“I was digging deep, deep, deep into my bag of songs [about love] – and I got some pretty fucked-up ones,” Ani DiFranco coolly commented before swinging into an affirming rendition of “Swan Dive” at the Arlington Theatre on Monday night.
Indeed, it was an appropriate night for fucked-up love songs. DiFranco shared the stage with upright bassist Todd Sickafoose and the show-opening, multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird, who was recently signed to Righteous Babe Records. Bird joined DiFranco and Sickafoose for several songs during the latter half of the 18-song, 90-minute set, lending both his impressive whistling skills and violin accompaniment to the pair’s performance, adding enigmatic dimensions to DiFranco’s songs.
Though notorious for her merciless and percussive finger-picking bravura, DiFranco delivered a distinctly tempered and mellifluous performance that exhibited the matured end of her range as a guitarist. This new mode significantly subdued the kinesis of fans, who still rushed the stage and swarmed the aisles – clearly eager to dance. Despite the change, continued to watched with no less awe or adoration of the lil’ folksinger as she savored the pensive dropped Ds of “Animal,” and let ring the harmonics as her hands crept down to the highest frets of her guitar as she wrapped up “Paradigm.” DiFranco’s brand of musically flirtatious playfulness was not entirely absent from the set, however, as the idiosyncratic jazz groove of “Bliss Like This” and the spunky “Shameless” provided opportune moments of release for the dance-inclined.
The real treats of the evening were also what anchored the show: old tunes like the stripped-down version of “Back Back Back” and the unquestionably come-hither “Overlap.” The set included tracks from DiFranco’s newest album Knuckle Down, as well as new and unreleased material – including “Half-Assed,” “Margins” and “Shroud” that hold true to DiFranco’s oeuvre. In addition, the night was filled with other signature characteristics that make Ani DiFranco shows what they are: the comical and anecdotal between-song banter, the frequent change of guitars (and on this night she favored the Highlander, which is perhaps my favorite among her arsenal of guitars) and, without fail, the obnoxious requests from the crowd itself.
By far the most surreal moment in the nine times I have seen DiFranco occurred on Monday when she performed “Pulse” as poem rather than song. As she recited the lyric, “Which is nothing / compared to the light / which seeps from you while you’re sleeping,” she slightly shifted her guitar, causing it to reflected the spotlight, momentarily blinding both me and my friend. It was during this moment of subtle beauty, irony and coincidence that I remembered why I repeatedly find myself in DiFranco’s audience.
It was during the poem “Grand Canyon” that the crowd expressed their love for DiFranco, as a herald for political change and pro-feminist ideology, most vocally. DiFranco’s confluence of poignant poetic observation and wry humor mark her as more than a mere musician – rather, these talents make her a moving and powerful activist. The evening’s only encore was “32 Flavors,” fittingly bringing DiFranco’s Valentine’s Day show in Santa Barbara to an intimate and memorable close.