In fall 1980, the Grateful Dead played a series of shows at the Warfield in San Francisco and Radio City Music Hall in New York. Recordings from the shows were later released in a compilation titled “For the Faithful” (later renamed “Reckoning”).
Based on the selection of old chestnuts in her set Thursday at the Ogden, Ani DiFranco’s show could have been her answer to “For the Faithful.” While the show wasn’t all older material, and in fact two of the strongest songs were new, the loudest cheers were reserved for older songs.
That was something DiFranco herself acknowledged when she talked about learning older songs and how it involves her pulling out her records and listening to them, which she laughingly said was “traumatic.” A friend would download lyrics and guitar parts online and give them to her, saying “Learn this, bitch,” she said.
The contrast with DiFranco’s Colorado Springs show was dramatic, in part, perhaps, due to the venue. Armstrong Hall is a seated theater, and while patrons occasionally danced, much of the show was seated. At the Ogden, people were on their feet dancing from the opening song, a blazing rendition of “Shy.”
Perched closer to the stage, it was also easier to appreciate the nuances of DiFranco’s musical genius. Compared to modern pop stars, who change outfits every song, DiFranco wore the same wife-beater she had on the other night. However, she changed guitars almost every song. You could also see her technique of taping picks to her fingers, and how she used it to great effect on a brilliant “Dilate,” attacking the strings with percussive picking and using the open tuning to create lush chord changes.
The older songs that really sparkled included “Angry Anymore” and the angsty “Napoleon,” with many in the audience singing along with every word.
Not every older song worked, however, as DiFranco reworks many of her older tunes as she brings them back into her repertoire. The newer version of “She Says,” from 1991’s “Not So Soft,” seemed to lack the desperation of the original, which matched the lyrical content of the song, instead played like more of a lullaby, at a languid pace.
Several newer songs were sprinkled into the set, including her brilliant reworked version of Pete Seeger’s “Which Side Are You On?” and the perfectly distilled fury of “Amendment,” which really lifted off on the last chorus with a dramatic drum beat from Andy Borger, turning the aggressive song into something border on acoustic metal.
During the jazzy “See See,” DiFranco commented on the prevalent smell of pot, saying, “It smells good in here.”
Backing musicians Todd Sickafoose and Borger shone on various songs. During “If You’re Not,” Sickafoose played a hypnotic descending bass line under Ani’s guitar. On “Zoo,” DiFranco laughingly said that Borger would be in trouble for cruelty to animals, and that in heaven, you might see “cows beating on a dude with a stick.”
DiFranco will headline the Folks Festival in Lyons in August, and she’s releasing a new CD in the fall.
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Joshua Elioseff is a Boulder-based freelance photographer and regular Reverb contributor. Check out his website.