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Iconic DiFranco thrills Boston audience

After 20 years, DiFranco still riles a crowd

Published: Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 08:11

Folk icon Ani DiFranco performed to a moderately packed but extremely enthusiastic house at the Wilbur Theater on Nov. 13. Pearl and the Beard gave an inspired opening packed with powerful harmonies and cameos from quirky instruments like the glockenspiel and the melodica. The band has toured numerous times with DiFranco and it’s obvious why she keeps asking them back — if Pearl and the Beard’s latest album, “Killing the Darlings” (2011), is nice on an iPod, then it’s mesmerizing live.

DiFranco started the set with her electrifying election−year battle cry, “Which Side are You On?” The song has a long history: it was penned by a union organizer’s wife in the 1930s and has been reinterpreted by artists ranging from Pete Seeger to Natalie Merchant. DiFranco added her trademark liberal swag to the classic with lyrics like “the road to ruin is paved with patriarchy.” Accompanied by bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Terence Higgins, it was an invigorating opening that set the tone for her performance.

If you have never heard of Ani DiFranco, you’re certainly not alone, but she is basically the musical leader of teenage feminists and empowered older women. She burst onto the independent music scene in 1989 at age 19 with an acoustic guitar, a shaved head and a middle finger pointed squarely at the mainstream music industry.

Her slam−worthy lyrics gave first−person accounts of abortions, politicized catcalls and morning−after subway rides. She wrote about affairs with both men and women and never apologized for her choices.

Rather than signing with a big label, DiFranco immediately founded Righteous Babe Records and produced her own music for the sake of maintaining the radical honesty that characterizes her work. Over 20 years and more than 20 albums later, her fan base is still maniacal and she continues to zigzag the globe delivering her music by hand.

But after all that time, what’s left to sing about? DiFranco still brings an extraordinary energy to each of her performances, and her staccato strumming is even more rich and challenging.

She’s currently about four months pregnant, but that only seemed to amplify her presence on stage last Tuesday. She still cracks goofy jokes between songs and gives off a delightfully humble vibe. Nowadays, however, her lyrical edge sometimes gives way to an unappetizing brusqueness.

For example, while performing an extended version of “Amendment” off her newest album, DiFranco sang, “If you don’t want to have an abortion/ Don’t have an abortion.” The lyric, though not invalid, lacks the poetry found in her earlier work on the subject.

Comparatively, “Lost Woman Song,” a song from her self−titled 1990 debut album explored abortion from a deeply personal perspective. Of clinic protestors, it said, “They keep pounding their fists on reality, hoping it will break/ But you know I don’t think there’s a one of them that leads a life free of mistakes.”

But not all of DiFranco’s recent endeavors were so difficult to sit through. When she played “Mariachi,” it was easy to get caught up in its silly sweetness. “Promiscuity,” another new song, proved that at 42 years old DiFranco can still write fantastic lyrics about sex. She smiled widely as she sang, “Promiscuity is nothing more than traveling/ There’s more than one way to see the world/ And some of us like to stick close to home/ And some of us are Columbus/ What can I say?”

DiFranco also crisscrossed her vast musical canon throughout the night, throwing in favorites like “Napoleon,” “Joyful Girl” and “You Had Time.” The devoted crowd clapped enthusiastically for every song, but whenever DiFranco started strumming one of her classics, the theater’s energy was instantly amplified. Her encore performance of “Fire Door,” from her first album, brought down the house.

Since DiFranco is due to deliver her second child in April, this was probably her last tour for a while. It’s hard to say exactly when she’ll be back on stage, but it’s certain she will be sorely missed.

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