Taking Folk, Rock and Roll, and
North American Stage Presence Abroad:
By Grant Rosenberg
Photos by Laure Feton

‘‘I feel like such an asshole for... like you know... driving around Europe and speaking English,’’ announces Ani Difranco at the beginning of her late November concert at the Elysee Montmartre in Paris. One senses that she has said this in Spain, Italy and Germany and beyond, but that doesn’t diminish the respect the audience has for her. American humility goes a long way toward earning respect among Europeans, and Ani DiFranco has a unique brand of it, a sort of humble strut. ‘‘I thought maybe I’d just shut up for a change,’’ she continued. ‘‘Don’t worry, that won’t last. But thanks... for showing up.’’

Two and a half weeks later, Ron Sexsmith, a Canadian singer/songwriter of simple but elegant folky pop played a show at the approximately 200-person capacity La Boule Noire, a few doors down from the Elysée Montmarte which holds maybe three to four times as many. Sexsmith opened his show with a few French pleasantries, and then along with his band, charged into the music. A few songs into the set, he announced, ‘‘I hope your English is a little better than my French. I was going to try to speak a little French, but I got shy all of a sudden.’’

These comments from both musicians highlight the difference between performing in English-speaking countries and in foreign ones. Music concerts are not just about playing music for people in a room, but about forging a connection between performer and audience. When there is a language gap, how much is this affected? And does it really make a difference when the songs are all sung in English anyway? For Sexsmith, that doesn’t seem to be an issue, as he told me after the show. ‘‘In general, people are coming to hear the songs. I mean, Bob Dylan never says anything. Van Morrison doesn’t.’’

Of course, it isn’t always an issue of language, but rather sometimes of culture. In his introduction to the song Tell Me Again, Sexsmith said he thinks of it ‘‘as a front porch song.’’ He must have been met with blank stares, because he then asked if their were front porches in France. ‘‘Not really? Well, this may be lost on you. Lost in the translation. Hopefully you’ll like it anyway.’’

Later, I asked him about his state of mind in terms of speaking to foreign audiences. ‘‘Tonight I felt a bit limited in terms of the stage patter. I tend to talk a bit more when I’m playing in front of English-speaking crowds. The last few times I’ve played France I was actually speaking a lot of French. Tonight I just felt out of practice.’’ Sexsmith, being from Canada has a greater exposure to the French language, and his children are native speakers, their mother being a Quebecoise. Still, there will always be languages that performers are not familiar with, in countries where they are guest performers. To be sure, musicians often greet the audiences with a word or two of the country’s language, the international version of ‘‘Hello, Chicago!’’ or the perennial, ‘‘Cleveland Rocks.’’

Europe, however varied in its culture, still has a base in the same general frames of reference as in North America, as its original (non-native) languages—English, Spanish and French are all from European nations in origin. The cultural rift has a chance to get wider, such as when Western bands play further East. Billy Joel famously played in Russia before the end of communism there, and in footage from this show, there is a definite divide between audience and performer at the outset. The concept of such a rock and roll show at the time seemed by definition foreign, though the crowd eventually warmed up and rocked out and Joel, predictably but unavoidably, did a joyful cover of the Beatles song, "Back in the USSR."

Interestingly, countries like Japan, for all their differences with Europe and North America, have some of the most dedicated rock and roll fans in the world. The sheer number of Japanese import CDs with special b-sides from the biggest American bands to the most obscure Canadian indies proves this. Sexsmith enjoys performing in Japan, and observes that his communicating to the audience is a bit different where there is for him a total language block. Sexsmith says that in Japan, he talks even less, and instead, he and the band do more physical comedy. And yet he spoke often between songs here in Paris, responding to the French fans who shouted requests and telling several funny anecdotes. After an hour he sat down to do some songs at the piano: ‘‘Earlier we were watching a Queen concert in the van, a two hour concert and Freddie Mercury, that man could perform. He knew how to peform. One thing I learned from him is to take off your jacket halfway through the show... but by the end of the concert he was wearing nothing but a pair of white shorts. I won’t be going that far. I would if I had his body, I would.’’


I last saw Ani DiFranco perform at a Green Party Rally in Chicago this past summer. She was a headliner, amongst the other speakers and musicians, closing out the night that featured other musicians, such as Patti Smith and speakers like Cornel West and both presidential and vice-presidential runningmates Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke. At the rally, DiFranco performed three songs, and united everyone onstage at the evening’s conclusion with Amazing Grace, a song she has performed often—and seemed to be the one person in the entire auditorium who knew not only the words to the second verse, but the fact that it existed at all.

In the days before Difranco’s concert here in Paris, I wondered, particularly in light of Difranco’s outspoken support of the Green Party (which unlike the Democratic and Republican parties, is international) in particular and progressive politics in general, how the concert would differ from those I had seen in the States. I was curious if she would reference, however vaguely or specifically, if not the events of the 11th of September, the climate in the U.S. and the world since then. There have been a few articles over the last months about the status of the anti-globalization movement, and how it seems to be lying low at a time when many are concerned more about a united front in our country, when consumerism is being touted as a patriotic duty and the conservative president has a stellar approval rating. And of course, the elephant in the room, so to speak, is that progressive politics supporters have in common an opposition to U.S. hegemony.

But DiFranco’s opinions on these matters were kept to herself, limiting her set to—for lack of a less shallow categorization—relationship songs. Most of the set is from Revelling/Reckoning, but, from my understanding of the lyrics to the several songs I was not familiar with, none referred to political/social issues in the least. This could either be a conscience decision made for the tour at this point, as if addressing these issues, singing about these issues would open a Pandora’s box that she doesn’t want to open here and now. Or maybe it is just a lark, a capricious decision based on nothing more than whimsy and a desire to rock out this particular evening—leaving aside songs from her latest album like Your Next Bold Move that begin with lyrics such as:

‘Coming of age during the plague
of reagan and bush
watching capitalism gun down democracy
it had this funny effect on me
I guess

Instead, on this night, she was a musician, first and foremost, making the most of the band behind her, with horns and a piano. It is quite clear that Difranco’s music has evolved in the last decade, into something not quite jazz, not quite hip-hop and not quite folk or rock. She is an amalgam of all these things, not always with the same rate of success, but her experiments are appreciated by most. And when a musician averages an album a year, there is the luxury for this kind of experimentation. And, it goes without saying, when she is the one that runs her own record label.

Having seen her perform several times now, I find it interesting how the crowd in Paris was much like that in the States, with many lesbian couples, girls in ‘‘the-style-of-no-style" outfits with corresponding haircuts, scented with patchouli. But the main difference here is that men comprised half of the audience. It is as if nobody told these guys that her music isn’t their domain, as it had unfortunately been presented in the U.S. from the beginning of her career, through no fault of her own. I don’t doubt that this is refreshing for DiFranco; I mean no disrespect to her loyal fans of a decade, but she herself has lamented the idea of being a poster child for a specific ideology (except for the Green party, I suppose.) On her live double-album, Living In Clip, she refers to this in her between-song banter, gently chiding those girls with ‘‘panties too tight’’ that accuse her of selling out after recording fewer songs about politics. ‘I kind of got... distracted’’ she says with a giggle, a reference to her falling in love (and marrying) a man. And it was a declaration, however benevolently put, that she was nobody’s Special Interest Bitch, and she could do what she pleased, thanks for listening, though.

Naturally, most if not all of the concertgoers understood English perfectly well, though given the added funk to the shows these days, it would matter little. By request, she recited a poem with the same rhythymic delivery indicative of coffee house poetry slams. During the poem, when several people near me began to talk, they were shushed with contempt by others.

Neither Sexsmith nor DiFranco is played much on U .S. corporate rock radio stations nor are they darlings of MTV or major labels. The argument could be made that European audiences are more open to new music like theirs within the mainstream, compared to North America. Certainly they have their largest fan base at home, but audiences must come to their music via word of mouth or modest advertising, at least compared to the heavy hitters from major labels that participate in the pay for play neo-payola goings-on with Clear Channel and other radio station monopolies (investigated by Eric Boehlert in an award-winning series on in the U.S. In Paris, over 30 minutes on the same corporate radio station, one will hear a live Bob Dylan song from a recent concert, a U2 b-side, the new Kylie Minogue dance hit, a Gainsbourg tune from the late 1960s, then a mid-1970s Supertramp song followed by something by the Fugees. There is no method to the madness, and it is quite refreshing.

And yet, Sexsmith, both during the show and afterward, talked about the difficulties of mounting European tours. ‘‘It’s been hard in the past because we would try to book shows here and my old label in France would never support the gigs,’’ said Sexsmith. ‘‘Then the promoters would back out unless the label was involved and so we would end up not coming at all or playing at inappropriate venues. Last time we did our own headlining show in Paris we played at a venue that was too small. There were hundreds of people who couldnt get in. It was a free gig; if they would have given us the right venue, we could have sold tickets, made money and everyone could have gotten in. So I was really happy with tonight. It was a really good starting point. I think if I could keep coming back I could build it.’’

It is this kind of humility that endears audiences to performers like Sexsmith, who take responsibility for creating a relationship between him and his fans. And they are responding, as evidenced by both his and DiFranco’s shows. How much attention is being paid to the lyrics by the listeners?

This is a question that can be asked of any audience, because even Michael Stipe is difficult to understand in the first few R.E.M. albums and is at times unitelligible, though that didn’t stop them from becoming one of the biggest bands in the U.S. It was the sound of his voice that made it happen, not the words, just like opera. Politics or patter, the music transcends language. When they are at home with the CD or the record, listeners can read the lyrics of folk musicians and take the time to look into the political references. But in concert, the beat goes on, lyrics aside. After all, there are still native English speakers out there who still think Hendrix is saying, ‘scuse me, while I kiss this guy. But they are fans just the same.