This review is written by Dai Woosnam, firstname.lastname@example.org, 4/08Any artiste of reasonable quality can wallpaper every room in their house with reviews written by critics who are almost paid-up-members of their fan club. But the reviews they really cherish are those positive reviews from critics who were, if not formerly hostile, then at least were lukewarm or indifferent in their previous attitude to that artiste.
(Move quickly: stuff can disappear from YouTube in a heartbeat.)
And thus it was that the last two or three years I have listened to some of her earlier stuff anew, with fresh ears. And realised that maybe I was coming at her from the wrong direction.
You see, the plain fact is that Ani DiFranco's talent as a performer was never in doubt to my mind. A fine elastically expressive singing voice, allied to a persuasive guitar style and - as the DVD of this 90 minute concert so ably illustrates – a very real stage presence, meant that she always exuded “star quality” as a performer.
No, (and here I utter the heresy of all heresies), it was the aspect of her that her fans love the most, which had me feeling that the “jury was still out”. Her song writing.
In my mind, for several years I bracketed her alongside a singer who most people won't even THINK of connecting her with: Mary Chapin Carpenter. Oh sure, their songs and styles are very different, but both seemed to me to be much better performers than writers (though mentioning “performing”, I am well aware that ADF's supreme stage-confidence is the antithesis of MCC's well-documented bouts of stagefright). Both seemed to represent the triumph of Style over Content. I always wanted to hear them interpret other people's songs rather than plough their own furrow.
But as I say, that 9/11 poem proved so extraordinary, that it was time for a root and branch re-appraisal from me. And what better than this new DVD which contains 18 of the songs she delivered over two nights on September 11 and 12, 2007, in her concerts in her hometown of Buffalo in New York State.
These were the inaugural shows in what is now her very own performing place, an apparently finely restored state-of-the-art music theatre which had previously been a 19th century Methodist church doomed for demolition. Great that it has been so wonderfully saved from destruction by Ani and her manager, though perhaps a trifle sad for old church members that it has to labour under the new name of “Babeville.” (There is a charming bonus interview in the DVD where Ani points out that had they known all the massive problems that would ensue with the conversion project, then they probably would never have taken it on!)
Ani turned the two nights into something of a retrospective, and delivered songs from different stages of her extensive catalogue – amazing to think that averages over an album a year, as she has made 19 CDs since 1990, and this is even her third DVD – and also included two songs not recorded at the time of the concerts.
She was helped by an extraordinarily tight band: Allison Miller on drums, Todd Sickafoose on upright bass and Mike Dillon on vibes and percussion. All three can hold their own in any company, but I have to say that Mike Dillon's work on vibes just took my breath away. I have not seen a man attack a vibraphone with such flair and passion for many years: he made me think of Lionel Hampton in his prime. Superb job.
What did not take my breath away was the sycophantic audience (by the look of it split about 65-35, female-male), who bordered on a CLAQUE in their adoration. I swear to you that if ADF had made an involuntary rude noise, they would have cheered her to the rafters.
But that said, this DVD marvellously captures the electricity in the air on those two nights. Six cameras were on hand to capture the excitement in high definition video and 5.1 surround sound. (So, Martin Scorsese, so much for your EIGHTEEN cameras for the “Strolling Bones”! Seems to me that six ought to be just fine.)
And so, playing this DVD through all the way through a total of three times, have I developed a greater regard for her song writing talents? Yes, I think I have.
She expresses raw emotion very well. She can “capture the moment” very well in a line. There is a real HONESTY there in the writing.
But all that said, there is one area on which her songs fail to deliver. And that is MELODY. For all her own innate musicianship, and that of her three dazzling band members, the songs never grab you melodically.
Now, some might say that her subject matter is such that it does not lead to jaunty hummable tunes! But, I am not asking for such.
I am simply recalling someone who in 1970 (the year incidentally of Ani's birth) was really getting well into her stride as a creative artiste and stunning song writer. That artiste - Joni Mitchell - was someone who mined the same subject area. And for several years Joni could come up with melodies that never left your head. Most of ADF's never really risk more than an overnight stay, even if her profound words do indeed occasionally root themselves in your soul.
And in ending this piece I must state the obvious: a great SONG demands a great lyric and a great melody to match. If one of the two is missing, then you are left with a great VERSE or a great MELODY. (And hey, that's more than good enough for most of us mortals!)
That said, I was delighted to review this DVD. Ani DiFranco is indeed a major presence.
BONUS FEATURES (band sound check)
all songs written by ADF
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