It’s pretty fitting that Ani DiFranco’s latest album was titled Evolve. From a self-styled “li’l folk singer” in 1990 she moved from acoustic-based, political folk songs through to a more jazzy, experimental sound. Evolve was the culmination of this sound, resulting in one of the best albums of DiFranco’s career.
Now, it seems, the evolution has come full circle. The latest tour by the hardest working woman in showbusiness features just DiFranco and her acoustic guitar, and the T-shirts on sale in the foyer proclaim, “Just a folk singer”. It’s a move guaranteed to appeal to her core fanbase – although the audience at this homecoming New York gig would love her even if she played a set of Spice Girls covers entirely on kazoo.
Before the main attraction though, the enigmatically named That 1 Guy warmed up the crowd. Hypnotic to watch, he brought what he named a “magic pipe” on stage with him and spent the entire time banging, stroking and creating all kinds of weird and wonderful noise with it. He’ll probably never receive any mainstream airplay, but his Tom Waits-style percussive rhythms went down a treat.
Yet there was just one person that the crowd at the beautiful Beacon Theatre were here to see. When DiFranco skipped onto the stage, cradling her acoustic guitar and launching into a rendition of God’s Country, the noise was nearly ear-splitting. The idea of an acoustic-only gig may seem quite dour, but the exact opposite is the case with DiFranco. She worked every inch of stage, causing paroxysms of excitement amongst the mostly female audience whenever she went near the front of the stage.
The set list was mainly a “best of”, with highlights from most of DiFranco’s many albums being covered. There was just one new song, which she described as “my Amazonian woman number”, and was greeted with predictable ecstasy by the audience. Otherwise, we had stripped down versions of old favourites such as Shameless, Little Plastic Castles and Swandive.
The acoustic setting worked extremely well, highlighting DiFranco’s almost supernatural way with a guitar and enabling the audience to appreciate her poetic lyrics. However, the quietness also allowed some of the crowd to declare their undying love for the singer – a mesmerising version of I Love You So What was almost ruined by a deafening scream of, “I lurve yoooouu Ani!”
The only gripe was the shortness of the set – an artist with 15 albums’ worth of material should be able to play for more than an hour (especially at $42 a ticket). Yet, after a welcome encore of early classics Fire Door and Both Hands, she was away and the houselights were up with almost indecent haste.
It was a shame, but to watch even a truncated set from DiFranco is to witness 60 minutes of incomparable brilliance. Long may she continue to evolve.