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Home on the Range

Ani DiFranco
Righteous Rage: Feisty feminist Ani DiFranco brings her category-defying sound and provocative lyrics to the Civic for a Thursday night show.

Photo by Albert Sanchez

Indie phenom Ani DiFranco brings her free army to town

By Neal Rogers

ON THE TITLE TRACK FROM HER latest CD Dilate, Ani DiFranco sings "Life used to be life-like/now it's more like showbiz/I wake up in the night and I don't know where the bathroom is." This is a revealing indictment coming from a 26-year-old superwoman who--while juggling many levels of talent with a drive that would put most people under--has gone to great lengths to remain outside of the corporate music industry.

For those unfamiliar with Ms. DiFranco, she is a dichotomous blend of grassroots folk ethics and punk rock do-it-yourself attitude, a modern-day poet wearing an acoustic guitar and Doc Martens. At 19, she started Righteous Babe Records, choosing the artistic control that comes with running her own record label over a corporate path of exploitation and compromise.

Given this freedom, she has produced an album for every year of the 1990s, each a chronicle of her personal and musical growth. Her best work includes 1994's Out of Range and last year's Not A Pretty Girl. She is now touring to support her latest, Dilate, which deals with romantic obsession.

From her childhood days of playing bars and coffee shops in Buffalo, NY, DiFranco has been immersed in music. At 19, she moved to Manhattan, realizing, "If you don't ask the right questions/every answer feels wrong/I was a terrible waitress so I started to write songs." She began doing just that, and has since recorded and toured almost incessantly--more than 200 days on the road annually over the past few years.

In an interview with Metro Santa Cruz last fall, DiFranco listed her musical tastes as varying from "folk and roots and world music and beat, ambient, death, sex music and rap and hip-hop and thrash and punk." The punk and folk labels hit closest to home. "I see a lot of connections between folk and punk music," she explained. "They're both music that comes out of communities and are very genuine and very immediate and not commercial."

One listen to DiFranco's repertoire--especially live--is usually all it takes to be converted. Her powerful voice ranges from a whisper to a growl and reveals the soul behind her sound. She has developed an innovative style to play the acoustic guitar--requiring press-on nails and electrical tape to keep her fingers from bleeding. Her sound gained shape when she met drummer Andy Stochansky, whose creative talent as a percussionist has added not just rhythm but depth and character to her unique sound and whose presence in concert provides balance and the occasional comic relief. Just this year, former Gang of Four and B-52s bassist Sara Lee was added to the road show.

Onstage, DiFranco is an intensely sexy woman, overflowing with strength and charm. She is simultaneously fierce and modest, commanding the stage like few performers can. Her shy, sometimes-giggling stage presence enchants the audience, seducing male and female alike. She makes a point of playing down questions about her sexual inclinations, and in her words emphasize people rather than the shape of their accouterments. And while her songs often deal with interpersonal dynamics, a recurring theme is the struggle to fight oppression--political, economic or emotional.

With DiFranco's rising fame, privacy may be the toughest gig. No more stage-diving into small-club crowds--Thursday's show will include Ani and 1,900 friends. At $17.85, the tickets, while not top dollar for an act of her caliber, are hardly priced for the "community." Nor has her "sub-corporate" approach ruled out "corporate" prices on her merchandise. Regardless, Ani DiFranco remains a role model for anyone who has ever had the urge to speak her or his mind. In a time when truly gifted and successful artists are a dying breed, she has pioneered a movement of women who obliterate the status quo.

DiFranco recently revealed her golden rule as: "Ignore the facts and tell the truth." Her life may be "more like showbiz," but DiFranco takes the stage on Thursday at a crossroads between relative obscurity and mainstream recognition as a genius ahead of her time--on a path she continues to travel on her own terms.

Ani DiFranco plays on Thursday (8pm) at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. Tickets cost $17.85.

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From the October 24-30, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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