Just to prove the gods of concert promotion have a sense of mischief, consider the two shows competing for the public’s attention in Toronto on this night.
At the cavernous SkyDome, Ricky Martin was shaking his bon-bon atop a vintage car in a gaudy, prefab spectacle. Mere blocks away at the century-old classical recital venue Massey Hall, Ani DiFranco, Gillian Welch and Greg Brown were on a bare stage, trading stories and songs. It goes without saying that there were no automotive stage props and no bon-bons were shaken, but I doubt any of the 2,800 squeezed into Massey felt they missed out.
The two-hour show gave the trio a chance to perform together and alone, and during their solo forays, each got to stake out their distinctive territory. DiFranco, judging by the crowds’ enthusiasm (and the number of young women present who have copped her look), was the favorite, and she delighted her following by peppering her solo set with two promising newer songs. One number (referred to by her avid online followers as “Garden”) takes a broad political view: “The best minds of our generation can’t make bail.” The other new one, a rambling poetic piece possibly titled “This Little War”, took a more personal approach. She then reached back to her 1996 album Dilate for “Untouchable Face”, and called on Brown to assist with a gravel-voiced rendering of the song’s refrain: “Fuck you!”
Brown, joined by guitarist Bo Ramsey, is a wonderfully eccentric performer who mixes the down-and-out élan of early Tom Waits with droll, understated humor akin to John Prine — best heard in his solo set on the aching “‘Cept You And Me Babe”.
Welch, supported by her regular collaborator David Rawlings, warned the audience about her morbid streak before performing “Caleb Meyer”: “So far, we’ve been light on the killing songs; we usually lose two per set.” Rawlings’ peerless solos provided gorgeous counterpoint to “Time’s The Revelator” and “Paper Wings”.
But things really caught fire when the three took a page from the folk festival “workshop” format and structured their combined set around improvised themes. Each performer offered up a topic and challenged the others to come up with a tune to match, which had the added benefit of letting the musicians draw from unexpected portions of their songbooks.
The set list from show to show on this tour was radically different, but one element remained constant: The entire cast began with an a cappella rendition of Utah Phillips’ “Dump The Bosses”.
From there, DiFranco pronounced the first theme would be “relations between the living and the dead” and challenged with “Fuel”. Welch, well-acquainted with macabre themes, replied with a mournful reading of her ode to parental sacrifice, “Annabelle”. Brown countered with his own variation on the theme, a bittersweet childhood memoir called “Brand New ’64 Dodge”.
Brown then suggested “games people play” as a theme and offered up “The Poet Game”, a song that effortlessly straddles external observation (“I watched my country turn into a coast-to-coast strip mall”) and merciless introspection (“I’ve lost track of my mistakes/Like birds they fly around/And darken half of my skies”). DiFranco commented that most of the games we play are learned at home and replied with “Angry Anymore”, her own account of relations with her family. Welch and Rawlings chose a radically different interpretation of the theme — the cruel game played by migrant farm workers — and performed “One More Dollar”.
Welch traded her guitar for a banjo, suggested “The Devil” as a theme, and anted up with the Hell Among The Yearlings standout “The Devil Had A Hold OF Me”. DiFranco declared, “If there’s a God, that’s us; and if there’s a devil, that’s us, too,” and countered with a new song, a lament for the death of inner cities (“white people are so scared of black people…the country of good neighbors”). Brown took a bluesy variation on the topic with a menacing reading of “Ballingol Hotel”.
The ensemble collaborated on a muscular rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” and a moving version of Brown’s “China” before encoring with an a cappella version of DiFranco’s “Every State Line” and a snazzy take on the standard “Fever”. To hell with “La Vida Loca” — DiFranco, Welch and Brown demonstrated on this night that for some folks, the song is still the thing. And when the songs are this good, you don’t need anything else.