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Troubadour of the ‘90s : DiFranco Expertly Weaves Tales of Life in an Enthralling Concert

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Phenomenal.

That’s the most compact--and accurate--way to describe both Ani DiFranco’s immense talent and her escalation to pop stardom.

Despite no major label contract, MTV video or Top 40 airplay, the 25-year-old New Yorker has built enough of a following by touring to break into the national Top 100 this week with her new “Dilate” album, which is on her own Righteous Babe Records.

Part of that following--call it Ani’s Army--packed the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana on Thursday night and gave DiFranco a warm, enthusiastic welcome back to Southern California for the first of four area shows.

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And it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing her for the first time not wanting to enlist.

There were times, in fact, during her nearly two-hour set when DiFranco was so enthralling that it seemed she could, musically speaking, even leap over tall buildings in a single bound.

How fitting, then, that DiFranco--whose style mixes the folk tradition of Bob Dylan and John Prine with a biting ‘90s independence--has a song on the new album titled “Superhero.”

Rather than a blustery expression of bravado, however, the song--like so much of DiFranco’s multidimensional work--plays against type. It is a disarming tale of being surprised at one’s vulnerability in a relationship:

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“Tell me what did you like about me

And don’t say my strength and daring

‘Cause now I think I’m at your mercy

And it’s my first time for this kind of thing.”

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But she’s no victim either, as she makes clear in “Not a Pretty Girl,” a highlight Thursday. Snarling in a sarcastic strike against the stereotype of the helpless woman, she snaps in the song from her 1995 album of the same name:

“Wouldn’t you prefer a maiden fair?

Isn’t there a kitten

Stuck up a tree somewhere?”

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DiFranco mixes these and other conflicting elements marvelously in the new “Dilate,” an absorbing, largely autobiographical account of a tempestuous love affair. A leading contender for album of year, it conveys some of the bold, epic strokes of P.J. Harvey’s acclaimed “To Bring You My Love,” along with some of the more accessible self-affirmation of Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill.”

The link isn’t only that these albums are all by women but each that deals with relationships in ways that are sharp, insightful and fresh.

The differences between these three songwriters are even more apparent on stage. Where Harvey leans to formal presentation and Morissette is still defining her persona, DiFranco, after some 1,000 shows, comes across as simply the folk troubadour who wanders on stage with an acoustic guitar and starts singing about life--hers and, invariably, ours.

Despite the tenacity in her music (punctuated nicely by drummer Andy Stochansky and bassist Sara Lee), DiFranco is delightfully playful on stage--weaving stories about her own experiences and interacting with the audience in ways that build a strong sense of community.

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Ultimately, however, it’s the songs that hold one’s attention with their sometimes savage, but simply honest, looks at the questions of personal integrity and faith. In DiFranco’s hands, these points are mostly explored in terms of relationships, but they are framed with the universality and depth that enables them to address larger issues of individual character and desire.

At the end of the evening, DiFranco doesn’t leave audiences just with the glow of a good show. You aren’t just savoring what you’ve heard but anticipating all the music yet to come from this gifted young artist.

* Ani DiFranco plays tonight at SOMA, 5305 Metro St., San Diego, 8 p.m. $15. (619) 239-7662. Also Sunday at the Mayan Theatre, 1038 S. Hill St., 8 p.m. $18. (213) 746-4287.


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