By Charlie Landsman
Ani DiFranco and her band, following solo artist Erin McKeown, performed on Wednesday night at Finney Chapel to a less-than-full house. Those who did not come to fill empty seats missed a truly memorable show.
A young, tattooed woman dressed in a sleek pants suit took the Finney Chapel stage on Wednesday. The edges of a tattoo protruded up past her V-Neck. “Who is she?” I thought, as she strapped on a beautiful pearl Les Paul guitar. Little did I know I would soon be downloading the provocative, hard-hitting music of Erin McKeown on my iTunes.
Her first song, an edgy rockabilly tune about cowboys and cocaine, allowed her to show off her technical Travis-picking guitar style and catchy song-writing ability. McKeown’s voice was polished and had a lot of character; she had such a charismatic stage presence that she made a show out of tuning her guitar. She evidently loved to perform and the audience hung on her every word, even when she poked fun at Oberlin. “I wanted to go [here],” said McKeown, “[instead], I went to Brown.”
This unknown talent interacted with the audience like a seasoned veteran. “Since you all applied to Brown, you know that it’s in Providence,” she said before her second song, “I wrote this tune about a strip club in Providence called the Satin Doll. I’d go with a fist full of one dollar bills and hope that the ladies would saddle up to me. They never did.”
McKeown’s lyrics were very provocative and a tad profane, perfectly suited to Oberlin’s audience, who loved every minute of it. The songs off her new album, Hundreds of Lions, frequently referred to strip clubs, drug and alcohol use, and S&M. At one point, a crying baby interrupted her performance. “There are children in the audience?” She said, “Oh Shit! Oh well, I’m just going to do what I had planned on doing.”
McKeown closed her half-hour opening set with a classical American guitar version of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” and got the all of Finney Chapel to sing along. This badass chick-rocker exemplifies the label that signed her, Righteous Babe Records.
After a short intermission, Ani DiFranco took the stage. She looked very fidgety and a tad uncomfortable at first. Her voice was soft-spoken but still engaging. She started her set with a few newer tunes that went almost unrecognized by the audience. “It’s only going to get weirder and more bitter from here,” she said.
DiFranco prefaced each song with a story. One song she wrote about her newborn baby, another she performed at Pete Seeger’s birthday party. In the middle of her set, Difranco played a fast-paced protest song condemning nuclear power. “I wanted to play this song at the Republican National Convention,” she said, “but I had no one to ask. I have to befriend some Republicans.”
At the end of the night, DiFranco played a few up-tempo songs requested by the audience. Seemingly out of nowhere, “the freaky guy in the blue jump suit” danced his way around Finney chapel, and surprisingly, inspired everyone else to get out of their seats and into the aisles. Difranco played a double encore and finished her show with the song 32 Flavors, an audience favorite.
DiFranco is not the world’s greatest singer. She doesn’t have the smooth tone and effortless picking of Erin McKeown. Instead, her guitar work is harsh and staccato. However, while listening to her performance in the beauty of Finney chapel, I didn’t care one bit. Her songs are drenched in personal experience, and her lyrics elevate her art. The haunting dissonance of her music combined with a precise rhythm had me tapping my toes while simultaneously on the verge of tears. One thing is certain: Ani DiFranco is not a pop artist. Her inspiration comes from deep within herself. Though the audience was overwhelmingly female, her lyrics were universal and were spoke to everyone in attendance.
A word of advice to Ms. DiFranco: don’t wait another 17 years to visit again. Come back whenever you’d like.