Ani DiFranco plays first post-controversy show

Appearing Friday night at the Varsity Theatre in Baton Rouge, Ani DiFranco performed her first concert following the online controversy that erupted over a songwriting-performance retreat she’d planned to lead at Nottoway Plantation and Resort.

The New Orleans-based singer-songwriter announced the retreat in White Castle in mid-December then canceled it Dec. 29. The Web-based outrage stemmed from DiFranco, a musician, social activist and feminist, leading the event at a former plantation where slavery existed.

“So, goodness,” DiFranco said before the second song of the night. “So much to talk about. Anybody here got something to say?”

In the real-world space of the Varsity, an LSU-adjacent music venue, no questions were asked, no obvious protests lodged.

“Just checking. It’s good to just play some music,” DiFranco said before launching into “Untouchable Face,” a crowd-pleaser from her 1996 album, “Dilate.”

DiFranco halted the Nottoway retreat following a flood of angry posts on Facebook and critical editorial commentary on websites such as Jezebel.com and TheGuardian.com.

Despite the controversy, an enthusiastic crowd of about 600 concertgoers showed much appreciation for the singer and her distinctive hybrid of folk, pop, social observation and singer-songwriter introspection.

The crowd also cheered when DiFranco, 43, a performer whose career dates to the mid-’80s, said the Varsity show was her Baton Rouge debut.

Speaking before DiFranco’s nearly two-hour show, Donna Brewer, a DiFranco fan since the early ’90s, said critics overreacted to the retreat and overlooked the singer’s years of support of social causes and community activism.

“I think they need to ease up on her,” Brewer said. “She’s just a person.”

Jared Valldry, a fan and member of the Baton Rouge hip-hop-grunge band Earthchilde, accepted the combination explanation, apology and cancellation announcement DiFranco posted on her website Dec. 29.

“She’s a real person and a real artist,” Valldry said. “You have to stand behind an artist like that because they are few and far between.”

The controversy appeared to be irrelevant as DiFranco and her two-man band, bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Terence Higgins, played what she called ditties from back in the day and new material that the trio plans to begin recording Sunday.

“Here’s one of the new songs I’m going to hit you with tonight,” DiFranco said before playing something swampy enough to have been influenced by the New York native’s nearly 10 years in Louisiana. Likewise another new song crafted in a country-blues style.

The self-effacing singer apologized for her new music’s slow tempos.

“I’m a little bit old now and tired,” she said. “So all of my new songs are this speed.”

The night’s more animated, louder songs were old favorites such as the passionate “Both Hands,” near rock song “Shameless” and a pop-oriented DiFranco classic containing pointed lyrics of the kind that helped make her a national figure, “32 Flavors.”

As she smiled through song after song, DiFranco’s first post-Nottoway controversy show went on with barely a stumble.