Ani DiFranco has achieved that rarest of exactas in the live arena. Nearly 2 1/2 years ago, at the downtown Mayan, she delivered what could only be described as a perfect concert, one that demonstrated an evolution in songwriting and a command of the stage — a real eye-opener to a true talent. She returned Tuesday to the larger Universal — she played there on her last tour in July — and improved on that groundbreaking performance, adding new sonic textures and a broader writing style while retaining that winning charisma. Outside of Morphine, the rejuvenated Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett and a handful of other 1990s acts, that sort of evolution hasn’t been seen.
Her development is not unlike that of Bruce Springsteen, who honed his style in about the same number of years but on far fewer albums than DiFranco. He made his voice essential for his fans just as DiFranco has, but she has done it without corporate backing or publicity, running her own label, Righteous Babe Records, with Scot Fisher; they’re now to the point where the message reaches several thousand people per night, making her feat that much more impressive.
With acoustic guitar still at the core, DiFranco has expanded her band by a trumpet and a saxophone to bring jazzy elements on a steady basis. Folk music’s marriage with jazz extends back to the 1960s when the likes of Tim Hardin, Terry Collier, Tim Buckley and others found possibilities in the music’s tender side.
DiFranco, for the most part, has turned toward its aggressiveness, incorporating sounds that would otherwise only be heard in New Orleans brass bands and black funk acts.
Funk, the real stuff from the early 1970s, gives this folksinger a new root as well as a springboard that she can return to again and again. The influence of last year’s touring partner, the former James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker, has had a distinct effect and influenced at least half of her latest disc, “To the Teeth,” much of which was performed Tuesday.
Her voice has improved, too, to the point where the show’s centerpiece — in the midst of a wordy dancing ‘hood — is one of the quietest moments of 90 -minute show. “Angry Anymore,” from her other 1999 disc, the peaceful “Up Up Up Up Up Up,” is performed sweetly with the backing of just keyboardist Julie Wolf’s accordion and DiFranco’s softly strummed guitar. It’s an improvement on the banjo-heavy recorded version and in many ways encapsulates the shift in DiFranco’s approach to lyrics — rather than just barking, she takes a deep breath and attempts to understand what’s underneath the bark.
Her uniqueness has long been in her approach to lovers who ask their way back into her life and the reaction to them. She handles those emotional rushes with a string of logical thoughts followed by a focus on the mundane or the outrageous in a stream of conscious verse. It gets so remarkably personal that she had to ask members of the audience to stop singing along Tuesday, even chiding them at one point “this is not a guy you want to be pining for.”
The evening was framed in two of “To the Teeth’s” dramatic numbers, beginning with the circus metaphor of “Freakshow” and closing with the title track, an overly simplistic broadside on gun-toting teens that ends with an attack on Hollywood and the suggestion that she and her friends will move fear-free to Canada to die of old age. In between, DiFranco alternated between tight, spin-on-a-dime funk riffs and darkly evocative folk music, sometimes even in the same song. She’s come a considerable distance from her bold work of the early 1990s that fed off a sexual ambiguity that helped her develop a significant lesbian following and even lost fans when she started identifying the sex of her lover in song.
DiFranco’s certain to turn off folk traditionalists with this danceable music but she never loses sight of where she has been, sticking the chorus of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” in the middle of a swinging bass solo. (In May, Righteous Babe will issue a Guthrie tribute disc). Through all of it, she performs with such a sense of glee that she appears to be happier than she has ever been. And that, in the long run, is what will win over the masses.