Folksinger Ani DiFranco winds down solo tour at Smith

In the world of independent music, there are three kinds of people: rabid Ani DiFranco admirers, her detractors and those who are new to the game. It is exceedingly difficult to find an Ani fanatic who does not worship her sinewy five-foot-three frame, nor is it particularly tricky to locate a collection of her critics. And as the last stop on a rare solo tour, DiFranco comes April 14 to Smith College’s John Greene Hall, drawing to her a contingent of loyal fans from Williams College on their annual pilgrimage.

Known first as a musician and second as a businesswoman, DiFranco has built herself an empire out of the backseat of her Mustang. Righteous Babe Records (RBR), the label which DiFranco started more than ten years ago upon her realization that she didn’t have to sell out to an impersonal music corporation in order to make her own music, has in recent years expanded to showcase the talents of other indie rock performers and visionaries, such as Bitch and Animal, Sekou Sundiata, former Ani and Indigo Girls bassist Sara Lee and grassroots activist Utah Phillips (with whom DiFranco produced two albums, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere and Fellow Workers, both featuring Phillips’ political commentary overlaid on DiFranco’s signature guitar work). It was circulated a few years back (and the comparison certainly dates the statement) that DiFranco makes more money per album sold than did Hootie and the Blowfish, simply because of her autonomy from “Big Music.”

This self-government allows her to pump out an album – sometimes more – per year, keeping the commentary current while the issues are fresh. To The Teeth, whose title track condemns the Republican resistance to gun control and laments the current system’s failures, was released not five months after the carnage at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. There is no doubt that DiFranco, a Buffalo, N.Y. native, but New York City veteran and aficionado, will burst with empathy concerning last September’s attacks on New York in her next album, currently in the working stage at RBR.

In her 11-plus years in the indie limelight, she has drawn comparison to musicians as varied as openly gay country music star k.d. lang and versatile pop phenomenon Madonna for both her openness in her sexuality and shrewd business success. However, it is her legendary on-stage charisma and candid, often simultaneously explicitly sexual and scathingly political folk-influenced lyrics that draw in sold-out shows across the country. Her infectious energy on stage makes each concert a genuinely creative endeavor, sliding away from perfect audio capture, although her 1997 double-CD release Living In Clip, her only fully live album, is widely praised as an honest taste of Ani in the flesh.

For DiFranco, it seems that her fans have been her source of greatest support and even greater stress. For many of her most loyal – and obsessed – fans, Ani has transcended her own music and has become an icon for the angry, the oppressed and the closeted. When the notoriously bisexual Folksinger married her music engineer Andrew “Goat Boy” Gilchrist, many devoted fans became incensed and attacked her marriage through her mailbox. DiFranco – ever the Righteous Babe, ever indignant – expressed her desire that her angered fans, “with their panties on a little too tight,” just get over themselves and accept that her life is her own.

Still, the anonymous relationship her more intrinsically involved fans have with her music led to a civil war of sorts in the Ani-worshiping community. Many disparage her current propensity toward songs about love, commitment and family (like “Ain’t That The Way” and “Angry Anymore”), which preclude her former references to one-night stands and an angry sexuality (like “Shy” and “Out of Habit”) and often upstage instead of accompany her condemnations of perceived injustices and political annotations, as in her self-indulgent but well-crafted album Dilate, released just prior to her engagement.

Having seen her live eight times in the last five years, sometimes opening for legends like Bob Dylan and flops like Joan Osbourne, and sometimes scheduled in the final slot with her name in bold, I can safely say that few, if any, performers match the intensity she puts forth. The vitality of any one of her shows is remarkably consistent given that she is on the road more than 200 days per year. An unfortunate side effect of being so prolific with her albums, however, is her tendency to forget older songs – on several occasions, fans have screamed out requests to which she has laughingly replied, “Um, I don’t know that one anymore,” while I and those around me mutter that we could definitely help her out with the lyrics – most Ani fans know more Ani songs than she does, at this point.

If you’ve never seen Ani live before, it is the opinion of this editor that you should get your hands on a ticket, scalped or legal, for this weekend’s Smith performance. She also plays solo in New Haven, Conn. on Saturday night, since a Sunday night out halfway across the state isn’t doable for many overworked Williams students.

I’ve heard talk of male fans who have expressed reluctance in venturing into such an estrogen-charged environment for fear of losing something more than their Ani virginity; however, having seen her in 2000 at the nearby Mullins Center in Amherst, Mass., I can assure apprehensive male fans that they will find something more in the way of gender balancing today than they might have at the Voters For Choice benefit concert in Washington, D.C., where I saw her for the first time in 1997. Despite the accusations, she doesn’t bash men or eat puppies.

More than anything, she produces high-honesty, low-fluff songs, and is one of precious few die-hards who will always choose being a musician over being a performer. Coming across Ani alone onstage with only her guitar is watching flesh and wood become an all-too-human god, a visceral experience of almost-transubstantiation.