The crowd packed into Portland’s Wonder Ballroom on November 9th like a can of sardines, all trying to maneuver their way into a good sightline of the stage. Ani DiFranco has long held a cult following, nurturing devoted fans with folk music that feels both outspoken and deeply personal. In Portland she has a huge fanbase, which made it surprising that she would play such an intimate venue, inevitable selling it out within days. Luckily, nobody seemed too worried about being squished and uncomfortable, instead savoring the moment of getting to see an artist who is an icon to many.
Perhaps not surprisingly, DiFranco’s set leaned heavily on her new album Binary. The music on Binary finds the songwriter embracing a sound that is more soulful and reflective of her New Orleans home, compared to the activist folk that made her such a draw in the 90s. With the help of her band, which consists of mega-talented New Orleans musicians like Terrence Higgins and Ivan Neville, DiFranco would inject a laid back funky groove into songs like “Almighty”, “Zizzing”, “Deferred Gratification”, and “Binary”. These songs were more danceable than her older material and found the audience moving along to the funky stylings of Neville’s keyboard playing. The album’s title track was the strongest new song of the night with a loose and expansive group jam and soulful harmonies.
Though the new songs seemed to go over well, DiFranco, like many artists who struck a nerve in the Nineties, couldn’t escape without offering her fans a healthy dose of nostalgia. Songs like “Swan Dive” – inspired by a lesbian hangout in Portland according to the singer – “Napoleon”, and “Gravel” led to sing-a-longs amongst the mostly female audience. In 2017 these songs lacked a bit of the edge that made them resonate so much decades ago and made DiFranco such a powerful activist voice. Though the subject matter of these songs – injustice and women’s rights – is still painfully relevant, there are far louder voices. DiFranco – a lifelong activist – didn’t bother getting too political in between songs, aware that she would be preaching to the choir and happy to let the music speak for itself. The gleeful reception given to her best known songs proved they still hold a personal place in the hearts of many. By the end of the set, DiFranco had struck a proper balance between her new material and her fan-pleasing Nineties catalogue. The set also served as a reminder of how, even if it has softened over the years, Ani DiFranco’s music and message still remains a vital voice for those who are marginalized.