with Hamell on Trial
The Plaza Live; Orlando, FL • January 15, 2016
by Jen Cray
In this week that’s seen more death than a wedding commissioned by George R.R. Martin, let’s pause for a moment and appreciate the artists with whom we still share breath. The old adage “Don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” isn’t just a singable line from a Cinderella song, it’s a too true fact of life. Why is David Bowie only getting his first #1 album after his death? Because people tend to either take for granted what is right in front of them, or just not pay any attention at all, until everyone else is. I don’t know about you, but all this death just reminds me to LIVE. In the words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”
And so, Ani DiFranco. Since starting her own label in 1989, at age 18, she has released 18 studio albums, about as many live records, and toured virtually without pause. Known as much for her personal and political lyrics, as for her percussive guitar style that has her pounding and plucking at her instrument with such intensity that she quite literally secures press on nails onto her fingers with electrical tape, DiFranco’s sound is about as punk as folk can get… or so I thought until opening act Hamell on Trial slayed the stage.
He presents an imposing presence, this bald man with the intense gaze and an acoustic guitar that’s been beat to hell and wears the scars proudly, but quickly his wicked sense of humor reveals him as an ally not a threat. Weaving spoken word and comedy into his music, he sings about things like police corruption with breathless verses that go something like “Hey, fuckface, I’m trying to teach my kid to respect authority…. but now I’m just trying to teach him to NOT GET SHOT.” The boldness of his lyrics and the savage way in which he delivers them is more punk rock than most punk rock bands — and he’s just one dude, with an old guitar. Young punks, get schooled.
Before digging into the details about Ani DiFranco’s most recent trip through Orlando, it’s worth noting that this show was a standing room. It’s been years since I’ve seen her perform in a space that didn’t have assigned seats and this vast open, concrete floor brought back a flood of memories of her early years shows. Anytime a show was booked in a seated theater it was an unspoken fact that the moment the lights fell, asses were out of seats and rushing down the aisles to get close to the stage– damn, the security. As years past, fans got older, Ani settled down and had kids, and though the music and mood still moved me, my ass was expected to stay planted in a cushy seat. I found this… frustrating. So, to see a room packed tight full of upright folks jostling closer and closer to the stage — oh, that just warmed my heart.
Looking young and feisty in her signature tank top and cargo pants, DiFranco joined her drummer and upright bassist onstage and opened with “Not a Pretty Girl,” which inspired exactly the kind of ecstatic reaction from the crowd as would be expected (this would be like your favorite band opening with an old hit song off of the album that made them famous). The folksinger was all smiles and laughs as she roared through a generous set of old and new, even playfully teasing herself when she forgot the words to the first song in the encore, “Firedoor.” As an apology for muddling up an old classic, and as if to prove to herself that she could still remember songs penned some 25 years ago, she dove into a passionate rendition of “Both Hands” without missing a beat.
Much has changed in the years since the little folksinger strummed her first string on a Buffalo, NY stage as a teenager and as the world changes so do the songs. When she instructs listeners to “open fire on Mtv” in “To The Teeth,” even she laughs a bit at the line that now is comical (Mtv? Didn’t they use to play music?). Even more poignant is in the song “Happy All The Time” with the line “suffer did Isis/ when mankind started to write.” Before the song’s start, she had to give a bit of a disclaimer: “When I talk about Isis in this next song, I’m talking about the goddess Isis — remember her?… Man, I hate it when people mess with the lyrics of my songs!”
Words may take on new meanings, songs may evolve with time, but one constant that can be relied on is Ani DiFranco, road warrior and raconteur. A must, must, must for your concert bucket list.