Words by Ed King / Pics by Cameron Goodyer
This is a first. I’m early. Fifteen minutes early. Never happens… Ever.
But the God of Surprises is on the warpath, as tonight’s Ani DiFanco gig at the Town Hall has undersold to the point that they’ve closed the Circle. What, the..? This is an artist that can sell out two nights at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, back to back, with a mail out and an advert in the Guardian Guide.
OK, fair enough; there’s more to promotion than this. But I’ve been running events since before I was legally allowed to be in the venues that hosted them, so I have some perspective. Sort your shit out Birmingham or we’ll never get Ani DiFranco back in the city.
The review is also, now, a plea.
But also a review. Like an empty airplane I stretch out, bags and coats, as Chastity Brown opens up with her blues and bluegrass coated folk… I’m getting tired of genre descriptions. Braving the echoing cavern first, not an easy hurdle, Brown delivers a tight yet stripped back set – winning over the stalls only crowd with melody, candor and “…like a talk show host” instructions. Awesome stuff.
There’s now five albums out there for you to explore, Silhouette of Sirens released this May, but I am surprised to see Chastity Brown back in Birmingham so soon – having played the Hare & Hounds with Otis Gibbs only a couple of weeks before. Seems like another missed opportunity for the Righteous Babe roster too.
But support set turns into interval, interval turns into alcohol, alcohol turns into a more salacious atmosphere as the interval turns into the headline set; Ani DiFranco walks on to the Town Hall stage to a reassuringly huge reception.
Opening with ‘Not Angry Anymore’ there is immediate fire in the gut. It’s odd; I’m not used to seeing Ani DiFranco in front of anything less than wall to wall adulation, but there’s an edge tonight. The confidence and cocked head/wry smile deflections are still there but they’ve come out fighting. Maybe the challenge of the crowd-to-floor-space-index is a good thing, a blue touch paper to a performer who has worked her way with every step.
A quick shout out to the calibre of the venue, a far cry from the “sticky floors” DiFranco is more used to playing on, and ‘Two Little Girls’ is introduced with a candid quip about the other person in the story. I love Little Plastic Castles and getting to see anything from it played live is a bucket list bullet point, but DiFranco punches this tale of love, heroin and the absurdity of self destruction off stage with tight control. Ferocious in all the right ways.
‘Allergic to Water’, the tile track from DiFranco’s last but one LP, comes out next with some beautifully tempered percussion from Terence Higgins. ‘Names and Dates and Places’ takes us back to the cutting teeth days of the Canadian folk circuits, before ‘Modulation’ is introduced as a byproduct of getting “married by accident… throw in a leather jacket and call it a good deal.”
Higgins is once again standout, with some short tap percussion, but the whole band are tight and together. At least that what it feels like from Row K. In fact the air is significantly lighter than it was before anyone started playing anything. I’ve seen Ani DiFranco at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and the Glee Club here in Birmingham; both great gigs but already, only a few songs in, this feels… something, I don’t know, more involved I guess. Stronger.
Then Bucket List A / Subsection 2B: ‘Swan Dive’. I’ve waited years to sing ‘…I’ve got better things to do than survive,’ in a room with its author. DiFranco rips through the song of fuck you/empowerment (or at least it is to me) as if the chords were searing flesh; unrelenting. Troubadour 101.
Some ‘Dithering’ next, before we are introduced to the first song tonight from Ani DiFranco’s most recent LP, Binary. Inspired by the stained glass hypocrisy and male governed dress up box that is a “proper working Church, with dudes in robes… I was in their way all day” – ‘Alrighty’ stalks its way off stage and into the shadows, with some finally fixed distortion and lyrics as close to a pun as I’m comfortable to be. There’s a lot to revere in an Ani DiFranco back catalogue but it’s been the words that have pulled me in time after time. A significant songwriter, yes. But a writer.
Binary has some beautiful moments on it too, delivering important challenges through sometimes playful, yet acerbic and unassailable observations (to read my review of Binary, click here). But the “absurd” nature of the Church, with its anxious misogyny and religious patriarchy, is amongst the most important; a side step to the fight against male control of the female body, as delivered so deftly in ‘Play God’, being the next battle on the hill.
The set jumps from old to new, as Binary gets to show off more of its wares with some much earlier material filling in the gaps – including a musical pause to deliver ‘The Slant’, DiFranco’s prose only warning about ‘rhythms of attraction’ and the dangers of ‘something more they wanted’.
Then ‘Play God’ arrives. You can check out the official video below but this is Ani DiFranco on top form. And at a time when our Great Britain is preparing sell the right to choose for a heckle free Queen’s Speech it’s all the more important a message. I’ve kept my political nose clean in recent months but all week I’ve wanted to throw chairs; now I just want to applaud.
With Chastity Brown back on stage, alongside the full band line up, the title track to Binary takes us into the encore. DiFranco’s latest LP is a mature call to arms, imploring a more reasoned approach to debate and understanding, as “consciousness is circular when consciousness is winning” – and the new material stands out, albeit a dangerous place to be against such a well loved and extensive portfolio. Played live tonight it’s superb, but its timing is just as important with the world’s three largest ‘democracies’ currently governed by bullies and murders. And this is not a left wing rally cry; actual bullies, actual murders.
We need to pull together, even if we don’t agree. We need to, quite simply, unite. We need to embrace musicians like Ani DiFranco who keep bringing something substantial to the table. And whilst this could neatly tie itself into my framing device – following on from the ‘surprise’ of an emptier Town Hall than the bill poster deserves – I don’t want to knock an audience who helped turn a kick in the teeth into a silver lining. Best Ani DiFranco gig I’ve been to.
Although there’s always one, and perhaps that’s the point. But I write my last line inspired by the loud complaints of an angry (and oddly vocal) woman we run into as we’re leaving the Town Hall; my final surprise of the evening.
So, a pro-lifer walks into an Ani DiFranco concert…
‘Play God’ – Ani DiFranco
Ani DiFranco released Binary on 9th June, through Righteous Babe Records and Aveline Records. For more on Ani DiFranco and the wider Righteous Babe roster, including online purchase points for the label’s entire portfolio, visit www.righteousbabe.com
For more on Chastity Brown, visit www.chastitybrownmusic.com
For more from the Town & Symphony Halls, including venue details and online ticket sales, visit www.www.thsh.co.uk