I can't pretend I was even trying to be unbiased as I headed to The Ritz Ybor on Tuesday night to see Ani DiFranco. Though I've been listening to Ani for half of my life, this would be my first time seeing her in person. Back in the late days of middle school, it was through her — listening to her music and reading interviews with and articles about her — that I learned about feminism. Having previously listened to mainly Mozart, The Monkees or Matchbox 20 (the latter being especially embarrassing now, I know), my discovery of Ani ignited my love for female-fronted music. While I was undeniably excited on my way to the show, I also had my apprehensions. Ani's always been lauded for her aggressive, expressive energy on stage, but her latest albums have been somewhat more subdued than her earlier ones. Older now, and pregnant with her second child, would present-day Ani live up to the wild, angry Ani I remember first seeing on Hard Rock Live on Vh1 all those years ago? Those were, after all, some big, stompy boots to fill. Mellow or not, however, I knew I was in for a great show. [Text by Shae, photos by Tracy.]
After working our way through the multiple security checkpoints, my boyfriend and I made it into the Ritz a few minutes before the houselights dimmed. A decent crowd had congregated on the floor in front of the stage, but the venue was not as packed as I had anticipated, so we were able to settle into a spot fairly close to the right of the stage. I had never heard nor even heard of opening act Ruthie Foster, but as she took to the microphone with a bright smile and began her solo acoustic set with an upbeat bluesy song, I couldn't believe she'd strayed so far under my radar.
A Texas-native, Foster had a voice the size of her home state and a talent to match. Her songs comfortably blended blues, jazz, folk and country, and her in-between song banter was warm and humorous. Before covering "Ring of Fire," she joked that a woman with dreads singing Johnny Cash was a rare sight to behold, and implored the audience to take out our cell phones, call our friends and tell them what was going on while it happened, or else they'd never believe it. Throughout her all-too-short set, Foster stopped several times to express how honored and excited she felt about getting to play with Ani, who she's watched grow and change over the years, and who she considered to be one of her heroes. Judging by the audience's response, she wasn't the only person in the room to feel that way.
The wait between Ruthie's and Ani's sets seemed to stretch on forever. Ani wasn't touring with a backing band, so how long did it take to tune a rack of acoustic guitars? While most of us in the audience held our spots patiently, one woman started shoving and swearing at the girl perched behind her. As a flock of security swooped in to escort the screaming woman out, my boyfriend wryly commented that the people were more aggressive here than at a metal show. Then a younger, visibly nervous woman took the stage. I thought she was introducing Ani, but instead she introduced herself as a member of I Am Choice, the campaign promoting gender and human equality. Her speech on voting "No" for Amendment 6 was well-received by the predominantly-female audience and highlighted the night's political undercurrent.
Finally, to a tidal wave of cheering, Ani hit the stage and strapped on her tenor guitar. She opened the set with the politically charged "Which Side Are You On?" from her latest album of the same name, and followed with a few more recent songs, switching guitars before each. And then she began diving into her back catalog, playing a smattering of songs from my favorite album, Little Plastic Castle. The older songs received more enthusiastic hoots and hollers; "Shameless," "Untouchable Face" and "Joyful Girl" set the crowd into fits of ecstasy, with the latter bringing me to tears. (Admittedly, I cry easily). Though performing solo, her sound filled the room. Ani was not a woman blissfully strumming simple tunes; with her fake nails bound in electrical taped to her fingers, she clawed and jabbed and pounded on her guitar, making enough noise for an entire band.
But while she was still aggressive after all these years, overall, Ani looked content, even when beseeching us to vote, and comfortable despite being pregnant. She referenced the baby, barely a bump, a few times, laughing that while she didn't know what it was yet, she felt it was probably in there begging her to shut up after all these nights on the road.
She joked and laughed and graciously accepted a gift from someone in the audience, and toward the end of the night, before a double encore of "Gravel" and "32 Flavors," Ani set down her guitar and offered up a spoken-word poem. It may have been the one time all night the annoyingly chattering crowd silenced itself. Watching her up there — without the armor of her guitar, without her yelps and foot-stomps — made me realize it's not the anger I so admired in my youth that gave Ani her strength. The anger may have been some sort of bi-product, of her life, her environment, the world where, as she said, "being a woman may be one of the last forms of slavery remaining," but the strength itself came from the words, her words. That's Ani's power, that's what's so inspiring about her, and that's something age and time simply can't diminish.
Excellent review, sorry I missed the concert.
I was fortunate to see Bonnie Raitt. Her stage presence was heart warming and her…
loved it! Well worth the $$.