By Eleni P. Austin
If you google, like, “Top 10 Live Records,” the usual suspects pop up: Aretha Franklin Live At The Fillmore, The Rolling Stones Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, The Who Live At Leeds, Johnny Cash Live At Folsom Prison, Bob Marley Live, Peter Frampton Frampton Comes Alive, Cheap Trick Live At Budokan, The Ramones It’s Alive and assorted Grateful Dead entries. All great choices, but for my money, the cognoscenti have missed a few: Elvis Costello Live At Hollywood High, Greg Brown The Live One, Joni Mitchell Miles Of Aisles, Rick Nelson In Concert At The Troubadour, David Bowie Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles 74) and most importantly, Ani DiFranco’s Living In Clip. Not only is Ani’s label, Righteous Babe Records, releasing a 25th anniversary edition of this seminal effort (available on vinyl for the very first time ever), but she’s also on touring behind it, as well as last year’s Revolutionary Love album, and has lined up a show at Pappy & Harriet’s on June 19. (Prayers do work!)
Living In Clip originally appeared in the Spring of 1997. Ani had been writing and recording music via her own Righteous Babe label since 1990. The Buffalo native had been earning her keep as a musician since her teens. Founding her own label (with her manager Scot Fisher) at age 20, was just one of Ani’s early acts of audacity. She relocated to New York City at 18, jumpstarting her musical career by playing clubs, dive bars, open mic nights and women’s (womyn’s) festivals. Unapologetically bi-sexual, and occasionally sporting a shaved head and tattoos, her music was a nuanced Punk/Folk hybrid. Early on, she crisscrossed the country myriad times in her trusty VW Bug, armed with only her acoustic guitar and an arsenal of killer songs. Selling her self-recorded tapes after her shows gave her the impetus to start her label.
Her records arrived at a furious clip, beginning In 1990 with her self-titled debut. Between 1991 and 1993, she Followed up with Not So Soft, Imperfectly and Puddle Dive. Although her songs were uniformly great; aural snapshots that offered (to paraphrase James Joyce) portraits of the artist as a young, cynically optimistic babe, her music seemed more at home on the road than in the studio. The live setting allowed Ani to truly connect with her growing fan-base. Be it small club, coffee house, theater or dive bar, on stage she could share her sly sensibility, her queer perspective and her indefatigable charm. Many a die-hard fan was born the first time they experienced an Ani show.
That all changed with her next three records. Out Of Range, Not A Pretty Girl and Dilate formed a triptych of sorts, rivaling game-changing threesomes like Joni Mitchell’s Blue, For The Roses and Court And Spark and David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy: Low, Heroes and Lodger. Recorded between 1994 and 1996, each of those efforts signaled a huge leap forward, especially Dilate, which detailed a doomed love affair with a married man.
Recorded live between late 1995 and throughout 1996, Living In Clip showcased the Dilate songs and everything that came before. After years of playing alone, Ani had recently enlisted drummer Andy Stochansky and legendary bassist Sara Lee (Gang Of Four, Robert Fripp, Robyn Hitchcock, B-52s, indigo girls) to flesh out her live sound.
A double album, the 31-song set opens with the one-two punch of “Whatever” and “Whenever,” which flow, one into the other, a mix of ambient loops, roaring crowd sounds and Andy’s percussive kick. All told, both songs clock in at under two minutes total, punctuated by Ani’s starry-eyed spoken observation; “man, this is so fucking weird, it’s unbelievable,” followed by her braying (but endearing) guffaw.
Everything really kicks into with a new number, “Gravel,” which made an official appearance on her next studio album, Little Plastic Castle. Ani’s muscular acoustic strumming is bookended by Andy’s tribal tattoo Caustic lyrics immediately put an overconfident suitor in his place; “You’ve been juggling two women, like some stupid circus clown, telling us both we are the one, and maybe you can keep me from ever being happy, but you’re not going to keep me from having fun.” She equivocates a bit on the chorus; “and oh, oh, let me count the ways that I abhor you, and you were never a good lay, and you were never a good friend, but, oh, oh, what can I say, I adore you,” but on her terms.
Hopscotching across North America, Ani played several tracks off the newly released Dilate including the gently confrontational opening cut, “Untouchable Face,” which features the best expletive-laden chorus in history; “fuck you, and your untouchable face!” Then there’s the rollicking sorry/not sorry adultery apologia of “Shameless,” the dour recrimination of “Adam And Eve,” and “Napoleon” her excoriating take on the music business.
For her hometown date, Ani recruited the Buffalo Philharmonic, conducted by Doc Severinsen and they reworked a couple of classics, “Both Hands” and heartfelt spiritual, “Amazing Grace.” The former opens with a majestic overture, all woodwinds brass and swirly strings, before Ani crashes the party with her staccato riff-age. Deft lyrics fan the flames of a dying romance with the kind of specificity and rich detail that had become her hallmark; “I am walking out in the rain and I am listening to the low moan of the dial tone again, and I am getting nowhere with you, and I can’t let go and I can’t get through/The old woman behind the pink curtains and the closed door on the first floor, she is listening through the air shaft to see how long our swan song can last, and both hands, now use both hands, oh no, don’t close your eyes, I am writing graffiti on your body, I am drawing the story of how hard we tried.”
While intimacy and casual carnality characterize “Both,” the latter charts an expansive and inclusive course that Is sacred and spiritual, and side-steps piety. Ani’s tremulous vocals are front and center, offering up the first verse acapella. As the orchestra swells, the arrangement, from the thunking beat, to the brass fanfare and the willowy woodwinds, hug the hairpin turns of her Jazz-inflected vocals. As the arrangement gathers steam it builds to a stunning crescendo before powering down.
The best tracks here simply use the studio versions of her songs as a blueprint, expanding and contracting arrangements and instrumentation as needed and always remaining in the moment. On “Shy,” (originally found on Not A Pretty Girl), her jittery guitar riffs and Andy’s walloping beat perfectly accentuate her agitated state, as she chronicles an infatuation that ends in assignation; “The door opens, the room winces, the housekeeper comes in without a warning, and I squint at the muscular motel lady and say ‘hi, good morning,’ and she jumps, her keys jingle, and she leaves as quick as she came in, and I roll over and taste the pillow with my grin/Well, the sheets are twisted and tangled, and the heat is so great, and I swear I can feel the mattress sinking underneath your weight, oh sleep is like a fever and I’m glad when it ends, and the road flows like a river and pulls me around every bend.” The erotic frisson of the song is palpable, leaving the listener breathless.
Then there’s “32 Flavors” off the same record. Here she jettisons the frilly percussion of the studio version, and strips it to the bone, just her warm and meandering guitar chords brushing up against Andy’s rhythmic lilt. An impassioned declaration of independence, upon release, it became a rallying cry for women’s sports teams, feminists and anyone feeling marginalized or invisible. The opening couplet says it all; “Squint your eyes and look closer, I’m not between you and your ambition, I am a poster girl with no poster, I am 32 flavors and then some, and I’m beyond your peripheral vision, so you might want to turn your head, cause someday you are going to get hungry, and eat all of the words you just said.”
Dipping back to her self-titled debut, she offers up an infectious take of “Fire Door” that is almost giddy. Ricocheting guitar riffs pinball off Andy’s hiccoughing backbeat as lyrics limn her earliest NYC experiences. Although her vocal delivery is rat-a-tat on the album, here she’s almost caressing quiet confidences like; I open the fire door to four lips, none of which were mine, kissing, tightened my belt around my hips where your hands were missing, and stepped out into the cold, collar high, under the slate gray sky, the air was smoking and the streets were dry and I wasn’t joking when I said goodbye.” Following the bridge, she inserts a bit of “Amazing Grace” and her gossamer vocals simply float above the boingy arrangement, and really, how sweet the sound.
Announcing “here’s a little, a snippet of the Lil Folksinger at 18.” She waxes nostalgic about trans sex workers (“they’re purty…”) and crime-scene tape outside her building, as she launches into an effervescent rendition of “Out Of Habit.” Rippling guitar riffs are her only accompaniment as she sketches out a sharp charcoal portrait of this kid fending off unwanted male attention, earning her random open mic nights and battling the anxiety and ennui of making art; “The butter melts out of habit, you know the toast isn’t even warm, the waitress and the man in the plaid shirt play out a scene they’ve played so many times before, I am watching the sun stumble home in the morning from a bar on the east side of town, and the coffee is just water dressed in brown.”
“Anticipate,” an urgent ode to delayed gratification, is lean, unfussy and endlessly Funky, thanks in part to Sara’s commanding boogie-oogie bass lines. Originally Folky and acoustic, “In Or Out” is transformed into a propulsive Rocker that offers a blisteringly funny treatise on sexual politics. Equally heartbreaking and empowering, “Letter To John” is balls out (ahem, ovaries out) and defiant, powered by Andy’s kinetic percussion, Ani’s slashing riffs and her truculent mien.
Finally, there’s a fractious and flirty mash-up of her fierce spoken-word volley, “The Slant” that folds into the righteous stomp of “The Diner.” Furious, frenetic, mordant and measured, this trio locks into percolating groove, stretching out like a jam band and reining it in with precision and grace. It closes out with some playful and extemporaneous call and response from Ani and Andy that’s simply thrilling.
The live set also serves up a smattering of spoken word, like the epochal “Tip Toe” and wry anecdotes (that sometimes go nowhere) on “Distracted,” “Travel Tips” and “We’re All Gonna Blow.” Other interesting tracks include the pugnacious “Willing To Fight,” the self-effacing “I’m No Heroine,” the world-weary “Every State Line,” and the contrite “Sorry I Am.” The set closes with a spare and eloquent rendition of “Overlap.”
25 years ago, “Living In Clip” served as a gateway drug for millions of Ani acolytes, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the “Lil Folksinger” at her best. Sly, reflective, subversive, self-deprecating, Soulful, impish, political, passionate, humble, exultant. She holds the listener in the palm of her hand. She is skillfully abetted by her partners in crime, Andy and Sara, whose crack musicianship lifts the entire proceedings to a different astral plane.
Ani confidently sums it up best, explaining her enduring joie de vivre in the winsome and aptly titled “Joyful Girl;” “I do it for the joy it brings, cause I am a joyful girl, cause the world owes me nothing, we owe each other the world/I do it cause it’s the least I can do, I do it because I learned it from you, I do it because I want to….I just want to.” (The Living In Clip reissue is newly remastered and includes a beautiful photo gallery. The vinyl edition is a three LP set on 180g heavyweight red smoke vinyl) (Ani DiFranco with special guests Rainbow Girls Sunday, June 19th at Pappy & Harriet’s 6:30pm doors/7:30pm show) pappyandharriets.com.