Sunday night, Ani DiFranco returned to Fort Collins for the first time in a little more than three years on the final Colorado stop of her spring tour. Following two nights in Boulder and a single in Breckenridge, fans were eager to see Ani brightening the doors of Washington’s once again and the songstress of strength gave a charged audience everything they paid for and more alongside the familiar faces of bassist extraordinaire Todd Sickafoose and trap master Terence Higgins. Playing yet again to a sold-out crowd, the evening was filled with an energy that only DiFranco can conjure and from her personal well spring, it did flow.
Much like her last visit in 2020, a line of superfans had already formed an hour before door time, and the multitude stood in the warm spring sun exchanging stories and connections waiting for what would be yet another great gig for the revolutionary legend. With a door time of 6:30, the talented and supportive staff of Washington’s opened the pearly gates to the excited and patient patrons, greeting each ticket holder with a smile and a welcoming air that makes this venue always a great place to be for any event.
At about half past seven, opening act Pieta Brown took the stage alongside the talented Liz Draper on upright bass, the warm crowd eagerly welcomed the duo and settled in to take in her music and perspective.
For those unfamiliar with Brown, this creative has been writing and performing for most of her life, not only as the progeny of singer / songwriter Greg Brown, but as an independent solo artist. Having recorded eight albums since 2002, her latest effort Freeway was put out in 2019 and released under DiFranco’s own label Righteous Babe Records. Outside of being a non-stop workhorse in her own right, she has also played along some of the greats in music, including Mark Knopfler, John Prine, and Brandi Carlisle to name a few.
Brown started the set with “Wishes Falling Through the Rain” off of her 2010 album One and All. This tune registers on the low end and Draper’s bow work fit perfectly to the droning vibe and Brown’s soft voice sat in perfect balance to the rumbling dynamic. After taking a moment to express how grateful she was to be on the road with one of her biggest inspirations in Ani, citing her as “one of her favorite people, songwriters, guitar players, singers, and activists”, Brown shifted her attention, taking the opportunity to introduce Draper as “my new old friend on the standup bass”.
Pulling from One and All again, “Calling All Angels” was up next. Brown and Draper harmonized well on this one and again both ladies’ playing was uniform and tight. Although the lyrics reflect a lone soul in a strange land, the structure and delivery resonate with confidence and strength not the fear or insecurity often associated with loneliness. Freeway was the next album choice, and from it came “Ask for More”. Fashioned with meandering instrumentation and an ethereal feel, this one comforted listeners and drew the room even more. Surprisingly, this would be the only number off of Brown’s latest creation.
Described as an homage to Loretta Lynn as “one of our earliest feminists, trying to find her way in a man’s industry”, “In My Mind I Was Talkin’ To Loretta” from Brown’s 2007 Remember the Sun got the next slot and this one was met with resounding applause. The music itself certainly embodied more country swagger than the preceding dream state constructs, reflecting the versatility of Brown, and by the whistles and catcalls, the audience was feeling the shift in attitude as well.
Morphing again, “Butterfly Blues” brought the room back into reflection, the character stranded between being caught and feeling the need to be let loose, unsure of either. The sweet steady delivery settled the crowd again into listening mode and the crowd took in Brown’s infectious ballad. With the opening line I’m going out to Colorado, “No Not Me” grabbed everyone’s attention and prompted the expected reaction with the locale reference. The mountains serving as a backdrop, the lines evoked the ideals of travel and wander, alone on the road with someone left behind but still in the heart, searching for the truth of experience.
Closing the set with a sing-along, “Street Tracker” was the song of choice. With the resonant chorus “I don’t wanna, don’t wanna go home”, the audience fell right in line on this one, inebriated by the storyline of freedom that coincides with being liberated from the mundane and the passion that bubbles up through the novelty of existing in the moment.
In the end, Pieta’s devices move the spirit and stimulate the mind. Her lyrical take is accessible and open to the interpretation of the listener. Her use of imagery flashes enough meaning to set one adrift, but the observation and focus is left wholly up to those taking the journey. Liz Draper was the perfect choice for accompaniment, with a heart as open as her ears, her exacting execution supported the feeling of every moment and gave a solid foundation to the whisper and scribe of Pieta.
With a short intermission and keeping everything right on time, Ani DiFranco hit the stage promptly at 8:30. Under a deafening welcome and touting that permanent impish grin she wears oh so well, Ani stepped to the mic and without a word, launched into “Shy” from her 1995 Not A Pretty Girl album. Thumping and bumping, the driving groove got everybody loose from the get go and Ani’s vocals flowed strong and on point. At the song’s end, Ani addressed the crowd: Alright, perfect. You have all taken well to the instruction so far. Hello beautiful people! Psyched! Wow! Whew! Are we still up there? How the f*&k far above sea level are we now?!?!?! Where’s my rope? Anyway, I’m psyched to be back in this room, this is an awesome room. I got my friend Todd and my friend Terrance with me. We got more rock and roll songs from back in the day. We figured if we get to play your nice tight room...
Under a rowdy fanfare of acknowledgment, old school fan favorite “Napoleon” kept the nostalgia trip going. Sounding as fresh as it did when it was first played in the mid-nineties, this rendition got many singing along, others listening, while everyone in the room was having a noticeably great time.
Loving to talk to the crowd as much as playing for them, Ani paused again:
This is a weird setlist tonight. A bunch of anti-singles. How much do we love Pieta Brown and Liz Draper? But anyway, here’s one to round out your trilogy from back in the day. Don’t get too comfortable.
“You Had Time” from the 1994 release Out of Range, made good on the trifecta promise and showed that Ani still has the chops to go full throttle as well as to restrain into the gentile. By the end of this one, Ani was jumping around the stage and having as much fun as those she was performing for. Changing it up yet again, the soul funk groove of “Do or Die” had everyone getting down and listening up. From Terence’s steady shuffle to sweet organ fills from Todd on the keyboard, Ani’s lyrics and inflection bounced right over the top as the trio kept everyone moving.
Switching from the keys back to the bass, Todd stood at attention waiting for Ani’s cue, the two coming in on the first deep note of “Dilate”, leveling the crowd and shaking the balcony. Following yet another early work, Ani pulled a piece from her 2017 Binary release in “Alrighty”, a song yet to be played on this tour. The lyrics challenge ideas about organized religion and a male god figure and instead point to the fact that the status quo only imprisons vision and creation. At its end, Ani stated satirically,” Christianity is cool and everything, but……I think we can do better”, setting fire to the audience.
“Swan Dive” started Ani front and center for the first stanza, Todd and Terence waiting at the ready for their moment to throw in. The upbeat pop and rock of the form had most up on their feet, the bridge had everyone joining in on the lyrics, and by the end Ani had the room roused with energy.
Slowing it all down with the blues, “Bad Dream” played nicely in the wake of the high energy of the preceding piece. This one really showcased how apparent Ani’s diverse love of the craft of singing is. As far as published works go, this one appears on her 2021 release Revolutionary Road and would be the newest tune presented in the set.
Introduced as a song about New Orleans, “Zizzing” spun the room with its repetitive descending line and its Big Easy illustrations and was followed with “a reward for being gracious listeners”, with another old school favorite and animated “Two Little Girls”. This one from the Little Plastic Castle album got some wah treatment from Ani at the midway point, charging the lyrical intonation even more. The end contained a big finish that had Todd belting out the lowest of notes while Terence punched the toms and bass drums.
Ani fired up “Allergic to Water” and before she got to the poetic reading, she commented, “Someone wants to hear this. There’s one in every crowd”, stimulating laughter throughout the spectators. Probably the shortest of the night, this one still rang true with the usual combo of great words and chords and demonstrated the soulful dynamic of the multidimensional creator that draws her fans in.
Dialing up “In or Out” from her 1992 album Imperfectly, this one was yet another high paced exercise and the crowd recognized it from the first few notes and burst with appreciation.
Seeing Ani in concert, she often fills the spaces between with social commentary or personal observations, but on Sunday, by her own admission, she seemed devoid of words, but still had a lot to say:
I don’t know what to say tonight. I guess I’m not saying much. Anybody else got anything to say? I guess this is not as effective if you don’t have a microphone. I love you back. It was a long f*&king pandemic. And I tell you, thanks for being here when I did come back. I don’t know about you, but I just couldn’t get my sh*t together in the pandemic. I was like I will learn Spanish…. and piano. I’ll learn Spanish piano. I’ll do yoga every day. I learned how to drink even better. I’m not proud of it, I’m not proud. It’s a process, steps on the path, steps on the path. I will tell you one thing: I didn’t write a single ding dang song. I was just like, I don’t know….like many of us, maybe like is it over? Is that all over? It just stops now? What happens? But then, it was finally okay to leave the house and gather again and foosh, foosh, foosh, foosh, here come the songs so thank you, the elusive you, because I learned, without you, I am not just into it…..why?
“Animal” followed and with its statements on consumerism, the chains of limited thinking, and the human impact on the global environment, it’s powerful message of encouragement to reflect on being the human animal and being aware of the effect we perpetuate on the world around had the crowd silenced, taking the personal implications to heart.
Before starting “Genie”, Ani shared that “the only criteria for tonight’s set was we didn’t play it last time we were here”, adding to the excitement of the room that was already fully taking everything in that the band was dishing out and asking for more. Terence got a moment to shine in the spotlight, doling out an impressive drum improv for a multitude of minutes while Ani, Todd, and everyone else egged him on. Swiveling from the kit to accoutrement, he dug in deep and loud.
Following a big thanks to the opener and crew, Ani initiated “Joyful Girl”. Another early one on her career spectrum, the mantra here is keeping that inner joy regardless of the outer perspective or difficulties that life brings.
Celebrating 25 years as an album this year, the title track off of Little Plastic Castle got the closing set slot. Certainly, as one of the most popular of Ani’s songs, this choice became the biggest sing along for the evening.
Returning for the encore under a deafening request, the band came out with “Fire Door” off of Ani’s first album Ani DiFranco, dating back to 1990, making it the oldest song of the night. Bringing everyone back down to earth after the upbeat energy of “Fire Door”, the ballad “Hypnotized” tucked everyone in for the night. At its end, the crowd certainly wasn’t going to allow the band to leave on a melancholy note and called out for one more, resulting in a second encore, something that is not the typical format of Ani’s sets. To the participants’ satisfaction, another heater in “Shameless” got shared. This early favorite had everyone grooving and, at its close, shouting out for more until the house lights came up and everyone finally knew that another great evening had come to an end.
The single set closed at a little over ninety minutes and nineteen songs, most heralding from Ani’s early career and creations. The messages of tolerance, awareness, and humanity were as genuine as they ever have been through this author’s eyes and emotions and it was refreshing that many are still showing up to get refilled with this soundtrack of the soul. If this evening is any indicator, fans are still willing to travel for miles, not for a gimmick or a jam, but for the sincerity and skill that is the end product of this hard-working woman of eternal creativity. Lyrically, it is impressive to conceive just how many lyrics Ani has stored on her cerebral hard drive, as nary a chart or a piece of tech could be seen on stage to direct or remind her of all the poetic renderings she spouts, further signifying that what she produces comes from deep within and is truly a part of her. As far as the company she keeps, Todd and Terence are the perfect fit and the trinity sounded well-rehearsed, alive, and fresh, showing no signs of running through the motions or mailing it in. As a fellow human being, thank you for what you do, Ms. DiFranco. The world is a better, more positive place with you in it.