Preconceptions are dangerous things and it’s healthy to have them confounded. Arriving at this gig, part of Glasgow’s annual Celtic Connections festival, I had plenty of them. Ani DiFranco’s music was unfamiliar to me; her reputation as a punk-folk protest singer who has independently released over twenty albums on her own Righteous Babe Records, however, most certainly precedes her.
Nervous at first, having been away doing “the whole mom thing,” she’s soon grinning like she’s glad to be back. It’s immediately apparent that DiFranco is a charismatic and forceful performer; ‘Anticipate’, a DiFranco classic of twenty years’ vintage that combines the complexity of jazz with the attitude of punk, is a typical example of her unique approach. Other songs, though, bring my prejudices to the fore; ‘78% H2O’ from 2006′s Reprieve, for example, has something of the self-help manual about it that I’m not comfortable with. Still, more often than not, DiFranco transcends the novelty value of her contemporaries and this audience appreciates it; the atmosphere tonight is nothing less than reverential. But being a self-confessed bisexual feminist icon has its own problems. New song ‘Unworry’ is introduced with a comic aside about not being able to get used to referring to her partner Mike Napolitano as her husband, hammed up with a feigned inability to even say “the H word.”
In recent years, DiFranco’s political fires have been stoked by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in her adopted home of New Orleans, and she has similarly, inevitably, been motivated by the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She admits to having been somewhat disappointed by the attendant activism locally; flyers sloganerring “Fuck BP” don’t possess a big enough vision for this veteran of the activist scene. Addressing the problem of trying to write political songs when the language is so unmusical and finding “new shit to write about or new ways to write about the same old shit,” DiFranco launches into a new song that “just says it straight out.” Very literally, ‘Amendment’ calls for legislation on civil rights for women. It’s disappointing that we live in a world where this kind of lecturing song is necessary but issues like abortion and equal pay are still massively contentious, particularly in the USA, and my own (very British) distaste for DiFranco’s brand of frankness doesn’t deaden its impact.
It works because DiFranco’s activism never strikes as vanity; it’s at the very heart of her work. So while her more politically engaged lyrics can sometimes seem clunky (one couplet runs, awkwardly, “Who put the poison in the atmosphere? / Who put the poison in the way I think?”) and her references to “women who bleed” must be intentionally brash, it’s a feminist stereotype that DiFranco steps up to represent without fear. She may be preaching to the ideologically converted, but the message in most of her songs is unambiguous. Her modern take on the folk protest idiom is unafraid to metaphorically beat unbelievers over the head with an acoustic guitar. When she sings about “gloating” about her happiness as though she’d just discovered the definition of the word, it’s as if she can’t believe her own good luck having spent many years trading on her heartbreak.
A reworking of Depression-era union song ‘Which Side Are You On?’ – which, as rumour has it, will be the title of her upcoming album – becomes an anti-apathy anthem, placing feminism at the heart of the struggle for a better world as she sings about stolen elections, faceless corporations and rampant corruption. An encore of popular selections from her back catalogue – most notably fan favourites ‘Both Hands’ and the caustic ‘Untouchable Face’ – rounds off the show, while a cover of John Prine’s ‘Angels From Montgomery’ reinforces the fact that this is a folk festival after all.
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Photos by Michael Gallacher
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