Ani DiFranco at Pittsfield's Colonial Theatre
Joined by the trio that appears on her 2008 album "Red Letter Year" bassist Todd Sickafoose, vibraphonist/percussionist Mike Dillon and drummer Allison Miller DiFranco ran through a set mixed between new songs and a sprinkling of favorites from the back catalog.
DiFranco has the rare power to connect with her audience through an emotionally honest intensity that comes off as endearing rather than navel gazing. It comes through in her singing (which has grown less affected over the years), in her raw and throat-grabbing guitar style, in the way she leaps and wriggles about the stage and stares into the middle distance between verses, as if reconnecting with the sentiment and situation at the core of each song.
She told me in an interview recently that her body of work is simply the result of "paying attention" on her journey through life. She pays attention and then reports back from the stage and from the studio, spitting out complete thought processes leading alternately to her own self-reproach, self-assurance, and, in the end, a joyfully defiant insistence on simply being herself.
Those in the slow-arriving crowd who were on hand thrilled at their recognition of "Shy," introduced by DiFranco's familiar, manic fingerpicking on acoustic guitar. The room was filled all night by the sort of slow-burn ecstasy that often rewards an artist for her body of work as much as for what's actually happening in the moment, but only results from the genuine experience of fans having been moved by the work, repeatedly and profoundly.
The self-described "little folksinger" lost no momentum with a shift into "Manhole," a tune whose dynamics swung from pin-drop quiet to explosive bursts of rock. Dillon was given a chance to shine on vibes with the Latin jazz of "Here for Now," though the song came off as a one-off genre exercise.
"Smiling Underneath," brooding and contemplative on last year's record, really found its feet onstage with the addition of DiFranco's endlessly energetic guitar. Here she created the illusion of an increased tempo, but, in truth, it was simply the matter of a song coming to life with a vibrant arrangement rather than merely speeding up.
DiFranco has updated the classic labor anthem, "Which Side Are You On," for her May performance at an all-star tribute to Pete Seeger and previewed it this night, protesting "stolen elections" and global climate change in a wonderful adaptation. Less successful, lyrically, was a paean to President Barack Obama. It was no doubt rousing, but less than subtle in its political critique more the stuff of campaign rallies than a clear-headed political analysis.
She also spiced the night with spontaneous reflections on the setting (from the apparently nice sink backstage to the glowing, green exit signs) and the motivations for the songs. "So I wrote this in response to myself," she said, introducing a great new tune and explaining that it came out of the process of listening to all of her albums to choose songs for a compilation. (The song in question deftly employs maritime exploration as a metaphor for promiscuity.)
"Good Luck," from "Red Letter Year," sounded great in a solo acoustic setting, while "All This" (also from that album) roared out with a hard-driving, powerhouse version that harnessed all the energy already present on record and multiplied it by a few.
Yet there was still room for a fun take on 1991-era chestnut "Every State Line" with every band member on percussion, and an absolutely gorgeous delivery of "Hypnotized."
It was the end of the show, but the night on the whole felt like the continuation of a long-running conversation.
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