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Just a li’l folksinging: Ani DiFranco at Proctor’s Theatre. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen.

You Say You Want an Evolution?

By Bill Ketzer

Ani DiFranco, Hamell on Trial
Proctor’s 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.

No Heroics, Please

The Kamikaze Hearts
The 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 sooner.

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.”

—Erik Hage

Dave Clark Five Vs. Ditka

The Mike Smith Rock Engine
The 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.

—Paul Rapp


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