“Open frame, personal narrative, close frame.” Review Writing 101; my friend has asked about ‘approach’.
“…personal narrative,” she says, “I don’t think I’m clever enough, as a writer, to pull that part off.”
“Well you’re wrong. And clever rarely makes a good review, at least not on its own. The most important thing is honesty.”
We’re sitting outside The Green Room – a cafe bar near The Glee Club, pretending not to be cold; a show of British bravado in an India summer. My friend is doing a much better job; I offer my jacket in an act of misguided chivalry that’s mercifully unwanted.
The last time we saw Ani DiFranco (the only time I’ve seen Ani DiFranco) was at the Sheppard’s Bush Empire in 2007 – a packed venue and late train forcing us to watch the ‘Little Folksinger’ from the back of a 2,000 capacity venue. It was a good birthday, a weekend of personal treats and bellyache, but tonight is special too. The Glee Club has hosted a healthy percentage of ‘my favourite gig ever’ (with Markus Sargeant’s stamp on the venue’s calendar often reflecting my own wish list) and the idea of adding Ani DiFranco to that selfish catalogue is making my hands shake. Or it’s the cold; either way, it’s time to dutifully queue and get inside.
Tonight is standing room only, and at £22.50 a ticket the room starts to fill up as we lean against the back wall curtains; first dates and earnest musicians take awkward steps around a room usually laid out theatre style. We spend about half a pint people watching; I write down observations that will never make it out of my notebook, my friend explains the dangers of stripes. It’s a mixed crowd and one I expected to be greater in number.
Playing as support is Shabsi Mann, in what seems to be a missed opportunity to present more of the Righteous Babe roster but which will no doubt cram certain corners of the Union Chapel. Confident, witty, and working a reticent crowd well, Mann is accompanied by cellist Mikatsiu – delivering a ballsy, raw sound, somewhere between Kristin Hersh, ‘Venus in Furs’ and oil stained metal. Mann ends to deserved appreciation before a short interlude allows us to fill or empty our bladders. Shabsi Mann, two words for a Google search.
But, in predictable Christmas Day disappointment and irony, as I come back from the bathroom Ani DiFranco’s set has already started – the rough edges of ‘Dilate’ pushing my friend and I to abandon our secluded perch and elbow closer to the stage. Having only ever seen Ani DiFranco though a birthday haze and borrowed theatre glasses, I’m childishly excited to be within gregarious stalking distance. After all, “there’s something about Birmingham…”
‘Not Angry Anymore’ comes, goes and gives way to ‘Manhole’ – where I narcissistically get to sing a line and my surname whilst looking like casual superfan No1. I become suddenly aware of how much I want to fit into this room. ‘Promiscuity’, DiFranco’s “smug little song” about the single life of ‘research and development’, bounces off stage keeping the room on permanent shoulder shuffle – before ‘Half Assed’ sets the pace back to a more melodic metal string lament. I slow down, lower my pen, and begin looking left and right.
There are a thousand reasons to be in this room tonight; DiFranco’s vast portfolio could fill a weekend at Madison Square Garden and still have room for an encore. Gay, straight, male, female, British, American, political, apathetic, employed, other; throw a stone at this fan base and you’ll hit a different reason or retort. A different understanding. But as the backline dissipates it’s time for mine; the words “Our father, who art in a penthouse…” begin a slow chill around the room and I stare with admiration and envy. I lower my notebook.
The first Ani DiFranco song I heard was ‘Cradle and all’ – a live version on the kind of compilation that gained me female friends during my teenage years, when what I wanted was sex. Or at least, to learn what sex was. The lyrics, ironically, were what stood out for me, and my following obsession with Not A pretty Girl continued on the same vein; ‘Tiptoe’ shaking the roots of what I thought I was able and allowed to say in prose. In public.
But it wasn’t until seeing her at the Sheppard’s Bush Empire, deliver what I was about to watch again only a few feet in front of me, that I became truly hooked. A superb musician and endearingly confident performer, Ani DiFranco is a writer too. The kind you can’t emulate. Important. Legitimate. I’d use the term poet if I knew what it meant. And as the following sacrosanct package of personal admissions is told to us with eyes, shoulders, pauses and honest concern, I stop writing completely. ‘Coming Up’, another two words for Google.
My friend and I stand by The Green Room again; the gig over, with early autumn threatening flu and crucial last train connections. We exchange hasty goodbyes.
“Amazing. Thank you, them. Loved it,” she says, “I thought she might play Untouchable Face though?”
“…a song that reminds me of you.”
There’s too much Ani Difranco to ever expect a purely crowd pleasing set, and despite my love for the song had ‘32 Flavours’ been played some part of me would have probably groaned. An arrogant part, possibly, but DiFranco’s latest studio album is under a month away from release – with ‘Genie’ and ‘Happy All the Time’ being the only new tracks showcased this evening.
“Maybe next time,” I say, unsure of when or where that might be. I fasten my jacket and prepare to run across town. It’s awfully cold outside tonight.
Ani DiFranco’s latest studio album, Allergic to Water, is release though Righteous Babe Records on October 13th. For more on Ani DiFranco and Righteous Babe Records, visit http://www.righteousbabe.com/
For further listings at all The Glee Club venues, visit http://www.glee.co.uk/