I’ve probably seen Ani Difranco live more than any other performer. Basically, it’s built right into the terms of my marriage. Ani came with the package, like a stepchild or a beloved feline. The affection may have faded somewhat over the years–new albums are no longer automatic purchases for our household–but seeing Ani perform live remains an obligatory outing. This isn’t a problem, by the way. She’s a helluva songwriter and a terrific performer, equal parts fierce and adorable with a charisma that amazingly plays best to the back seats and moves forward. She brings herself unguarded to the stage, which can be a little problematic if she’s having an off night or is feeling grumpy about the corporate nature of the venue she’s playing at, a problem that cropped up when the size of her audience required theaters instead of clubs. Mostly, that openness leads to a free and emotionally abundant show. She’s a little like Bruce Springsteen in that the songs that sound good on record sound phenomenal on stage, not because they’ve been drastically rearranged or rethought, but simply because the power of the performance brings them to a completely different level. She’s a great live performer who needs to make records to give her an excuse to go out and perform live.
And yet–you could feel the “and yet” coming, right?–I have this odd sense that I haven’t had the perfect Ani moment yet. It always seems like the song that I walk into the theater aching to see is the song that’s left off the set list. For instance, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen her play “Gravel” live, even though I’ve come ridiculously, painfully close. Part of having a notably deep catalog of songs that fans have embraced in deeply felt, almost internalized ways is that multiple personal anthems are going to be omitted every night. Selfishly, no matter how good a concert is, there’s always a little part of me that’s walking out the exit doors pining after whatever she didn’t play.
Furthermore, I’ve never experienced the pleasure of seeing her break out with a perfect and unexpected cover, one of those instances when a performers straps on a guitar (or, you know, a banjo) and breaks into a song that they didn’t write and yet seems perfectly suited for them. For all my whimpering, that’s ultimately all right, since we live in a time when those fleeting moments are captured in the most unexpected myriad of ways. For instance, I’m not even sure where I found Ani’s live cover of Bob Dylan’s heartbroken masterpiece “Most of the Time.” It’s just been in my iTunes music library for about as long as I’ve had an iTunes music library. I do know that I feel lucky to have it every time the shuffle redelivers it to me.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that I hope to someday see her perform this song live. The opposite is true. I’d prefer it if the song wasn’t even in her repertoire any longer, that she couldn’t find her way to right the right chords or the right words if she made an attempt at it. I like it as something distant, elusive, a song she performed at the time because it made a world of sense but is now as dreamy and odd as a faded old photograph of an event or a person that’s just barely clinging to the fringes of her memory. I want it to be something that was special and unique for the people in that audience, and something that I grasp onto with my lovely but inherently lacking reproduction. And as I type it out, I realize that sentiment is particularly well-suited to the song. Maybe that’s another reason it strikes me as ideal.
(Disclaimer: As far as I know, this song has never officially been released, although the recording is well-done enough that maybe it’s on some compilation out there. Regardless, there’s plenty of oters ways to provide some fiscal support to the righteous babe herself if you’re so inclined, especially since she’s remained true to the do it yourself ethos of independent music like few others, certainly like few others who’ve also attained her level of stature. You could also see her live, where artists make their real money these days. I should note that throughout the writing of the above, I considered referring to her as “Difranco” rather than “Ani” whenever I used the shortened version of her name. Though that’s the far more conventional and accepted way to handle that specific writing situation, it never felt right. In our house, Ani is Ani.)