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Ani Di Franco - Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, 27/2/2011

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 21 / 2 / 2011

Ani Di Franco - Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, 27/2/2011


At Shepherd's Bush Empire, Ben Howarth enjoys a night of spiky politics and first rate songwriting from the still critically underacknowledged Ani DiFranco

I’m not sure if it’s her hard-line feminist politics, reluctance to grant regular interviews, refusal to use a major label marketing budget or just her slight vocal-similarity to critical pariah Alanis Morrisette, but Ani DiFranco has never received the attention she deserves from the British pop-music establishment. No extended features in 'Q', no full page album reviews and no mention of her forthcoming album in this year’s list of ‘most anticipated new stuff’. More fool them. With the annals of music history so carefully compiled into a canon of classics, both blockbusters and cult favourites, it’s a rare treat to encounter an unheard songwriter with a major body of work to explore. When I first heard Ani DiFranco in 2006, (having purchased ‘Reprieve’ - an unusually mellow record, but one I still think is a career high) that is exactly what I found. I should stress that DiFranco is no cult. Professional music critics and national radio presenters might not give her much attention, but the Shepherd’s Bush Empire is packed tonight. As well as releasing over twenty of her own albums, DiFranco runs the Righteous Babe label, home to Anais Mitchell, Erin McKeown, Hammell on Trial and (at one time) Andrew Bird. She’s influential, successful on her own terms and very popular. Tonight was the first time I’d been able to see her perform in concert. There are plenty of live albums and online videos floating around, so I had a fair idea of what to expect: a devoted mostly-female crowd, singing along to every word as if they wrote them themselves, loose-arrangements often far removed from the studio versions and regular interruptions for DiFranco to tell stories or recite poems. There was plenty of onstage chatter tonight, but in a solo setting it fortunately didn’t disrupt the flow of the music. Pinning down DiFranco’s music style into a genre continues to elude me. Tonight, she performs solo with an acoustic guitar, which is how she began her career in 1990. Singing ‘Both Hands’, from that debut album, finds her furiously thrashing at her guitar strings before breaking into an FM-radio friendly chorus. At that point, I’m certainly not thinking of her as a folkie. Other songs merit comparison with funk, grunge, dub and jazz, even if she has always tended towards minimal musical accompaniment. It’s probably best to abandon the exercise and say that DiFranco just sounds like herself. That’s quite a compliment, I hope. She introduced herself to the world as a shaven-headed feminist bi-sexual, writing angry songs about politics, the music industry and unlucky love. This early part of her career came together on the classic ‘Dilate’, perfecting her bitter-sweet breaking up, jilted, jaded but defiant love anthems, in the same year that Alanis Morrisette was making millions on both sides of the Atlantic doing roughly the same thing. (The difference? Morrisette’s way with a cliché, and her massive studio budget.) Although clad tonight in combat trousers, DiFranco’s subsequent work has helped her dismiss any accusations of militancy. Her politics are occasionally spiky (not least when attacking the American right), but her songwriting has become more subtle. The default setting of rapped verse/big-hearted chorus has been replaced with a range of hazy textures, not wholly dissimilar in style to John Martyn’s exceptional mid-70's work. The bluntness of Dilate’s ‘Untouchable Face’, with its chorus line "So fuck you, and your untouchable face" might get the biggest cheer and the biggest sing-along of the night, and it’s easy to hear why, but the new songs aired tonight are just as good. These again confirm that she’s not trying to make another ‘Dilate’ - they’re prettier, but less immediate. DiFranco has always described herself as first and foremost a live artist. It was clear that for the audience tonight was A. Major. Event. And it was. DiFranco is a first rate songwriter, and one who has carved herself an identity set completely apart from the rock and roll traditions set down by the 60s/70s generation. Yet, not unlike Springsteen, for example, you have the feeling of someone (at that moment) unbothered by anything other than doing enough to get the next round of applause. Tonight’s mix of classics, old chestnuts and new songs from what will surely be a great album made me wish this wasn’t the first time I’d seen her play.

Picture Gallery:-
Ani Di Franco - Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, 27/2/2011

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