In the pantheon of contemporary American folk music, Ani DiFranco has earned her place based on a career defined by courageous rule breaking and fierce commitment to her artistic ideals. Openly bisexual, staunchly politically left of centre and one of the first musicians to strike out independently when she set up Righteous Babes Records in the early 1990s, her music and politics tend to go hand in hand. It’s not a stretch to call her a feminist icon or an indie pioneer; soon enough she’ll fit comfortably into the status of folk legend without that feeling like an overuse of the term.
But years tend to mellow a person and DiFranco, now a wife and mother, is clearly enjoying a life of domestic bliss and contentment. She makes the point that happiness allows a person to be more politically active, but can wisdom, age and contentment ever be a match for youth, naivety and anger?
Over three years since 2008’s Red Letter Year, the longest gap in a 17 album career of protest song and musical innovation, she returns with ‘Which Side Are You On?‘. The opening track ‘Life Boat‘, a song about looking back at the choices we make in life, is classic Di Franco: seductive, melodically instant, lyrically and rhythmically hypnotic.
The title track is a radical reworking of social activist Florence Reece’s 1931 song, popularised by Pete Seeger in the 1940s. A seminal protest song through the decades, it’s given a uniquely female slant in the hands of DiFranco as she addresses environmental disaster, government inaction, war and unregulated capitalism. Seeger plays banjo on the track – a spine-tingling movement before the guitars kick in – and elsewhere Di Franco calls upon the talents of singer Anais Mitchell, guitarist Adam Levy, avant-saxophonist Skerik and a host New Orleans-based brass players.
It’s a phenomenal album by any standards, but all the more so because it’s a composite of everything that’s excellent about DiFranco’s music. The simple but never simplistic political message (‘Amendment’); the tender and gentle love song (‘Albacore’); the genre-bending musical arc (‘Which Side Are You On?’). At the heart of her talent and appeal is a musician so utterly comfortable with the process of crafting a song.
When she bounds on to the stage at Union Chapel, her tiny frame always a surprising counterpoint to her big voice, it’s hard to believe it’s been 21 years since the release of her eponymous debut. She launches into Little Plastic Castles to a swell of approval and, once again, armed with only her guitar (or rather half a dozen of them) manages to create a sound that’s so much bigger than the sum of its parts.
She mixes up the set with songs old and new. Always a consummate show-woman, Swan Dive and As Is from Little Plastic Castles, her most commercially successful album to date, receive two of the largest cheers of the evening. Opening the room up to requests she makes a bold decision to invite an audience member (Declan Bennett) to play guitar with her on Overlap, from Out of Range. He acquits himself well.
Which Side Are You On? is also an album about coming to terms with getting older and “being totally okay with that process”. In a standout moment on ‘If Yr Not‘ DiFranco opines
“If Yr Not getting happy as you get older/ then yr fucking up”.
The crowd, many of them hearing the lyric for the first time, whoop in delighted agreement. Coming from anyone else it might have sounded smug, but sincerity has always been one of DiFranco’s greatest strengths.
Video: Live @ Union Chapel
Overlap (joined by singer songwriter Declan Bennett)
Which Side Are You On?
Do Re Me (Woody Guthrie)
Which Side Are You On? is released on Righteous Babe Records (16 Jan 2012)