Ani DiFranco and Dan Bern: Deja Voodoo

By Michael Campbell

It was deja voodoo all over again. When Ani DiFranco struck the first of many hyper-kinetic blows to her guitar in Lexington last year, a powerful wave of attraction swept bodies out of their seats and towards the stage. The same phenomenon occurred in Louisville's Memorial Auditorium, with a slightly more upscale crowd filling two thirds of the venue this time.

Maybe it's inspired by the enigma of a self-proclaimed "disheveled bisexual," complete with the trappings of tattoo, piercing, and combat boots, who has written, produced and published (on her own Righteous Babe Records) nine albums over the last eight years. Add a stage persona that can project intense control, while exhaling breathless girlish gibberish between songs; anger that makes Alannis look like Marie Osmond, contradicted with a soft, yet brutal, vulnerability.

For me it is inspired by her energy. As a solo performer, Ms. DiFranco unleashes acoustic guitar syncopation that would humiliate Pete Townsend in his prime. The first time I heard her playing on the radio, I thought it was West African pop music on methamphetamine. Augmented by bass and drums, she generates as much authority as any three-piece ensemble you can think of. It's also the energy of her ideas: scorning the supermodels; challenging the notions of romance held by both sexual persuasions; the sensitivity of portraying the "low moan of the dial tone."

Opening the show with soft, sensual rap, Ms. DiFranco bent genres as well as genders with a potpourri of approaches: a banjo accompanied by brushes on the drums that bridged mountain and Juju music; open guitar tunings that emulated tuned drums over a sensual vocal on "Shy" ("I am leaving in the morning/so let's not be shy"). Her laser sharp accompanists followed every twist and turn of her ambitious rhythm arrangements from straight-on hammering through African-cadenced finger picking. Eschewing vintage crowd pleasures from earlier albums such as "Not A Pretty Girl" (and notably the song "Untouchable Face"), Ms. DiFranco preferred to perform her latest compositions, including selections from "Dilate" and new, unrecorded, and un-named (at least at this show) work. One such example, a song she "wrote yesterday" utilized the kalimba as its primary instrument to convey a spirit of determination ("suck it up").

The one frustration was the difficulty of hearing the lyrics clearly. This was partially caused by the mix, and partially by the density of words delivered at high speed with dizzying stops and starts.

Opening act Dan Bern demonstrated the ultimate icebreaker for a warm up act by casually sauntering to the mike and plaintively singing "I got BIG balls." Straddling the fence between standup comedy and Woody Guthrie, Bern delivered caustic insight on "The Day They Found The Cure For AIDS" and "Marilyn Monroe Should've Married Henry Miller". Showing little concern for potential offense, Bern launched into "Jew From Kentucky" in a Bill Monroe parody voice, extolling the virtues of "drinking mint juleps from a Kosher dill jar."

This night was a glimpse of the evolution of folk music: Bern applying topical wit to current events, and DiFranco demonstrating the brilliance that will grow into inevitable success, whether she likes it or not.