It's appropriate that Ani DiFranco stopped at the Ogden on Earth Day; she revealed during the show that she has a friend in this locale who showed her some springtime joy. When she tours, she said, normally she walks from "bus to basement to stage to basement to bus" -- but this time, she got to see "trees and stone buildings and sexy ovulating people." (That would be us, presumably.)
But before DiFranco came out, slam-poet champion Buddy Wakefield warmed up the crowd. I must admit I was slightly confused by the inclusion of Wakefield on the bill -- if you don't count hip-hop MCs, I've never seen a poet open for a musician. But once Wakefield started talking to us and telling us stories, it all made perfect sense.
Wakefield paints pictures and builds experiences with words. He walked out to the opening riffs of Beck's "Go It Alone," and kicked things off by stating that he was sure we'd all heard Ani wasn't going to be able to make it. "Thank you for coming to see me!" he said with a laugh. Seattle's Laura Grace played a uke and sang behind him while Wakefield wove his web of wordplay, dubbing Denverites "rockabilly hippies," and then segueing into a bit about his belief system.
For a particularly vivid and surreal poem, "Pretend," Grace sang vocals while Denver's own Ken Arkind showed off his beatboxing skills. It was absolutely beautiful, and I did lose myself in his fantasy of words. Wakefield's poetry is more conversational than a lot of spoken-word I've heard, and he utilizes his face to full effect, jumping up and down in a frenzy on occasion, when he's reciting a particularly exciting verse. He dedicated "Horsehead," appropriately, to the late Utah Phillips.
Wakefield had us all entranced before he let everyone go, after about 35 minutes. All 5'2" of Ani came out at 9 p.m., burgundy hair in an A-line bob, wearing a white tank top and brown leather chaps with fringe, flanked by Andy Borger on drums and Todd Sickafoose on upright bass and whirly. She opened with "Shy" from Not a Pretty Girl. When she was finished, she announced that they planned to play "the songs we haven't played enough this tour."
They went into "Half-Assed" from Reprieve, and then Ani announced, "That's enough of the good vibes. This is for y'all who are struggling." That was her intro to "Dilate," and she played it furiously. Then she introduced her "passive-aggressive song," "Angry Any More," and her tone became more playful and joyous.
From there, she went into "Marrow," and then revealed that she'd been learning some "new old songs." That was her segue into "She Says," where she turned soft and vulnerable. DiFranco told us about meeting Prince, and then introduced "Splinter," a new song off an album she's hoping to be finished with this fall.
Ani likes to chat in between songs; when she finished "Splinter," she told us about playing at Pete Seeger's ninetieth birthday party in Madison Square Gardens last May. She sang for us the song she sang at that celebration, a protest song penned by Florence Reece, "Which Side Are You On?" She'd changed the lyrics around to reflect modern politics in the United States, and her passionate playing and lilting voice -- along with enthusiastic synergy from her bandmates -- might have made that the highlight of the night. DiFranco was built to sing protest rock.
She then played what she called her "five year anniversary song." That was about the time people decided to break out the medical marijuana; suddenly it smelled very potent in the theater, which DiFranco apparently enjoyed. "It smells good in here," she announced. "My favorite smell."
Then her and the band played "Napoleon," the second highlight of the show featuring a deep bass groove and bluesy guitar. The band went into "Modulation" before Borger and Sickafoose left the stage, and Ani played "Names And Dates And Times" by herself.
Around this time, she applied some superglue to her fingertips (seriously, that woman can shred an acoustic guitar like few humans I've ever seen) and asked for requests, but didn't seem to like what the crowd came up with. "Okay, thank you. You're scaring me now," she informed us, before saying, "This is a new one. Fuck it. I don't want to introduce it."
The new song in question was "Amendment," a highly charged political song about the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, feminism and women's rights. There's a reason, after all, why Ani's long been a feminist icon. Borger and Sickafoose came back onstage and joined in after she sang, "Trust how differences make us stronger, but not less." She sang "Zoo" and "If You're Not," a fantastic new song. Then Ani thanked her crew and bandmates before launching into "Untouchable Face," a true crowd pleaser and perfect choice to close with.
After they wrapped up at 10:26, it only took a minute or two for Ani and the band to come back for a short encore. She sang Utah Phillips' "Dump the Bosses Off Your Back" a capella with Sickafoose and Borger, and signed off with another favorite, "32 Flavors." All and all, it was a well-constructed blend of love songs and political activism, balanced and delectable.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I like Ani DiFranco's album work well enough, but I don't listen to it all that often. She shines brightest in a concert setting, and I prefer her in rock mode rather than folk mode. Random Detail: DiFranco is the kind of performer who will kneel down to give you a high-five in between songs if you really want it bad enough. By The Way: The deceptively simple set -- a backdrop of white fabric that lights played across -- served perfectly to accent Ani's deceptively simple tunes.