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Live review: Ani DiFranco's show is fierce, tender

The singer-songwriter reveals a consistent vision and integrity in a stirring concert.

Ani DiFranco

Saturday night at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco joked that she'd finally gotten better at writing songs about happiness. But what the 41-year-old really revealed while juxtaposing old material with new was a consistency of political vision and artistic integrity that has only ripened with age.

Despite an ongoing ear infection that had forced her to cancel the previous night's concert, she delivered an 18-song show that was simultaneously fierce and tender.

DiFranco, who strapped on a revolving cast of guitars (one of which nearly dwarfed her slender frame), melded seamlessly with her sole accompanist -- master jazz drummer Herlin Riley. The two performed a set list drawn equally from fan favorites ("Gravel," "Swim," "Nicotine," "Marrow") and material from her new CD, "Which Side Are You On," whose title is drawn from her cover of the iconic Pete Seeger protest song.

Her conversational/confessional lyrics draw equally from folk and punk traditions, deftly straddling sensitive singer-songwriter interiority and snarling riot grrrl explosions. The crisp, clean sound at the Orpheum made it possible to take in the full dynamic of her work so that even new, unfamiliar material was within grasp.

It helped considerably that the packed house, though full of rabid Ani lovers, wasn't as gratingly intrusive as her crowd can sometimes be. Anyone who's been to a DiFranco show knows every pause can be filled with screamed declarations of love and lust that overshadow what's coming from the stage.

This night, though the air was often peppered with shouts of "I love you" and inquiries about the singer's 5-year-old daughter, the reverent largely hung on every word and sank admiringly into every extended jam, which cleared space for the numbers to be appreciated by everyone.

The biggest compliment most modern pop acts can receive after a concert is that they sound just like they do on CDs. But DiFranco -- even in a slightly diminished state from her illness -- sounded better than on her recordings.

Her voice was warm and pliant, soaring on "Both Hands" with its rueful '50s-pop melody, and then turning biting and weary on "J," a track off the new CD whose social commentary ranges from bitter disappointment in President Obama ("He's just shifting his weight/ And the disappointment is the knockout blow…") to a lament for the battered state of her new home, New Orleans.

But it was the powerful camaraderie between DiFranco and Riley that galvanized the night. The two created such a robust sound that it was sometimes hard to believe it was all coming from just a guitar and drum kit.

DiFranco's nimble finger work -- from tender strumming beneath a short poem to ferocious picking that had her hunched over, bending into the notes -- was in emotional conversation with Riley's musicianship. His handiwork ranged from measured brush strokes that ushered in a wonderful jazz undertow to a propulsive, runaway train energy that turned "Untouchable Face" (and a few other songs) into goose bump-raising, transcendent moments.

As stirring and engrossing as the concert was, the most powerful thing about it may have simply been the example set by DiFranco. She's rarely mentioned in the roll call of powerful female moguls, though all her music has been released on the indie label she founded and has used to sign respected but hard-to-pigeonhole artists such as Utah Phillips. Her DIY approach to her career was far ahead of the curve that many musicians now find themselves struggling to navigate.

What matters most, though, is the music, and at the end of the night the example she'd demonstrated was that motherhood, career pressures, a demoralizing political system and disappointing romances haven't hardened her, haven't had her turn cynical and cold -- that she is, in fact, even more herself than fans could have hoped for.

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-- Ernest Hardy

Photo: Ani DiFranco. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

 
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