors”
to their emotive common denominators, somehow always arriving
at a perspective of mercy, however tinged with sadness. Mercy.
She graciously endured what always winds up as a ludicrous
barrage of catcalls, cries of “Play some old stuff!” and “I’ll
show you mine if you show me yours!” from the balcony, snapping
concurrently onto brave and emotional grids, tracing them
into maps for 2,700 strangers, delivering in abundance and
still having the humility to say, “I should be paying you.”
Hers is a boundless energy, a blur of teeth and hair, of ratcheting
brilliance and locomotion. DiFranco knows exactly where to
place the hemorrhaging, discordant note upon her all-too-proximal
patina of harmonious currency. She understands the value of
whispering, and snuffed her hard edges curtly to lullaby us
with verses that trailed off into delicate sighs at the end
of the quatrain of her choice, and then, right when she had
us in that space between relativity and faith, when all anxiety
of the day had been burned from our lungs, she stopped picking
and dropped a bomb. “I bemoan the day I grew tits,” she said.
“Eleven years old was my shining moment, I was so streamlined,
heh heh . . .”
So the L’il Folksinger (her term) has never lost her enigmatic
levity: She makes laughter a priority, to the point where
stories like “Phase,” “Evolve” and the ink-still-dry “Educated
Guess” are really anecdotal footnotes in the act of just watching,
stricken, at unadulterated freedom. Speaking of which, the
evening ended with the eight-minute poem “Self-Evident,” a
shameless 9/11 exegesis of the denatured protein of government,
the surmounting horrors of reality-based television, capitalism
and what exactly happens when Laura Bush is authorized to
cancel a literary symposium for fear that poets would turn
the event into a political forum. DiFranco reminds us that
all literature, all art is a political forum, nitwits.
It is all it really can ever be, and the crowd stood
awe-stricken as she delivered it by rote, and said goodnight.
No encore. Kick ass. Write names down.
Hamell on Trial and his thunderous, brassy, percussive solo
assault scares the crap out of some, but not me. No weird
clam to the daunting task of warming up for the Righteous
Babe herself, the man plugged his old Gibson hollow-body into
what appeared to be some kind of side fill, miked up right
next to his head, and peppered the damn thing with such malevolent
force that you’d swear that backstage some young hesh was
hammering out double kicks on 26-inch Ludwig basses. It was
like Dick Dale meeting Jim Carroll upon Slayer’s “Altar of
Sacrifice.” Or something.
Leaping off the top rope with angst-specific odes like “I
Hate Your Kid,” Hamell deliberately diced any preconceived
idea of folk music into cheese cubes as he wobbled his Dr.
Evil jowls at his ever-growing legion of aficionados. Ever
the interlocutor, ever the jester, he stalked the stage in
old denim and ribbed the audience with his special brand of
Police Academy 3 humor. This is Rock and/or Roll for
the sockless and caffeinated, chicken soup for the troll.
Make mine well done.
The Kamikaze Hearts
Van Dyck, March 15
I took a ride tonight with the Kamikaze Hearts’ latest CD
to think about the group before sitting down to write. What
was ostensibly a 10-minute trip to Stewart’s and back turned
into an album’s worth of trolling the streets, lost in song
reverie. Shame on me for not getting out to see this group
The Kamikaze Hearts formed a single line across the front
of the stage during their second show of the night at the
Van Dyck, a configuration that says as much about the group
as anything, as every member is a key component. Singer-drummer
Gaven Richard’s eyebrows leaped like question marks as he
jittered up and down before his minimal kit, his high angelic
voice intoning, “Couldn’t get him to show me the secret handshake/Though
he hadn’t been to the Mason Hall in 40 years . . ./It’s just
the one thing he’d keep, the one thing he’d keep/The one thing
he figured he’d keep for himself,” a strand that, minimal
as it is, is as suggestive as any opening line from Raymond
Carver. The impressively hirsute Matthew Loiacono (all overgrown
mutton chops and thick, wild hair) plucked out some gorgeous
banjo behind the sentiment, and as Richard warbled the word
“ski-ing” at the top of his range, impressively drawing it
out over two syllables, the band nearly collapsed into fits
of laughter. Everything, it seems, is not so damned precious
with these guys. But it certainly is darn good.
Between songs, the group bartered, as if at some merchant
bazaar, over the choice of next number. The looseness and
humor served as a kind of emotional ballast for the pensively
evocative elegies, which the four guys whipped up into wheeling,
urgent acoustic workouts. (I knew guys like this in college:
They’d nod off in philosophy class all semester only to perk
up one day and say the smartest thing you’d heard all year.
You’d dismiss them as the slacker hippie guys in the dorm
room above, keeping you up all night with their records, only
to be blown away by their talent at the coffee house.) Bass
player Bob Buckley even threw down some Teutonic hair-metal
vocals with an extemporaneous snippet of the Scorpions, and
singer-guitarist Troy Pohl announced that a car with Minnesota
plates was going to get towed, demanding a raise for the service.
All that lightness is just a rope-a-dope for some serious
talent, however, as roles and alliances shifted within the
impressive interplay of the tunes. Pohl’s earthy drawl provided
a doppelganger for Richard’s sweetly sincere tones, laying
out the desperate emotional terrain of “Weekend in Western
New York” amid three-part vocal harmonies, bright, chugging
mandolin and a tribal drum roll (à la Moe Tucker). A bunch
of older tunes rounded out the more recent tracks in the set,
and as things came to a close on an impromptu, jokey piano
jam to herald the CD-buying portion of the evening, one couldn’t
help feeling, “Here is something remarkable and original.”
Clark Five Vs. Ditka
The Mike Smith Rock Engine
Van Dyck, March 15
When I was 9 years old, my most important issue was figuring
out who was better, the Beatles or the Dave Clark Five. This
was a matter of great importance. While the Dave Clark Five
rocked harder and dressed cooler, the Beatles had John and
George. Then again, the Beatles also had Paul. Week after
week, I would linger near a radio on Saturday mornings to
see which group was going to be No. 1, and I always knew when
one or the other was going to be on Ed Sullivan.
Then in ’66 or so, the Beatles started getting freaky, and
the rest of the world got freaky with them. The DC5 fell off
the face of the earth, never to be heard from again. During
the new-wave thing in the early ’80s, every ’60s British pop
act but one cashed in with a reunion tour and comeback album;
the DC5 stayed gone. To this day, their songs remain largely
uncovered, their influence ignored. And a very good argument
can be made that the DC5 are the template and spiritual precedent
for the E-Street Band. But there’s no digitally remastered
box set. No DVD.
When the Van Dyck announced that DC5 singer Mike Smith was
coming, I was there with bells on. Not without some trepidation.
“This is either going to be brilliant,” I told friends, “or
it’s going to suck bad.”
It was not brilliant. Smith, looking pretty good for a geezer
(he’s got to be in his 60s), took the stage with what looked
like one of those pick-up bands of corporate lawyers that
play at bar-association functions (you know, “We’re the Depositions
and we’d like to do something by the Bobby Fuller Four,” and
all that). The band opened with “Gimme Some Lovin’,” which
some of you may remember as having been performed by the Spencer
Davis Group. Uh-oh. Then a crunchy “Do You Love Me,” the Contours
tune that the DC5 covered in 1963. The band weren’t stellar,
but the guys kept up. And Smith’s voice sounded good: all
the gravel and even a little of the danger were still there.
Smith then announced that he was going to play songs that
influenced him, and we were treated to four straight cover
songs from the ’50s: Jerry Lee, Little Richard, etc., pedestrian
versions. Saxophonist Frank Meade occasionally threatened
to save a song with a frantic solo that channeled the spirit
of the late, great Gary Windo, but nothing really could have
fixed things. The problem was that this sure as shit wasn’t
what we came for.
Then, finally, Smith said, “I guess we’ll do some Dave Clark
stuff now.” Yeah, I guess you will, too. The band walked through
a string of 10 or so DC5 hits without spark or feeling. Note
to drummer: Those are supposed to be RIMSHOTS, OK? All of
them! Every damn one, got it? Smith was lacking entirely in
the warmth and sincerity department, and remarkably, yelled
at someone for filming him on a camcorder. No movies of Mike
Smith for you! Why, someone might, well, er, uh . . . What
would someone do with a video of this guy? Watch it,
maybe? We were also treated to a rendition of a song he wrote
and recorded with a guy from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (ohhhh!)
in the early ’70s, a generic piece of tripe with a refrain
about being “free like a bird.” I kid you not. Free like a
freakin’ bird! Great minds, apparently, do think alike.
Jeez, I dunno. Maybe the Beatles were better, after all.