The Righteous Babe and the Bluesman

Ani DiFranco and Keb Mo

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Long ago, before anyone really knew who she was, Ani DiFranco made a bold pronouncement: to never sign a record deal. Although she could not possibly have known it then, it was a resolution that would shape her entire musical life.

It’s also a pretty self-possessed decision for an 18-year-old to make.

Now 43 years old and in the midst of a rich and varied career as a musician, DiFranco’s teenaged vow has served her well.

It’s probably worth mentioning that by the time DiFranco decided to eschew traditional label support, she may have been young, but she was no musical neophyte. She was playing Beatles covers at local bars and busking in her hometown of Buffalo, New York at the age of nine, was performing her own original material at 14, became an emancipated minor and moved into her first apartment at 15 and graduated from high school at 16.

At an age when most of us are registering to vote and registering for our freshman year of college, DiFranco was starting her own record label, Righteous Records, for the purpose of releasing her first album. The label evolved along with the artist, eventually becoming Righteous Babe Records, and the house DiFranco built was more than generous enough to contain the musician’s expansive vision.

Because being independent—in more than just label affiliation—has suited DiFranco exceedingly well. With her distinctive vocal style (part singing, part spoken word), distinctive guitar style (frantic finger-picking, alternate tunings), distinctive lyrics (naked emotion, clever wordplay) and outspoken politics (progressive, grassroots), it’s highly likely that had she taken the traditional route, DiFranco either would’ve had to bend all of the above to the whims of her record label in the name of perceived marketability or she would’ve refused to do so and been chewed up and spit out by a music industry not built to understand her appeal.

That appeal is real, and it can be measured in the large number of exceedingly devoted fans the musician has earned, fans that have remained steadfast and loyal as she’s barnstormed her way through genres ranging from folk to alternative rock to jazz to funk to that which cannot be easily defined. She’s shared stages with Pete Seeger, recorded songs with Prince and Cindy Lauper, jammed with Maceo Parker and enlisted rapper Corey to perform on one of her albums (and performed on one of his). She sang a duet with Greg Dulli, produced a track with Margaret Cho, and had one of her poems covered by Chuck D. And all that is just a taste of what she’s accomplished during her nearly quarter-century-long career.

Is it possible she could’ve done all that on a regular record label? Not hardly likely.

Although her self-made musical pedigree is certainly striking, DiFranco’s fans don’t necessarily flock to her because of her penchant for creative collaboration or her unwillingness to be confined by strict genre constraints. And while they may be impressed by her Grammy or the fact that she’s recorded and released 20 albums, that’s not what keeps them coming back for more. DiFranco’s allure is more elemental than that. Simply put: she speaks to people.

If you’ve ever been in deeply love, ever had your heart brutally broken, ever been righteously indignant, ever felt wholly empowered or ever been made to feel small, DiFranco has written a song for you. Granted, that song may be so raw, might lay things so bare that you will have a tough time hearing it, but unlike the pain of lost love, DiFranco’s music hurts so good. Long before Taylor Swift came along with her saccharine breakup songs, DiFranco had the market cornered when it comes to crafting the perfect soundtrack for surviving the pain of heartbreak.

Even after all that, if you still think DiFranco is your standard-issue girl with a guitar, it’s probably worth a mention that the price of admission to her Wed., Feb. 26 show at the Mount Baker Theatre includes complimentary earplugs, as things are expected to get a little loud. While it is not uncommon for earplugs to be dispensed at places like the Shakedown and Cabin Tavern, such a thing is quite a bit more rare at the Baker.

But before the Righteous Babe rolls through town, a musician of another, but no less distinguished kind, will appear at the Mount Baker Theatre.

Keb Mo, who is well on his way to becoming a legendary bluesman (if he is not one already), will play a show at the theater on Sat., Feb. 22. Mo’s sound is steeped in the Mississippi Delta, and his performances are infused with his trademark high-energy style. The bluesman may have gotten start playing in a calypso band, but he’s made a career—one that’s included three Grammy awards—out of channeling Robert Johnson, who he calls his greatest influence. I guess if you’re going to pick a blues musician to aspire to, you can hardly shoot higher than Johnson.

Not content to merely play the blues, Mo has become a sort of unofficial blues ambassador. He helped Martin Scorsese pull together his Blues series of films, played Johnson in a documentary about the Delta blues legend, has helped to compose music for the television series Memphis Beat, and even appeared as himself on The West Wing as a performer at an inaugural ball. If he’s good enough for the (fictional TV) president, Mo should be more than good enough for even the most discerning of Bellingham audiences.

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