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Ani, home at Babeville, offers new songs, hits from 'bad old days'

Ani DiFranco will go down in history as one of the pop culture rebels of her time, for her refusal to strike while the fame-and-fortune iron was hot in the mid-'90s and sign to a major label.

But one could argue that the artistic avenues DiFranco has explored since those halcyon days of Spin covers and NFL commercials have been an equally potent form of rebellion -- album after album of music that flew in the face of the "angry girl with a guitar" stereotype so many were eager to saddle her with. From funk bombast to smooth vibraphone jams, bleak tales of disillusionment to awestruck love songs, DiFranco has done what she pleased, no matter how far it distanced her from the persona that made her famous. Which takes at least as much guts as saying no to Chrysalis or whatever.

During her lovingly received set Sunday night in Babeville, this journey continued, beginning with a handful of numbers from "the bad old days," to quote the artist. "Little Plastic Castle" opened to huge cheers, and what sounded like half the crowd singing along. The ensuing "Dilate" made the most of the momentum, with DiFranco slamming power chords on her acoustic, the bass notes trembling like didgeridoos.

These tunes from the most popular phase of her career went over best with the crowd, and while I understand why -- nostalgia, familiarity, a kinetic energy that's still present after all these years -- it was the songs off her last two records (this year's "Which Side Are You On?" and 2008's "Red Letter Year") that were truly remarkable. "Unworry," one of her most elegant and ambitious compositions, worked its syncopated charms, with lyrics about finding peace weaving through thickets of acoustic triplets.

The singer/songwriter acknowledged that some of her fans aren't too keen on where she's at artistically these days. "Here's an antidote, in case all my songs about fidelity and monogamy and relationships make you sick," she quipped before delivering "Promiscuity," in which a narrator gives sage advice to young people -- you won't know happiness when you see it, till you've been around the block a few times.

She even mentioned a fan in Toronto who yelled "don't do it!" during her introduction of "Smiling Underneath," a tender, quirky ode to the love of her life that's the polar opposite of something like "Untouchable Face" (which was also performed on this night, beautifully cathartic profanity and all).

Sorry, dude in Toronto, but I'm happy she didn't listen to you. With lines like "I don't mind my gums peeling back or my hair getting thin/Long as I'm with you, I win," "Smiling" was one of the show's most visceral moments. Strumming the simple progression on her four-string tenor, DiFranco looked and sounded completely at home. The more you yell at her to be who you want her to be, the more she's going to do her thing. And we're lucky for it.

A NYC trio called Pearl and the Beard started the show with a set of off-kilter, harmony-laden pop songs. Featuring cello, guitar and percussion, the group was impressively versatile, delivering moody, lurching grooves, delicate shoe-gaze ballads and swinging Andrews Sisters sing-alongs, all with the same level of talent and panache.


Ani DiFranco

Sunday in Asbury Hall at Babeville.