Ani DiFranco blasts gun culture, celebrates activism and community at First Ave

Ani DiFranco

Ani DiFranco Jason Hickerson

Ani DiFranco believes in music as a social act.

As a radical folk musician who defines the genre broadly—as an attitude of human connection—DiFranco is at her most inspired on stage, connecting with audiences and sharing her truth with generations of socially engaged fans as they struggle, awaken, resist, and rise up.

“Rise Up” is also the name of DiFranco’s current tour, the second leg of which arrived at a sold-out First Avenue Friday night. The beloved singer slid into a fiery rendition of the 1994 knockout “Shy” to open, backed by a small but mighty ensemble, a tight-knit group including New Orleans drummer Terence Higgins and DiFranco’s longtime collaborator, bassist Todd Sickafoose. A 100-minute set spanning a quarter century of material had everything we’ve come to expect from the Buffalo-born, New Orleans-based artist: joyful nostalgia, new songs whose depth of meaning we haven’t yet grasped, and a sense of hope.

What Ani has always offered as an artist is a poetry of profound awakening, and that’s more relevant than ever in the face our regressive political reality. Twenty years ago, fed up with the great American gun problem, DiFranco wrote “To the Teeth,” and her performance of that song was the evening’s most poignant moment. “We played this song the last time we were here,” she said before praising the young Parkland, Florida resistance leader Emma González, her new hero. “Shame on the adult world,” DiFranco admonished, dedicating the song to “all the young people who are showing us how it’s done.”

Most fans could probably recite this song verbatim, but for those of you reading along at home, here’s a taste: “And school kids keep trying to teach us/ What guns are all about/ Confused liberty with weaponry/ And watch your kids act it out.” Poetry has the ability to shake us up and rearrange us, and this song’s staying power is due just as much to its lyrical bite as its all-too-persistent social relevance. I was too busy trying to see through my tears to notice how many tissues were called into service around me, but I could still hear the roaring response elicited by the line in which Ani basically damns gun profiteers to hell.

It wasn’t all heavy hitters on Friday night, though. There were lovely moments of levity brought about by Ani’s buoyant banter, many sweet sing-alongs (particularly “Little Plastic Castle”), and some broad stage antics—an adorably botched lyric in 1994’s “If He Tries Anything” sent Ani into hiding, crouched behind her guitar amp. Fans in the crowd always throw interesting things DiFranco’s way on stage–hats, artwork, underpants. On Friday she received a number of handwritten notes, which she gracefully stashed in an outer pocket of her plaid cargo pants.

There were also a few beautiful stock-taking moments that allowed us to feel and acknowledge the social progress that has been made, collectively and powerfully. DiFranco dedicated her 2004 poem “Grand Canyon,” to “everyone that’s stood up,” and not even the bass bleeding through from the Entry diminished her commanding performance as she delivered the spoken-word piece. When she recited the lyric, “Why don’t all decent men and women call themselves feminists?” the response that seemed to linger in the air was, “They do! They are! The change is coming!” Ani DiFranco has already awoken so many kind souls to the perils of patriarchy, and for that the crowd thanked her, from the bottom of our righteous hearts.

The crowd: So this is how it feels to age with an audience.

Overheard in the crowd: “Last time I went to an Ani show, I went with my ex-girlfriend and her girlfriend. You could call this Ex Fest.”

Random notebook dump: Gracie and Rachel delivered a moody opening set—think Florence and the (smaller) Machine, or Sylvan Esso in a perpetually minor key. While they excel at dramatic, brooding melodies thanks to Rachel’s classically inspired violin slurs and staccatos, by the fifth song the moody repetition got to be a bit monotonous. But they sounded great as they filled in Ani’s ensemble with vocals and violin on a number of tracks, most notably “Alla This” and “Zizzing.” In their work as Gracie and Rachel it’d be sweet to see these young talents experiment with different textures and harmonies.

Critic’s bias: Long ago, Ani’s music first brought me and my spouse together as we sheepishly spun through each other’s silver iPod Minis after class at the U of M (back when we subsisted on a strict diet of vegan muffins and caffeinated sludge from Hard Times). My allegiance to this artist is thick.

Little Plastic Castle
Life Boat
If He Tries Anything
Not a Pretty Girl
Names and Dates and Times
To the Teeth
Alla This
Grand Canyon
Still My Heart
Swan Dive
Deferred Gratification
Play God