Feminist book recommendations, a look into Irish abortion politics and a new, off-kilter sound called the “Trump tuning.”
When singer-songwriter and guitar tour-de-force Ani DiFranco stages a show, it’s about much more than the music.
DiFranco turned in a loose, wide-ranging 90-minute set of hard-driving, politically powerful acoustic folk for a nearly sold-out crowd at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth on Monday night. The 18-song performance drew from all corners of her 30-year career and included a few thought-provoking sidetracks into social and political issues.
“I’m glad I don’t have to win you over,” said DiFranco, after her opening song, “God’s Country,” received a huge ovation.
Performing in front of a giant projected fist holding lightning bolts and the words “Rise Up,” DiFranco and her two-piece backing band ripped through her 1995 classic “Not A Pretty Girl” and “Angry Anymore,” a song addressed to her mother.
The Grammy-winning folk icon is on tour to promote — not a new record but a new book — a memoir which hit the stores last month titled “No Walls and the Recurring Dream.”
DiFranco said the book was difficult to write and has led to some tension with her mother. If the book is anything like her songs, it’s a raw, unflinching look at growing up different in a troubled world. “I talked to my mom. It’s going to be good,” she said. “She’s still my mom. I guess I’ve been breaking her in for quite awhile now.”
DiFranco has been righteously rocking music halls all over the world for awhile now, too. Her unique, muscular guitar style looks effortless but is filled with complexity. Both hands contribute to the rhythm and drive the beat. Each song requires a different guitar with different tunings and different effects.
She introduced a new song called “Chloroform” with a new tuning called a “Trump tuning.” A quick strum made the guitar sound sick, but played together in song the piece turned into a ringing indictment of current U.S. politics.
And there were more politics and social commentary as the night went on.
DiFranco read a piece on women’s reproductive rights by Irish writer Sally Rooney. She discussed the work of Leonard Shlain, a male feminist writer, who examined global patriarchy in his 1998 book “The Alphabet vs. The Goddess.”
A musical highlight of the night included an unplugged version of the song “Genie.” The trio stepped to the edge of the stage and sang into one microphone. Drummer Terence Higgins sat on a wooden box and used it like a bongo. Bassist Todd Sickafoose, who accepted a Tony Award on Sunday night, slapped at his bass like he was trying to hold it down.
The final song of the set was a reworked cover of the socialist folk classic “Which Side Are You On” recorded in 2012. The song had the audience standing and singing along: “My mother was a feminist, she taught me to see the road to ruin is paved with patriarchy.”
A two-song encore ended on a mellow note with a soulful lullaby, the 2006 song “Hypnotized.” “It’s a Monday night,” said DiFranco. “We can end it this way.”
Northern California songwriter Diane Patterson opened the show with a 30-minute solo set. Armed with a powerful voice and a quiet guitar, Patterson worked a vein similar to Joni Mitchell. On one song, she neglected to plug in her guitar and apologized to the audience, but the natural sound delivered a more intimate feel and highlighted the superb NorShor acoustics.
Mark Nicklawske is a Duluth freelance writer who reviews music and theater for the News Tribune.