Ani DiFranco | Pabst Theater | 1/25
I was a slacker last year about reviewing shows I went to. That ends now.
When you have the ‘everyone skips Milwaukee’ conversation, be sure to make an exception for Ani DiFranco; the lil’ folksinger™ has been especially generous to Wisconsin over the years, playing as far north as the Door County Auditorium just last year. The last time I’d seen her was at Summerfest ’21, that bizarre September when they had all the brand-spankin’-new sound systems and about half the usual attendance.
Whether we’re still in a pandemic or not, a Wednesday night in the heart of January in Milwaukee is a risky proposition for a touring act. I was just getting over a cold myself, but the kicker was that Ani’s bringing her opening act from that Summerfest show along on this whole leg of her tour: labelmates Peter Mulvey and SistaStrings. Judging by the crowd response, it was hard to say whether DiFranco or her guests brought out more fans out to the Pabst. Following a handful of endearing folk tunes of Mulvey’s (plus the Woody-Guthrie-by-way-of-Billy Bragg cover, “Ingrid Bergman”), he left the stage for the sisters’ (Monique and Chauntee Ross) showcase. I thought about back in 2018 when SistaStrings were guests on my radio show, when their unusual fusion of classical, gospel and folk was just beginning to coalesce. In those days they were primarily known as scene-stealers who’d be liable to pop up at any local show for a guest spot, and I spent a lot of time wondering what they were going to eventually do as artists in their own right.
It seems the answer was ‘whatever they feel like doing’. My guess is by this point, at least as many Americans have heard the sisters play as haven’t, whether with Mulvey, Brandi Carlile, Allison Russell, the list goes on. For the hometown crowd on Wednesday they welcomed more Milwaukee string players, including Ernest Brusubardis IV, Kristian Brusubardis, Evan Lane, Malik Johnson and Peter Thomas, for a pair of songs (“Her Name Was” and “Pieces”) that struck me as the fullest expression I’d yet heard of the sisters’ artistic vision. That’s not to take away from their brilliant farewell show back in May of 2021 at Best Place, prior to their astute relocation to Nashville, but they’ve grown so much as singers and players even since then it’s remarkable. Peter rejoined for one final tune, and then it was intermission, too soon!
Ani emerged along with her longtime rhythm section, bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Terence Higgins, opening with a handful of classics to the delight of the crowd. While “Shy” is always a killer opener, I was surprised to then hear a heavy number like “Dilate” so early in the set. Like so many of DiFranco’s songs, its meaning has probably been lost and found many times over the years; the last time I’d seen her perform it, it was the centerpiece of the set and yet I felt it lacked conviction, whereas tonight it felt almost celebratory, the lyric “The world is my oyster/The road is my home/And I know that I’m better off alone” freed from its original irony. There were only six repeats from her last Milwaukee show, five of which were from her latest studio album, 2021’s REVOLUTIONARY LOVE; she seems to be digging up more deep cuts on this tour than relying on ‘the hits’ so to speak, treating us to ‘90s nuggets like “You Had Time”, “’Tis Of Thee”, “In Or Out” and “Coming Up” that aren’t necessarily setlist staples.
We were also treated to a quick poetry reading. Inspired by Mulvey’s earlier acknowledgement of Mary Oliver as an inspiration, DiFranco had scribbled down one of her favorite Oliver works during setbreak and pulled it out of her pocket to read to us mid-set. The best part was the enthusiastic murmuring from the crowd as she introduced the poem; just when it seems that poets have been booted right out of pop culture, a force of nature like Oliver comes along whose work continues to reverberate across all forms of media since her passing in 2019. DiFranco’s obviously no slouch as a poet in her own right, but would we even know that if it weren’t for her mad guitar and vocal skills? At this point if you’re not familiar with Mary Oliver you’ve been living under a rock, and that should give hope to all generations of writers coming up.
DiFranco confessed that the pandemic had not been a productive creative period for her; nevertheless, she unveiled three new songs that had all debuted within the last several months: “Virus”, echoing some of the frustrations we have all been dealing for the past three years; “Baby Roe”, inspired by Joshua Prager’s 2021 book THE FAMILY ROE: AN AMERICAN STORY, a biographical account of Norma McCorvey and the story surrounding her landmark court case; and “The Thing At Hand”, the one that truly stunned me. Ani has never shied away from politics or personal statements of purpose, yet as she’s gotten older there HAVE been times when her next bold move comes off as a bit out of step with the times, and her tried-and-true efforts to boil complex issues down to their simplest terms wind up evaporating all the nuance. This song you might call anti-political; some might rail against its deceptively simple verses, but at its heart it’s a plea for gratitude, unity, and mindfulness that’s almost impossible to pick apart.
The biggest treat of the night, for Ani as well as for the audience, was the re-emergence of Mulvey and SistaStrings for the final two songs of the set. I knew this was coming but I was blown away that they’d choose “Grey” as a collaborative piece. One of the most powerfully depressing songs ever written by a human, “Grey” first appeared as a plaintive, listless performance on the quiet side of DiFranco’s 2001 double-LP REVELLING/RECKONING. It’s not a song I’m able to listen to in any kind of vulnerable emotional state without breaking down completely. It’s also probably my favorite song that Ani has ever released, and I can’t even begin to put into words how much new life these Milwaukeeans breathed into it. It was as if they set the song free from a prison that I’d been keeping it in. That plus the rousing finale of “Revolutionary Love” amounted to the greatest conclusion to an Ani set I can ever remember seeing.
I was mildly surprised that Mulvey and DiFranco didn’t join forces for Mulvey’s “Take Down Your Flag”, which DiFranco covered within a few days of Mulvey’s having written it back in 2015; otherwise fans of either artist couldn’t have asked for much more. Ani had seemed somewhat nervous and unusually shy a year and a half ago, trying to recall how this whole performer-audience thing works again. At the Pabst she was her old chatty, off-the-cuff self, playing vigorous guitar, right at home onstage. Maybe she’ll never be the cultural force she once was, but seeing her so revitalized and flush with strong new material, I wouldn’t put anything past her.