Ani DiFranco and Dessa at the State Theatre
Ani DiFranco. Photos by Steve Cohen.
It's useless for me to feign objectivity when writing about Ani DiFranco, so I'm not going to try. When asked about my favorite musicians, I readily reply with DiFranco's name; over the years, she's worked her way to the top of my list in terms of artists who have made a deeply personal and lasting impression on the way I interpret music. It's not surprising, given this bias, that I found her show at the State Theatre to be one of the best performances that I've seen this year. But what I can provide to you, dear reader, is my experience seeing one of my favorite musicians play an exceptional, career-spanning set to an audience of occasionally shrieking, devout fans.
Before we get down to business, however, it's impossible to pass over the intensity and magnitude of Dessa's opening set. Most widely known locally for her work in the Doomtree collective, it was a treat to see Dessa center stage performing an entire set of her own material.
"I know that people don't come to the State Theatre expecting to hear hip-hop," she said, smiling, after her first song. "I understand that. I respect that. So we're going to ease into it."
Dessa. Photo by Steve Cohen.
Dessa invited local folk singer Aby Wolf on stage to act as hype woman/backup singer for the majority of her set, and the two women played off each other's vocals beautifully, at times meshing together so effortlessly that it was difficult who was singing which part. Backed by Wolf and Doomtree DJ Paper Tiger, Dessa worked through material from the latest Doomtree album ("Sadie Hawkins") and her solo album ("Mine Shaft," "551") before clearing the stage to sing her grand finale: a cover of Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah."
I've written about the numerous covers of "Hallelujah" before, and the fact that it's been performed to varying effect by literally thousands of musicians. Despite the fact that it's achieved ubiquitous status in popular culture, however, Dessa managed to put a lump in my throat and a tear on my cheek with her breathless, bold cover. "This is a torch song," she said with a scoff. "I've found I'm much better at carrying torches than I am minding fires." She then proceeded to work her way through three of the song's main verses a capella, ending with my favorite lines: "It's not a cry you hear at night / It's not somebody who's seen the light / It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah." With the audience still in shock, Dessa scuttled off stage to a standing ovation. When the lights came up I was still wiping tears from my eyes.
Ani DiFranco. Photo by Steve Cohen.
As if that wasn't enough for my heart to handle for one evening, I was still in for a performance by one of my all-time favorite artists. (Have I mentioned that she is my favorite? Oh Ani, how deep is my love?) And here's the point in the review where I find myself conflicted. On the one hand, I could go on and on about how intensely personal her music has been for me, but then the question arises: do you want to hear about how I used to play "You Had Time" on repeat while circling the Lake of the Isles in my car, contemplating life's next move? Do you want to know how hearing that song live, a song that I was not expecting her to play and that I've stopped listening to post-divorce, brought me to heaving, sobbing tears? Or would you rather I take you through the technical merits of her show, explaining how the press-on nails that she secures to her fingers with electrical tape give her the ability to fingerpick her instrument in a way that surpasses almost every other guitar player I have ever seen live?
It's a conflict I've found myself facing often when writing about music that I find to be personally moving. Obviously, for a song to hit home that hard there are technical qualifications that need to be met. But for me, some musicians are able to bound so effortlessly past that "Is this good?" filter and nestle themselves into my psyche, aligning their thoughts with my own so closely that all of my other rational considerations are thrown to the wayside.
Photo by Steve Cohen.
Which is a roundabout way of saying, I suppose, that the most powerful art and music transcends our day-to-day realities and binds us to one another on a deeper level.
In conclusion, I'll leave you with this: the Ani DiFranco show was a treat for fans, as she played a wide variety of songs spanning her entire 20-plus year career. Highlights for the die-hards included classics like the aforementioned "You Had Time," "Napoleon," "As Is," and the two sing-along songs in the encore, "Both Hands" and "Every State Line." She commanded the audience with her usual charisma and easy-going, conversational banter, going on an especially inspired/inspiring rant about why Sarah Palin's status as a Vice Presidential candidate is demeaning to women, and kept the audience laughing and hollering throughout the entire set. As with every DiFranco show I've seen, it felt like it ended too soon, and I can't wait to laugh, cry, and sing along with her again soon. Hyperbolic? Maybe. But that's coming from the gut, which is all I've ever expected from my favorite little folk singer-that-could.
Little Plastic Castle
You Had Time
Red Letter Year
Nature Always Gets Her Way (new)
Every State Line