If going out at the top of your game is the goal, Janis Ian is the victor.
The folkie is pulling off the road after her tour wraps in November. But judging from Ian’s riveting, May 18 performance inside a two-thirds full Southern Theatre in Columbus, Ohio, this is for personal, rather than professional, reasons.
At 71, Ian can still hit most of the notes that informed “At Seventeen,” which appeared late in the 13-song, career-spanning set, a solo-acoustic performance running 75 minutes. And her harmonics-laden guitar playing is a fluid as ever – Ian even stepped to the lip of the stage to show off her blues chops against chorus of foot stomps of her own and the audience’s making on “Bright Lights and Promises.”
She slapped the body and strings of her axe to coax reverb and percussive effects on 2020’s “Resist” and boldly reminded concertgoers the fight for equality – which she first sang of on 1965’s “Society’s Child” – is a continuing battle.
“Put her in high heels, so she can’t run/carve out between her legs so she can’t come/get her a dress, for easy access/tell everybody that she’s just like all the rest,” Ian sung defiantly.
Ian is calling her farewell Celebrating Our Years Together and acknowledged the fans who’ve stuck with her as she evolved from teenage wunderkind to veteran folkie, saying: “All I ever wanted was this, so thank you.”
Opening act and long-time friend Tom Rush joined Ian on the sparse stage – two Persian rugs and black backdrop – for her encore to perform the anthemic “Better Times Will Come.” Ian wrote it during quarantine just after John Prine’s death and passed it on to John Gorka; his version caught fire online and it’s subsequently been recorded by some 800 artists around the globe.
This version was the picture and sound of juxtaposition – the tall, lanky Rush alongside the compact Ian; his baritone under her soprano as they declared: “When this world learns to live as one/oh, better times will come.”
While Ian is retiring, Rush, 81, is on his first-annual retirement tour and says he’s learned to use the phrase most-recent, rather than last, album to describe his latest work. His 40-minute solo set was a mix of funny originals (“Making the Best of a Bad Situation”) serious covers (a languid rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going,” a song he recorded before its author), existential originals (“Voices”) and uptempo, down-and-dirty blues, including Sleepy John Estes’ “Drop Down Mama” and a frenetic mashup up of “Who Do You Love” -> “Hey Bo Diddley” -> “Who Do You Love. There were a couple bum notes and Rush stopped mid-song at one point – “Sorry,” he said – to find his place. But there are reasons he’s been around so long and why he’s revered by people like Ian and the receptive Columbus audience.