Monday, October 7, 2013

Concert Review: Ani DiFranco, Queen of the Varied Vamp

Last week, I attended a live concert by the amazingly prolific artist and businessperson Ani DiFranco. Here's what I thought.

The opener: Pearl and the Beard—missing a mustache?

The opening band for Ani was Pearl and the Beard, an indie trio from New York City. I applaud their inventive song, their powerful unaccompanied voices, and their courage at creating unique instrumentation, but that choice of instruments (percussion, cello, and guitar) put most of their sound in the low-middle register. The cello and guitar players seemed to be having a fight as to who was supposed to play the bass and the harmonic accompaniment. I think the band would benefit from some more melodic instrumental thinking, either using the instruments they have differently, or bringing in something like a lead guitar (ukulele? mandolin? accordion? zither?). This would fill out the treble range and allow for hooks, or catchy melodic snippets that get and keep people's attention. Also, it was often difficult to understand their lyrics, often a problem for those not already familiar with a band's music (though it shouldn't be, in my opinion).

Guitars, words, and vamps

As for Ani, I was very impressed by her guitar skills. The range, volume, and variation of her guitar playing is breathtaking. Nobody really plays guitar like her. Though considering how much tension her playing style takes, I'm not surprised she's had to take career breaks for tendonitis. It's also impressive that she needs a new guitar after each song (we counted six or seven guitars that she rotated through). Despite her abilities, I was happy that she brought along a drummer and bassist  for this tour, because for me, even great guitar playing gets old after not too long.

Unlike Pearl and the Beard, Ani really does a great job communicating her words to her audience. I think besides good diction, she does a good job of composing music that highlights the meaning and sound of her lyrics. Most her songs come from a first person perspective. While I think in some ways that makes her songs more powerful, I think it's curious that she has a hard time writing songs about other characters.

As for the music, Ani's songs almost always follow a similar construction blueprint. She builds her songs over guitar vamps, or repeated patterns of a measure or two. How does she keep her songs interesting, despite this constant repetition? While, first of all, the vamps are usually quite complicated. Second, she's skilled at varying them, trimming them down or making them more complex as the song progresses. Sometimes she just stops playing for a few beats, especially if she wants to emphasize her lyrics. And speaking of her words, she has learned how to sing over, around, and through the vamps. Her words often carry their own interesting rhythms. The chorus melody will also be different, even if they are placed over the same vamp. And occasionally, she does throw in a few contrasting chords.

Stop being happy and play your angry stuff!

Though Ani was touring to promote her new album, it was obvious (even to herself, from comments she made) that the audience really was there to hear her classic music, not the new stuff. I could feel the excitement build in the hall the few times she gave in to audience requests to play an older song.*

What makes her old songs most exciting to audiences? I've got a few guesses. First, her emotions aren't as strong as they used to be and that plays out in the music. Second, many of her new songs don't really have a lyrical direction or an arc; they are more just a platform to broadcast her random thoughts. Third, her newer songs are missing choruses or anthems, fun and memorable phrases the audiences can grab on to and take the song upon themselves. Perhaps if she took on other people's stories instead of her own (especially with her cooler emotions), she might find a greater fountain of inspiration.

All in all, it was an enjoyable concert. There's a reason she has so many loyal fans. Oh, and (spoiler alert!) a great kazoo solo from her drummer.

What do you think about Ani? Do you like her new stuff better than her old stuff?

Vocab: hook, lyrics, vamp, instrumentation, harmonic, measure

*I witnessed the same thing a few years ago at a They Might Be Giants concert. It's apparently hard to keep coming out with more creative stuff after a long career. But it's a critic's job to complain about that, right?


  1. As you know (since I went to this concert with you), I love Ani. And I really enjoyed your comments. I hadn't thought about her lyrics and how she rarely talks about characters other than herself, and I agree with you that it could add to her new music. While I am still very fond of "new" Ani, "old" Ani is where my love lies.

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