Ani DiFranco delivered a profound and spirited performance at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon on June 30th—returning to the historic McMenamins venue. She played songs from her latest record, Revolutionary Love, along with plenty of early favorites. The place was packed with Ani superfans, from old schoolers who grew up with Ani in the 90’s, to new teenage fans along for the ride. Many were sporting Ani DiFranco and Righteous Babe T-shirts.
Righteous Babe Records is the independent record label that Ani founded at age 19. Her DIY method of distributing hand-labeled cassette tapes in 1990 grew into a thriving company with a diverse catalog of artists. Over the last 30 years, Ani has released 22 albums and toured near constantly. She’s won several notable awards, including the Woman of Courage Award, the Outmusic Award for LGBTQ+ musicians, the Woody Guthrie Award, and most recently, the John Lennon Real Love Award, given to artists dedicated to uplifting society through charitable work and social activism.
Ani’s civic engagement cannot be separated from her music. Her lyrics intertwine the deeply personal with the fiercely political. And she walks her talk. Ani has consistently supported a wide range of social causes, and endorsed progressive candidates for office (in the past, she even brought them on stage). Ani’s an advocate for voting access, human rights, reproductive freedom, and she frequently invites volunteers from Amnesty International to set up tables at her shows. Ani co-produced an album for the Prison Music Project that took ten years to complete, and features music and poetry by inmates of New Folsom Prison. She’s raised money to replace instruments for New Orleans musicians who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. She’s performed benefit concerts for oil spill clean-up efforts, public school funding, refugee assistance, and the list of causes goes on. Ani even saved a historic church from the wrecking ball in her hometown of Buffalo, NY and transformed the building into a community arts center and concert hall, called Babeville. And these are just a few of her accolades.
But let’s get into the Crystal Ballroom performance. Abraham Alexander, the opening act from Texas, set a pensive mood with his solo acoustic guitar. He began with a Spanish-style flair, mixing in a bit of Beethoven’s Für Elise. Abraham enticed the crowd with a soulful cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” before launching into his earnest, political song called “America,” which referenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the shadow of slavery, as he sang from his perspective as an African-American. The crowd was responsive and cheered enthusiastically. Abraham ended his set by singing away from the microphone and unplugging his guitar, daring the still somewhat chatty audience to quiet down to hear him. He received energetic applause as a fine sendoff.
Ani DiFranco then bounced onto the Crystal stage with a big smile, grabbed her acoustic guitar, and dove into the rousing crowd pleaser, “Shy”, from her 1995 album, Not a Pretty Girl. Terence Higgans on percussion kept the driving rhythm and Todd Sickafoose on upright bass (and occasional Wurlitzer keyboard) held down the groove.
“Glad we’re all still here… I’m gonna play some of my weird little songs,” Ani humbly said to the crowd, amid cheers and screams. During the show, she briefly chatted with the audience, then went full steam ahead, bringing the house down in the process.
Ani plays acoustic guitar in an unmistakable style. Her signature, rhythmic “folk punk” sound is punctuated by forceful plucking and a powerful chord attack. She achieves that hard-hitting effect by sticking thick acrylic nails onto her strumming hand and securing them with electrical tape. Her inimitable songs are often played in unusual tunings, which necessitate a few guitars changes between numbers.
Ani famously varies her setlist for each show, and the night at the Crystal was a uniquely curated blend of tunes, hand-selected from hundreds of her songs. “Do or Die” from her new Revolutionary Love album, gets right to the point with the most basic political message: “If you think your vote doesn’t matter, then you’re not paying attention.”
“Willing to Fight” was written by Ani in 1993 and remains eternally relevant. It’s a call to action, just like the title implies. She sings the sobering line: “You’ve got your whole life to do something, and that’s not very long.” Ani’s lyrics are direct and clear. Yet, the energy she conjures remains joyful. Many of her songs relish the beauty of the natural world and gratitude for cherished relationships. In several songs, Ani sings transcendent affirmations such as “You have to grow wings and rise above it all” from the song “Animal,” and “The many things that don’t suck/Rival the things that do/And we all live in the house/Of what we pay attention to,” from “Still My Heart”.
Ani told the audience a story about performing in a cathedral in Manchester, England, with sunlight shining through the stained glass. She said, “I thought to myself, ‘This [God] is supposed to be a dude? I think we took a left turn at Albuquerque,’” which evoked laughter from the crowd. Ani then played, “Alrighty” – a song from Binary from 2017, which addresses patriarchal religious belief and doubt, and includes the lyrics: “Next time I watch a man give birth/I’ll try to picture the Creator as a dude with a beard/’Cause right now I gotta say it’s seemin’ kind of weird…”
Ani is, and always has been, brave with her words. Of course, after building her musical legacy over decades, her songs land with an adoring and sympathetic audience. For the longtime Ani fan, her concerts feel more like an honest conversation with an old friend, rather than a confrontation.
You can’t talk about an Ani DiFranco show without acknowledging a certain subject that weighed heavily in the air that night at the Crystal. Ani has been a vocal supporter of women’s rights and a pro-choice advocate her entire life. There was anticipation over how she would address the recent Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, a ruling opposed by the majority of Americans. Protests in Portland and across the US visibly demonstrate how the decision was felt as a deep betrayal of historic proportions. Ani spoke to this new reality through her song, “Play God”, also from Binary, with the refrain: “I’ve earned my right to choose. You don’t get to play God, man, I do.” The sound of the crowd cheering at that line was overwhelming and thunderous. It was clear that Ani’s audience shares her perspective. Throughout the night, her music was peppered with excited shouts from fans and occasional screams of “I love you, Ani!”.
In the middle of her set, Ani played two solo songs, “Rain Check,” a request from 2004’s Educated Guess album, and a new unreleased song called “The Thing at Hand.” In this song, Ani thanked trees, birds, the ocean (seems corny, but she sold it with her sincerity). At the same time, Ani conveyed the practical message that to “show up for the thing at hand” is perhaps more important than getting caught up in navel-gazing identity labels.
Abraham Alexander, the opening artist, came back onstage and joined Ani on “Revolutionary Love”. Abraham played lead guitar and sang backup vocals on this hopeful song, adding the perfect finishing touch. The song is a declaration that love and tolerance is a radical act in a world full of hateful rhetoric and conflict; the lyrics encourage us to fully listen to each other. “If you give me your story, I will hold it in my hands,” Ani sang softly.
Ani closed the main set with “Gravel”—a fast paced oldie which had the whole crowd dancing and singing along. She came back out for an encore with “In or Out”—also a classic track featured on her 1997 live album, Living in Clip, and ended the show with perhaps her most well-known song, “32 Flavors,” from 1995. Ani charmed the crowd into singing along, which created a reverberating choir; Ani’s joyful voice soared and harmonized with the entire audience. It made a beautiful ending to an outstanding show. Ani’s love of performing is evident. She left the stage waving with a smile on her face and a word of gratitude for the audience. Can’t wait for Ani DiFranco to come back to the Crystal Ballroom next round.
Ani DiFranco, Setlist for the Crystal Ballroom, 6.30.22
2. Do or Die
3. Educated Guess
4. Willing to Fight
6. Still My Heart
8. Play God
10. Bad Dream
12. Rain Check (solo)
13. The Thing at Hand (solo)
15. Revolutionary Love
17. In or Out
18. 32 Flavors
Photos by Kathleen Nyberg*
*(Last photo by Elysia Scholl)