I’ve been attending concerts now for more than 30 years, starting way back in 1983 when I won tickets to see Joan Jett. In that time I’ve seen some pretty impressive performances, as well as some artists that have truly defined the concept of following your own drummer. Despite that though, it wasn’t until a damp humid night in May of 2015 that I saw what just might be one of the most unusual musical performances ever. More on that in a moment, but first, after years of listening to her music an managing to miss her performance at Bonnaroo a few years back (anyone who has been to a multi-stage music fest knows it’s impossible to see every act you want to see), I finally had a chance to catch Ani DiFranco live this past Sunday night as she performed at the Charleston Music Hall.
Back in the 90s, when any musician wearing a flannel shirt or displaying the slightest bit of angst was being snapped up by a major label, DiFranco was already running her own record label, Righteous Babe, which she’d launched a few years earlier while still a teenager. She’s never bowed to major label, although a number of them certainly tried to sign her once she started making an impact in the folk-rock world. DiFranco has always remained refreshingly independent though, and as a result she’s been able to call the shots on just about every aspect of her creative career.
With drummer Terence Higgins and bassist Todd Sickafoose in tow, DiFranco bounced onto the Music Hall stage with a smile a mile wide. She was a humming ball of energy, certainly not nervous, but constantly moving. Whether she was delivering her songs in her trademark staccato style or talking to the crowd about how sure she was positive that this audience wasn’t going to fight and riot (apparently unlike the previous night’s fans in Birmingham, Alabama), it was evident that, even in her mid-forties, DiFranco shows no sign of slowing down.
DiFranco opened with “Anticipate,” a tune from her 1991 release “Not So Soft.” The audience seemed delighted that DiFranco was dipping so far back into her extensive catalog right off the bat, and they let her know it. “Angry Anymore,” a tune from 1999’s “Up Up Up Up Up Up,” followed. DiFranco then performed a new song that had yet to be found on any album. “Alrighty,” which was inspired by performing at the cathedral in Manchester, UK, got a warm reception with its witty lyrics and catchy melody. “Careless Words” and the title track from DiFranco’s latest album, “Allergic To Water,” followed by “Two Little Girls,” an obvious crowd favorite. After playing that song, which tells the story of watching a friend self-destruct through drugs and bad relationships, DiFranco revealed that the real life subject of the song was now clean and sober and a lawyer.
“Harder Than It Needs To Be” benefitted from an unexpected kazoo solo from Higgins, which seemed to amuse both DiFranco and the audience to no end. The semi-spoken word “Fuel” segued into “Barstow,” DiFranco’s adaptation of a poem by Stanley “Spoon” Jackson, who has found an outlet through theater and poetry despite being incarcerated for the last 38 years. As she prepared to perform “Happy All The Time,” DiFranco advised the crowd, “When I say Isis in this song I’m talking about the god. Someone came along and fucked up my song pretty good.”
Di Franco’s kilt-wearing, dreadlocked stage manager brought out a single microphone stand and set it at the lip of the stage. The musicians then stepped out from behind their monitors and kits and played a couple of songs acoustically, including “Genie” and “Both Hands.” It was a nice little break from some of the heavier material that had been played just before, but DiFranco wasted no time turning it back up to eleven during an intense performance of “Swan Dive” once the band was back to their designated places on the stage. “Rainy Parade,” which DiFranco revealed was her eight-year-old daughter’s favorite song off the latest album, came next. It was a beautiful song, and with lyrics such as “take your lemons and make your lemonade/life’s a rainy parade” it’s easy to see why DiFranco’s child gravitated toward the tune. After a couple of more intense songs, “Everest,” and especially the fast and furious “Shameless,” the band left the stage briefly, returning a couple minutes later for an encore that included “Fire Door,” a song from DiFranco’s first album, as well as “Overlap.”
For a three-piece DiFranco, Higgins, and Sickafoose put out a lot of sound and intensity. Both backup musicians were perfectly paired with DiFranco, exhibiting the same amounts of seemingly boundless energy while performing. Watching DiFranco work was a joy, and the twenty-year wait to finally get to see her live was totally worth it.
Now back to that aforementioned spectacular performace. Seeing Ani DiFranco would have made for a superb night of music on its own. However, DiFranco had an extra ace up her sleeve in the form of That 1 Guy. Hailing from Las Vegas, That 1 Guy (aka Mike Silverman) opened for DiFranco. I’m just going to say that if there’s one thing DiFranco should be known for besides her music and activism, it’s her apparent fearlessness when it comes to choosing opening acts. Prior to Silverman appearing, DiFranco’s stage manager introduced the opening act by calling the audience’s attention to what looked like an abstract metal sculpture sitting in the middle of the stage. The contraption looked almost like the long-armed lighting rig that your dentist pulls down from the ceiling when you’re getting your teeth cleaned. As Silverman stepped up to the jointed metal pole, most of the audience, including myself, had no idea what to expect. Then he took out a bow and began to play the pole like a double bass. As I looked closer, I noticed that there were bass strings running up and down the sections of pole. As Silverman got into the song he would at times discard the bow and slap and nock on various parts of the pole, which in turn produced sounds ranging from drumbeats to what sounded like a theremin. At one point he even produced a duck puppet, which emitted a sort of electronic quack when the mouth opened. Introducing one song, Silverman said, “This is about a mystical deep sea whale race,” and I’ll be damned if you couldn’t hear the competition being played out as he slapped, bowed, plucked, and banged the pole. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it. The closest thing I can liken it to instrument-wise is the electronic gadget that Future Man of Bela Fleck & The Flecktones plays. In reality though, it’s in a world all its own, and I can’t wait for That 1 Guy to come back to Charleston so I can be wowed by his genius again.
Devin Grant’s love for live music began back in 1982 when he won tickets off a local radio station to see Joan Jett and The Blackhearts. Had that show been anything other than epic, he would probably be an accountant, or perhaps a podiatrist. Since that fateful day Devin has attended hundreds of live shows. Once he figured out that he could get free tickets in return for writing about the shows, music journalism seemed a logical choice. Devin’s work has appeared in Charleston’s Free Times, The Charleston City Paper, The Post & Courier, Charleston Magazine, and No Depression. He has interviewed the likes of Mike Watt, The Rev. Al Green, Tori Amos, Mike Doughty, Warren Haynes, and Loretta Lynn. He has photographed hundreds of bands, including The Police, My Morning Jacket, The Eagles, Willie Nelson, White Stripes, and Taylor Swift.