Note: My friend Leila reminded me that Ani Difranco is playing in Portland tonight at the Wonder Ballroom. My wife and I haven’t seen her live in many years and the last time we were so frustrated by the rude crowd that we just stopped going. Work conflicts meant we couldn’t have gone tonight even if I’d remembered in time to buy tickets. But the occasion did bring about a wave of nostalgia for the best Ani concert experience I ever had. So I dug this story out of Livejournal. It’s been slightly edited for spelling and grammar but is largely untouched from the original version, which was published August 20th, 2006.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever had this fantasy:
Let’s say you have an interest or a hobby like, tennis. You play a few times a week, maybe a tournament here or there. You’re no Venus, but you love the game and never miss a chance to see your favorites play. Perhaps you occasionally visualize Anna Kournikova standing stumped on the other side of the court as she belated turns her head to see your 100mph serve flying by. Or whatever. Maybe you’re even obsessed enough that you saved up your sheckles and went to Wimbledon one year, or the U.S. Open–and secretly hoped that Serena would twist her ankle on the court in a crucial doubles match, leaving Venus without a partner to finish the match. Her eyes would search the crowd and land, unbelievably, on you. You turn and look at the person behind you, but when you turn back, she’s still looking at you and her eyes are saying, “Well, do you got game or don’t you?”
And then you wake up and go to work.
That’s how I feel when I go to concerts. Doesn’t matter if it’s big or small, signed artist or local favorite–secretly, or not so secretly, I’m waiting for someone to get laryngitis so I can go up and save the day. Preferably when this happens, it’s a band with multiple singers–I do love to harmonize. I’m that person at the Sweet Honey concert who’s trying not to sing too loudly behind you because I actually do understand that you paid your hard earned money to hear them and not me. But I’m still warming up–just in case.
Things have been pretty hectic lately, so I didn’t have time to brush up on some of my old and new school Ani Difranco favorites before Jess and I went to the concert on Tuesday night. The tickets were a birthday present from my mom, back in May. In a move of stunningly uncharacteristic pre-planning, she bought the tickets at least a month before my actual birthday–and then enjoyed torturing me with the knowledge that my present was already in existence and she had no intention of telling me before the appointed time.
When I finally opened them, I was duly impressed. There may even have been a small squee of delight. I had seen that she was coming, but I’ve been trying to be good this year and pay off debts and wasn’t sure I could afford to go.
Now the time was at hand.
Gone are the days when I was willing to show up three hours early to claw my way to a front row seat at a general admission show. It’s just another ever-growing list of signs that I’m officially OLD now. I still manage a good amount of healthy denial though, as evidenced by my Laser Tag 35th birthday party. But I digress. Jess and I enjoyed a nice dinner with mom and we arrived at the Aladdin Theatre about thirty minutes before show time. The Aladdin is pretty small and intimate anyway, so there aren’t really any bad seats–at least until the tall person sits in front of you.
Before we got into the building, I started running into people I knew. Jai and Andre only had one seat open next to them. My roommate Carrie, and her girlfriend Davina had great seats about 15 rows back on the side, but I hadn’t thought to ask if they were going, much less to save us seats. We ended up in the middle section on the main floor, about ten rows from the back. Still, the view was fine and the sound was great. When we went upstairs to find the bathroom, the balcony had plenty of open seats and no tall people to worry about being in front of us. Jess asked if I wanted to sit up there, but I said no–I wanted to be able to rush the stage.
The opening act was “The Athens Boys Choir” which is not really a choir or boys– rather just one trans boy doing powerful and clever spoken word. You haven’t lived till you’ve heard the gender-bending ode to Sir Mix-A-Lot: Trannie Got Pack.
The intermission was brief and while I was out getting water, I heard the first strains of guitar and lots of screaming. I wasted no time getting back to my seat.
Ani is one of the most prolific musicians recording today and I’m sure I am probably 2-3 CD’s behind. It usually takes a live show to get me hooked on the new stuff anyway, and there are always enough old favorites to satisfy. She opened with a few sure-fire crowd pleasers like Little Plastic Castle and Fuel, that had everyone on their feet, Then she decided to explore a more mellow vibe. No one sat down at first until she said, “Hmm…I was kinda glad to see there were chairs…I’m feelin’ kind of mellow so if you guys feel like using ’em…but if not, that’s cool too.”
There was a general moment of indecision as the people who’d walked up to the stage from seats further back were reluctant to leave. Ani realized what was happening and said, “Oh no…folk singer’s dilemma!” But everyone went back to their seats for a couple of slow songs and then came back when the beat picked up. “I hope I didn’t fuck up anybody’s position,” she joked.
After that, it was an up/down affair. The two girls sitting next to us came back to their seats, squeezing past us, only to leave again during the next song. “Let’s go with them,” I said to Jess. So we squeezed by the two women outside of us and went and stood next to the fourth row.
That was much more like it! We kept standing there even when the tempo slowed again. We figured maybe the audience had a mass case of the flu or something, that so many of them were sitting down–through an Ani concert, even if she had suggested it. There was one other die hard couple behind us and when one of the boring sitters behind us came up and complained that they couldn’t see, we made a pact to stand firm. We took our cue from the little cluster of people in the other aisle who were pressed up right next to the stage, and we moved up too.
Oh my. Now I was leaning on the stage, right next to the speaker and Jess was standing behind me with our compatriots, Melody and Melissa (yeah, I know, it was hard not to make fun of them but hey, we have matching bikes, so we can’t really talk) to our right. Now we could see the spit flying and I could finally make out the words on her t-shirt during guitar changes. It said, SEX: Do it for the kids. A fitting gift from a fan to celebrate her pregnancy of three months. The baby was already on its fourth tour and it wasn’t even out of the womb. That kid is going to have an interesting life. My friend’s 17-year-old daughter, upon hearing the news said, “Aaaaw! I want Ani to be my mom!” Ouch.
Ani said she was still dealing with the mind fuck of taking responsibility for another human life. “My plan is, don’t say anything until they’re three. Just feed ’em stuff.”
These little tidbits were interspersed between a constant stream of old favorites and new soon-to-be-favorites. And all the while, I was wracking my brain for the name of the song I most wanted to hear, which had suddenly escaped me. But when Todd started in on a certain base groove, I knew my song had arrived. I was literally jumping up and down with excitement (being somewhat careful not to step on Jessica’s feet). The song is called Here For Now from the Evolve CD and it’s neck and neck in the race for the title of My Personal Favorite Ani song ever. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same could only be said of three other Ani fans on the planet.
See, with Ani, there’s Before and there’s After. Before was the angry folk singer with a guitar, singing anthems of pissed off lesbians everywhere. After was the smashing of the cocoon, a change as irrevocable as menopause as she threw open the genre doors and ventured into Jazz/R&B/Funk territory and so much more. Hardcore fans don’t always embrace change so well. When To The Teeth came out, I was working at a feminist bookstore and I listened to scores of hardcore long-time fans bemoaning the ‘new Ani’ and her stray from her roots. Me, I was thrilled. I loved it all. And with Swing (the other candidate for most favorite song), I was even able to convert my mom into a fan.
So, while the whole audience was (finally!) standing up again, and everyone was attentive and appreciative, it’s possible I was the only one in the small theatre actually jumping up and down screaming because finally, here was my song.
I settle down as she approached the mic and started to sing:
I bet you’re looking—
“Uh-oh. Do you think we should start with the second verse, or should we do this song traditional?”
Ah, a classic Ani fuck up! Part of the great fun of live shows and one of the reasons I tend to love the live albums so much more. For a prime example, just listen to Swan Dive from the So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter CD. Classic. But no worries. She was already coming back to the mic to start over.
But she just kept playing and no words came out except:
“Hmm. What IS the first verse?”
You’re kidding me, right? Maybe the hormones from pregnancy were getting to her. It was clear from the look on her face that she wasn’t kidding. She had absolutely no idea what words should be coming out of her mouth right now. She looked down at us with a pleading look on her face as if to say, “Do any of you know?”
For those of you playing along at home, Serena is being carried off the court on a stretcher right about now.
If I’d been screaming before, I was completely hysterical now. I wanted to say, “Ani. Honey. Come over here. I can help.” But what came out was “AAAAAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Unfortunately, she was focused exclusively on the hysterical people on the OTHER side of the stage. I saw her nodding to someone to come up on stage and shortly after, a girl who looked to be in her early 20’s crawled up. She walked hesitantly up to Ani, clearly overwhelmed to be so near her idol. But she was shaking her head and putting both hands up as if to say, “Oh no, I don’t have a clue either, but it’s great to be here! Can I touch you?”
I was beside myself at this point, waving and shouting out lyrics now, but she just would not look our way. And that’s when Jess started talking into my ear; “Just go up there. Honey get up there. Just go.” The more she talked, the more it seemed like a good idea to take matters into my own hands. Before I could think too hard, I was pushing myself up onto the stage. I got to my feet. Ani still wasn’t looking my way.
I tapped her on the shoulder and she turned toward me. She didn’t seem upset that I’d arrive uninvited, she just leaned in to hear what I had to say, still playing all the while. I told her the first two lines of the song. She perked up and smiled at me. “I think that’s it!” she said. “What’s after that?”
My brain, which was starting to catch up to events, began to overload at that point. “Um, I don’t know, I’m blanking,” I said. I had sort of figured that hearing the first lines would get her on the right track. I hadn’t really planned past that point. But it was becoming clear what needed to be done. I walked behind her to the other side, closer to the mic and put my hand on her shoulder. “I think I can get you started,” I said. No further words had come to me, but I was never going to get this chance again and I certainly wasn’t going to pass it up. Ani looked dubious, but didn’t stop me when I stepped up to the mic.
I started to sing:
Í bet you’re wondering if you wo-ho-ho-oke today,
just to learn why the caged bird sings.
(Hey, that went well…oh wait I know what’s next!)
I bet you’re wondering if the go-ha-ha-desses
are all crazy or just keeping it interesting
(Dude, you’re singing on stage with Ani Difranco)
Situated slightly outside society
at odds with its odd offerings
(Dude–you’re ONSTAGE WITH ANI FUCKING DIFRANCO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
Time was up. My brain had fully processed what was happening and ceased all higher level function. But it was enough. I was already a rock star. I knew I sounded good, even though I shouldn’t even have had a voice left after all the screaming I’d done. I am so getting laid tonight, I thought, as I turned back to Ani, laughing at my brain freeze.
She was smiling at me and she leaned in to shout in my ear, still playing. How does she do that? I wondered. She wasn’t thinking about it any more than I am thinking about typing this right now. But then that is why she really IS a rock star.
“What’s your name?” she shouted.
I told her. She turned to the mic and said, “Give it up for Kronda.” My brain wasn’t too fried to notice that she said it right– three syllables, as if there was a ‘u’ after the ‘K.’ And give it up, they did.
Well, my work here is done, I thought. I patted Ani on the back as if to say, “You got it from here, kid.” As I walked toward the edge of the stage, I suddenly remembered that I was NEVER EVER going to have this moment again. I stopped and took a moment to throw my arms up in victory in acknowledgment of the screaming crowd. And then I dropped back into the arms of my waiting girlfriend.
Melody and Melissa were going nuts and telling me about the phone pictures they took and promised to send them to me (haven’t gotten them yet). Melody leaned over to me and said, “Dude, you’re gettin’ laid tonight!” I smiled.
My little jump start did its job and Ani got through the song. I sang along and all the words came back to me and I basked in the afterglow of another brief glimpse into the rock star life. The only way it could’ve been better was if I’d had one of my cards:
in my back pocket and handed it to her before leaving the stage. I made them last summer, as a practical joke, after a musician friend of mine forgot the words to one of her songs. I was still working at Kinkos then, and obviously had too much time on my hands, but the joke went over very well. There’s even a brochure, complete with fake PR. (I did mention too much time on my hands right?).
The rest of the show was perfect except during the pregnant pause in a gorgeous spoken word piece when some asshole’s cell phone went off. You could tell Ani was annoyed but she’s a pro–she worked through it and didn’t let it ruin the moment. She finished the set and came out for two encore songs that everyone knew the words to and then it was over.
On our way out of the theatre and in the parking lot and walking back to the car, I got lots of compliments from people on my performance. I won’t lie, part of me just wanted to hang out in the lobby in case anyone wanted an autograph. But I had other business to attend to. Besides, Jai was the only one to ask me, and she was just giving me shit and saying how I’d done it again. Perhaps it’s telling that the response of most of my friends to the news that I’d managed to get onstage with Ani was, “Of course you did.” It’s true that I have a way of wheedling my way onto other people’s stages, but this was above and beyond anything I’d ever done. I’ll probably have to retire from Ani concerts completely since there’s nowhere to go but down after this…
Fame makes a body hungry and everything makes Jess hungry so we went to 24-hour Hotcake house for a breakfast dinner. Periodically it would hit me again, just what I’d done and I’d start giggling hysterically, Fortunately, Jess thought this was cute.
No one at the Hotcake House asked for my autograph.
After sharing a hot cake that was bigger than either of us could eat, we went home to cap off the evening with the inevitable
….fade to black.