Ani DiFranco lives in New Orleans most of the time these days, and when she’s not there, she’s mostly on the road. And yet, Buffalo is still home.
On Friday, when DiFranco played to a full house at Babeville, the church at the corner of Delaware and Tupper that she and manager Scot Fisher renovated into a concert hall and arts compound, the vibe was of the family reunion variety.
DiFranco has spent her entire career proving that she belongs to no one but herself, but we know that she’s ours, too, in a sense. Her fiery spirit, her groundbreaking work as an independent artist in the midst of a corporate major label-dominated music industry, and her tireless activism on the part of the voiceless and disenfranchised, have endeared her to all those who value outsider art and favor the road less travelled. There’s a toughness, a clarity of purpose and a persistence of vision bursting through DiFranco’s art that we’d like to think represents all of us who live in Buffalo.
Above and beyond all of this is DiFranco’s music itself. Even if Friday’s show felt like a giddy hang with an old friend, it was in fact an opportunity for us all to become reacquainted with the ceaselessly inventive songwriter and musician that DiFranco is. There were new songs, tried and true songs, and some surprises as well.
Right out of the gate, it was clear that DiFranco had surrounded herself with some seriously incredible musicians. Bassist Todd Sickafoose has been with DiFranco for many years now, but he is now teamed with drummer Terence Higgins, a New Orleans “first call” drummer who has played with Warren Haynes, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and John Scofield, among many others. This rhythm section is so funky, so on it and so sensual that DiFranco’s already hyper funky, staccato grooves rose to a higher level. The marriage of upright bass, acoustic guitar and subtle, supple drumming commingled to form a sort of bohemian folk-jazz. (Pinning labels on DiFranco’s music is ultimately fruitless, however. It simply is what it is.)
The setlist for Friday’s show was stellar. There were classics - “Not a Pretty Girl” was certainly one, as was a late-in-the-set take on “Shameless,” a taut and staccato DiFranco evergreen gem - and a few songs from the forthcoming DiFranco album.
“Do you mind if I play some new songs?” DiFranco asked the crowd, which responded with a massive roar in the affirmative. The new material revealed a harmonic maturity, certainly. “Careless Words” arrived as a rolling 6/8 time beauty, with DiFranco’s adroit finger picking pushing the song forward. ”Allergic” was simply stunning, a moving marriage of killer chord progression and syncopated vocal melody that proved to be impossible to resist.
“This is me sincerely doing the best I can,” DiFranco sang, and the crowd heard her, and rewarded her with a cry of recognition.
DiFranco’s guitar playing - something that is often overlooked in the rush to paint her as more activist and icon than musician - was simply astounding throughout Friday’s show. She’s an assertive, funky and incredibly groove-centric player, but her melodic and harmonic tendencies are highly inventive, to say nothing of the percussive finger-picking style she basically invented. The Higgins-Sickafoose-DiFranco trio fired on all cylinders throughout the evening, but clearly, DiFranco was steering the ship. Her abilities as a bandleader are often overlooked, and they shouldn’t be.
DiFranco had the crowd in the palm of her hand from the moment she strode onto the stage, but as the show progressed, the crowd became more boisterous and vocal. Fans shouted out requests, and DiFranco joked that, “We’ll just play everything!” She didn’t. But she did offer up a riveting “Welcome To,” an intimate “Sunday Morning” and a dynamic, resonant “Gravel.” By this point, the crowd had collectively kicked all niceties to the curb, and a vibrant party atmosphere had taken over.
DiFranco has endured controversy these past few months, and has admitted to feeling as if she’d been banished from her own tribe. That’s not the case in Buffalo, though. Around here, we see her as a representative of our highest aspirations. And we were thrilled to welcome to her home.
Ani DiFranco, Friday night in Asbury Hall at Babeville.