Her right hand attacks the strings of her weathered acoustic guitar, and you feel sorry for them. Press-on nails are wrapped in layers of black electrical tape, five plectrums held in place like some bizarre bionic implant, and she's not exactly caressing or cajoling a reaction from those much-maligned wires.
Everything you need to know about Ani DiFranco is in that right hand, a claw with talons that knows no mercy. She came to play, and play hard; this is not your father's folk music.
"Trust" is DiFranco's new DVD, out today, and it's aptly named. Go to a DiFranco show and have no doubt exactly what you're going to get -- plenty of that merciless yet still subtly virtuosic guitar playing, songs brimming with ideological fury and moral outrage, more songs that cast a withering eye both inward and outward, and still more that sneak with stealth into the dusty nooks and crannies of love relationships, walking the wire between that sublime emotion and its more earthly counterpart.
There is a bond of trust between DiFranco and her worldwide cult audience, and "Trust" is far more than a concert documentary; it is in fact a filmic delineation of that bond. And it manages to capture some serious butt-kicking along the way, with nary an electric guitar or wall of Marshall stacks in sight.
Filmed over two nights at Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 Club in May of this year, under the watchful verite eye of renowned photographer and filmmaker Danny Clinch, "Trust" is grainy, gritty and beautiful.
Part of its considerable charm lies in the way it refuses to turn DiFranco into an icon by airbrushing and editing her into some larger-than-life representative of alternative music feminisim. Clinch does not lionize his subject, but rather, allows her artistry to dictate the flow of his film. Thus, shots of backstage rehearsals with DiFranco, her upright bassist Todd Sickafoose and guest guitarist Tony Scherr meld seamlessly with multi-angle renderings of her on-stage performance with the same sort of guts and grace laid to tape by the grandaddy of all rock documentarians, D.A. Pennebaker and his Bob Dylan slice of life, "Don't Look Back."
Cinema verite is premised on the notion that, to borrow a few lines from Bruce Springsteen, "the poets down here don't write nothin' at all/they just sit back and let it all be," and that's just what Clinch does throughout "Trust."
Thanks to his ability to get out of his own way, Clinch provides us with a piece that, for viewers unfamiliar with DiFranco -- though, let's face it, this thing is a gift for the fans, and one doubts too many first-timers will stumble upon it -- gives insight into the artist's personality without beating them over the head with it.
DiFranco probably wouldn't dig the above Springsteen reference -- "Bruce is a great guy, but he's definitely mainstream," DiFranco told me once, and in her lexicon, that word isn't exactly employed as a compliment. It's fitting, nonetheless, for DiFranco's music, stripped of its alternative clothing, is essentially a form of pure folk music. The sort represented by those old Alan Lomax field recordings, early Folkways stuff, Woody Guthrie riding the rails and singing the people's songs back to them, though they'd never written them down themselves. As radical as DiFranco's music can be, she is still part of a tradition. Mainstream, slipstream, estuary -- whatever. It's, in a very real sense, populist music.
Still, by the time you've digested the opening sequence featuring "Educated Guess," and then segued through "Origami," you realize that DiFranco has her own take on just what "populist" means. Clinch's multi-camera attack, the spot-on, left-of-center editing, the startlingly intimate 5.1 surround sound, all are subservient to one thing: DiFranco's songs, her syncopated snarl evolving into a throaty, elegant soulful full voice on the long notes (you wish she'd do just a touch more of that), her abusively beautiful guitar style piling plenty of rhythmic bedrock for Sickafoose to lay over with melodic brickwork, her breathy, rapturous delight as she discovers her own songs in front of a live audience yet again.
One would be remiss in failing to emphasize the lyrics in DiFranco's songs, for they are clearly a healthy portion of her craft. This is personal stuff writ large and butted right smack up against the broadly political and social. But DiFranco has always made it clear that for her, the personal is political -- and vice versa. That's why she can dress down the male of the species in a tune like "Origami," and even the men in the audience will be smiling -- Clinch caught a few doing just that -- or lay a socio-political discourse like "Grand Canyon" on listeners and they'll still feel it in the marrow of their bones as somehow "the truth," if even only for the moment. Doubtless, many DiFranco fans feel it for much longer than that.
At one point, congressman and former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich introduces DiFranco at one of the two 9:30 Club shows. Kucinich seems to understand the symbiosis between music, the world around it, and the oh-so-necessary connective tissue an artist like DiFranco provides. He's an idealist in the true sense of the term, and so is DiFranco, if we accept that such a person puts ideals before practicality or pragmatism.
Clinch's genius with "Trust" is that he captures the humanity and artistry behind that idealism. DiFranco might be called "the l'il folksinger," but she has clearly tapped into some of the big ideas.
Directed by Danny Clinch
Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of four)