meta-scriptAni DiFranco’s New Album, 'Unprecedented Sh!t,' Is A Testament To Her Activist Spirit |
Ani DiFranco Talks New Album, 'Unprecedented Sh!t'
Ani DiFranco

Photo: Danny Clinch


Ani DiFranco’s New Album, 'Unprecedented Sh!t,' Is A Testament To Her Activist Spirit

'Unprecedented Sh!t,' Ani DiFranco's 23rd album, proves that there is still a fire in her belly. "I feel like I've always tried to write revolution through just the approach to storytelling and my songs," the singer/songwriter says.

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2024 - 03:06 pm

"I feel I’ve always been in the business of shedding labels, but the world is doubling down," says Ani DiFranco

The GRAMMY-winning singer has long been heralded as rebel-rousing and outspoken. On her latest release, Unprecedented Sh!t, DiFranco continues to counter the ideologically divided world, and the labels it imposes. The album is DiFranco's 23rd, and arrives May 17.

It's not coincidental that Unprecedented Sh!t arrives in the midst of pre-election campaigning, affirming DiFranco's drive to use music as a vehicle to protest deep-rooted inequality and prejudices in America and beyond. On "Baby Roe," DiFranco reaffirms women's right to agency over her body and her access to a safe abortion. (DiFranco’s charitable foundation Righteous Babe has long supported women’s rights initiatives, including the National Abortion Federation, Planned Parenthood, and National Institute of Public Health.) Reproductive freedom is "an essential civil right, the centerpiece of what it means to be free as a woman in society," she says.

DiFranco has never shied from wearing her heart on her sleeve and championing her political views. Pre-election in 2016, she penned Binary, an album that explored themes of women’s right to choose, non-violence, and the fundamental necessity to coexist despite different views. The album epitomized what fans have long known: DiFranco’s politics are personal, delivered with a vulnerability and earnestness that gives her songs incredible resonance. 

She is a lyricist who has always worn her heart on her sleeve and, in 2019, brought that candor to a bestselling memoir. No Walls and the Recurring Dream detailed her Buffalo, New York childhood and adventures as a young folk-punk musician, a music label founder (Righteous Babe Records in 1989), a wife and mother. DiFranco continued to evolve post-memoir; in 2021, she dropped new album Revolutionary Love, and in 2023, released the 25th anniversary edition of Little Plastic Castle. She is, unsurprisingly, determined to rally the disillusioned into using their vote and their voices in the face of some, well, unprecedented s—. Indeed, she’s been writing her second children’s book, Show Up and Vote, to be released on Aug. 27.

But making record after record, touring and running her Righteous Babe Records (founded in 1989) hasn’t stopped DiFranco from exploring new artistic territory. She made her Broadway debut in the popular musical "Hadestown" in February this year, nearly 15 years after creating its original studio concept album.

DiFranco was life-altering for a generation of teenagers in the 1990s, perhaps peaking with 1995's Dilate. DiFranco’s spirited, down-to-earth delivery and fearlessness felt empowering, especially when the radio was otherwise transfixed by male-dominated grunge bands. DiFranco sang about burgeoning and disintegrating relationships. Her albums were documents of a buzzing, raucous city life; tales that played out in Chicago, New York, on trains, in shabby apartments, in cafes and bars. Not until "Red Letter Year" in 2008 did listeners hear a more relaxed DiFranco, who moved to the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans the same year.

A transition from thriving in a bustling urban environment to the remoteness of her Louisiana home, which she shares with her 15-year-old daughter and 11-year old son, altered DiFranco's perspective. Today, DiFranco is prone to discussing the consciousness of rocks, plants and wildlife as easily as reproductive freedom. This spiritual awareness and a grounded observance of modern America presents both lyrically and musically on Unprecedented Sh!t, which seamlessly blends organic instrumental and vocal tracks with dissonant, warped synth effects.

DiFranco is unafraid to talk about aging and contemplating new ways to make music, now that she has finished a 23-album "series" of her life thus far. She is, of course, "an artist ‘til I die," so there is no risk that Unprecedented Sh!t is the last we will hear of DiFranco.

Ahead of the release of Unprecedented Sh!t, Ani DiFranco spoke with about her latest album, her Broadway debut, and a career of DIY achievements.

You have released 22 albums before this, which is a huge body of work for any artist. How is Unprecedented Sh!t a continuation of those ideas and stories, and how does it diverge?

In some sense it’s a continuation, and in another sense it’s a divergence in any of my records. There’s a sort of sonic divergence when you’re working with [producer] BJ [Burton], obviously. All my albums are unique in and of themselves, some veer more personal while some veer more political. Sometimes I’m more inward looking, and sometimes more outward looking.

I think we all have these different moments in our life that we move through. On this album, there was a lot of looking at my society, my culture, and speaking to things bigger than I.

I feel like I shouldn’t say this, but I wonder if it’s the last in a series.

What series is that?

The 23 albums series in the life and times of Ani D. I’m 53 pushing 54,  and I hate to make any statements about my farewell tour or anything, but I feel less motivated to write songs the way I have been. It’s a mode I’ve thoroughly explored. These days, I’m working on a theater piece and writing songs towards a theatrical production.

I’m always creating and inventing in my mind, but there’s definitely an itch to change the mediums.

There’s a lot of dissonant sounds, especially in the two tracks "Baby Roe" and "Unprecedented Sh!t." There's a sense of things falling apart, and that the world is driving you to the edge. Tell me about the state of mind you were in when you wrote those songs.

The reason I wanted to work with BJ is because he lives in world of machines, [and has] an immense facility with machines I know nothing about. After so much making, recording and producing my own records, I have longed to incorporate the noisiness of modern life, and the presence of machines in our lives. I couldn’t do that on my own.

In this modern age, the playing of instruments is just one spice, one ingredient to use in modern recording. There are so many ways to make sounds, put together tracks. With BJ, I was able to explore other worlds. So inherently, through us and the process, this sort of anxious, punishing, frenetic noise of the world comes in. The tenor of life in this world right now expressed itself in the music and recordings, balanced with moments of deep quiet and retreat.

The super dissonant, chaotic sounds BJ created from my guitar [are] really extraordinary. I would make recordings of just me and my guitar, and I overdub a few things — like me playing percussion, or vocal overdubs. He just manipulated [those sounds] in his spaceship, surrounded by buttons, toggles and dials, to create the soundscapes but the raw materials were extremely organic.

The only thing not manipulated is my voice.

On "New Bible," you sing "Our roots are meant to be interwoven" and that "men should stand down when women give birth." Tell me about your view of women, their role as leaders and mothers, and whether your views have changed over time.

I think that my views haven’t changed in that I feel differently, but I understand more in terms of reproductive freedom for women. It’s an essential civil right, the centerpiece of what it means to be free as a woman in society. As I get older, I understand with my full being that consciousness supersedes the body. Our spirit bodes and re-embodies, and this is one of many lives, identities and stories, and essentially me and you are one being. We are God, you and I and every living thing. Women are agents of creation. I wrote a song, "Play God," a few years ago: "you don’t get to play God man, I do". I’m literally the creator in this situation.

You have to respect creation and agents of creation, such as women. I speak to it in "New Bible" and in "Baby Roe," that we need to step back a minute from patriarchal religious dogma, from political debate, and look at what it is to be alive. It is not the body. Consciousness is the spirit, the soul, is God, and is light, and that is eternal. So, there!

Did performing as Persephone in "Hadestown" on Broadway have an impact on the music or themes on this album, in which you sing about hell and the sanctity of women, or was there just an organic alignment?

I relate very much to the character, and I have been involved in the trajectory of "Hadestown" since the beginning, since it was a gleam in Anaïs Mitchell's eye, so it’s very cool to come back into the fray after all these years to perform the part on stage. 

There are two couples in the musical: Orpheus and Eurydice, the young starry-eyed lovers, and Hades and Persephone, the old couple, married for eons as Gods. They’ve been through it all together, there’s a real push and pull tension between them, and Persephone is the bestower of life on Earth, joy, and bounty, while Hades is the captain of industry and the underworld — which represents the hell of the modern world and its enslavement of humankind. 

It’s a prescient modern take on Greek mythology. The relationship between her and Hades, you know they don’t ride into the sunset, but there’s hope – like, "we’ll try again next year" – and after being married for 20 years [to music professional Mike Napolitano], I very much relate to that need to renew one’s love and one’s relationship.

I’ve been a fan of yours since "Dilate" and so many of your songs are deeply personal to me. Do you have favorites from your earlier albums, or songs of yours that feel deeply necessary to perform live and to revisit frequently?

Certainly there’s a bunch that have risen as favorites for me, mostly because they work live, they’re very playable, and [are] other people’s favorites. Some that don’t work well live because they’re too slow, or sad, or too something, are my secret favorites. Those are "Hypnotized," "Hour Follows Hour," "Albacore" or "The Atom," which is epic at 10 minutes.

There’s a lot of allusion to nature on this album, which is quite different to those earlier albums in which you were in bars, on trains and on the road. Tell me about how your connection to the land informs who you are, how you live, and your perspective.

It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been a city kid most of my life and I’ve been rapt with the human drama therein, but like many humans, it gets old. The land —  all the forms of consciousness that are not human, all the sentient beings…plants, trees, rocks — is something more profound than human drama.

I live in Louisiana, New Orleans, way, way, way on the edge of town, right on the Mississippi River, which feels both very remote and very New Orleans. It very much feels like home after 20 years now. It’s an immense place, culturally and musically, and I love being surrounded by snakes, owls, the birds on the river: herons, eagles, ducks, egrets. It’s immense and wonderful. Turtles wander by in this big swamp. I really love it there.

You sing "I defy being defined" on "The Thing At Hand." Do you feel that rather than growing into firmer descriptions or identifying labels, you’ve actually shed them instead and is that liberating or confusing?

I feel I’ve always been in the business of shedding labels, but the world is doubling down. I sang about relationships with women and men when I was young, or I sang about my experience as a young woman not wedded to gender being the defining character of a person, or sexual orientation, or race, or blood. I feel like I've always tried to write revolution through just the approach to storytelling and my songs. You cannot hold me down with your preconceived notions of identities and "us and them" and tribe, so I feel like I've always been at this work. And in America, I feel like identity politics has become so fever pitched.

I’m a child of the '70s when identity politics was about asserting identity and waking up culture to the fact that we’re not all middle-aged white dudes, but it’s as though the tool of liberation has become the cage itself. [My children’s book] The Knowing speaks to this: Use identity for whatever purpose it serves to know and find yourself, your tribe, to know you’re not alone but also beware of identity and ending up in a silo, at odds with your fellow humans.

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Amber Gray and the Broadway cast of Hadestown

Photo by Matthew Murphy


Singing—And Streaming—To Success On Broadway

How the success of streaming platforms has launched an unorthodox new wave of Broadway productions

GRAMMYs/Aug 7, 2019 - 09:17 pm

The traditional trajectory of a musical seeking to reach the Great White Way was that it would start as a local or off-Broadway production, go through multiple permutations of performance and development, find the right commercial casting choices, do an out-of-town tryout, and then, if the creators got lucky and the show thrived, arrive on Broadway. But some recent productions have been bucking traditional channels, finding audiences through original soundtracks available on CD and more prominently by streaming platforms like Spotify, which has allowed unorthodox shows like Hadestown and Be More Chill to skirt the usual gatekeepers and reach mainstream theatergoers in New York City.

Streaming is making a difference. During opening week performances of both Hadestown and Be More Chill, their audiences emanated incredible enthusiasm. This was beyond even the normal warm reception given new shows. Many people in those seats intimately knew these shows.

Writer/composer Anaïs Mitchell's Hadestown, a retelling of the Orpheus myth with both New Orleans and an industrial Hell as its settings, began life as an abstract, DIY community-style show in her home state of Vermont in 2006. Two incarnations later, she recorded a cast album in 2010 featuring vocalists Ani DiFranco, Greg Brown, Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, and Ben Knox Miller from The Low Anthem.

Andre De Shields in Hadestown

"It was a very magical collaboration," says Mitchell. That first cast album later lured director Rachel Chavkin and co-star Patrick Page to the project, which lead to productions off-Broadway and in Edmonton and London between 2016 and 2018. Later, Hadestown premiered on Broadway this past spring and won eight Tony Awards.

Mitchell does not seem to concern herself with streaming numbers on Hadestown (the Top 10 tracks on Spotify have notched up 7.6 million streams), but she notes that the three different recordings—the original concept album and off-Broadway and Broadway cast albums—"have definitely helped the show reach people who otherwise might not set foot in the theater. For all the complicated aspects of music streaming, I love that music is free. It's like water running to the sea. It will find the people who will listen to and love it, whoever they are."

The Hadestown creator adds that the process of developing the show over the past six years has been very public. "It's a little intense sometimes because people get attached to one version of a thing, and they inevitably have feelings when that thing changes," notes Mitchell. "But people have been incredibly supportive of the time it took to bring this show to Broadway. In a way people are invested in, and have really been part of, the journey itself, not just the destination. They’ve literally been part of the process."

Be More Chill

After the sci-fi teen comedy Be More Chill (adapted from Ned Vizzini's book) finished its four-week run at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey in 2015, the original cast album was recorded to commemorate the experience. "No one ever thought that it would lead to having the show find a way back to a stage," admits composer Joe Iconis. But something unexpected happened.

"It was a perfect storm of things,” says Iconis. "There were a few shows around that time that had come out that had some audience crossover with us, like Dear Evan Hansen and The Lightning Thief musical. Through the magic of social-media algorithms, Be More Chill was suggested to people because of that." From their growing streaming audience, old-fashioned word of mouth built up interest. By August 2018, the offbeat musical Be More Chill, about a geeky teen outsider who swallows a supercomputer that seeks to turn him into a cool insider (with consequences), landed an off-Broadway run and then transferred to Broadway in February. It ends its official five-month run this Sunday, and a film adaptation is reportedly in development.

"The craziest thing when we were first experiencing this viral sensation was that kids who were listening to it just didn't know that it wasn't playing somewhere," recalls Iconis. "I would get messages every day being like, 'I'm confused. What theater is this that?' We had this bizarre thing where for the longest time we had this hit show audience without having a show. It was just these kids who knew it so well from the album."

The two soundtracks for Be More Chill have reportedly racked up over 300 million streams combined, with the older off-Broadway version accounting for a greater share of those. The show made enough of an impact that it was parodied on the opening sequence of the Tony Awards this year (although, oddly enough, the source material went uncredited). The musical was nominated for Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written For The Theatre, the award for which ultimately went to Hadestown.

"When people first started discovering the show I would get messages, and I was just so thrilled that anyone was listening to the show at all," says Be More Chill writer Joe Tracz. "People were not just listening to it, but living with it and thinking about it and wanting to know more about the characters and the world. [This is] a show that's actually looking at whether technology is a good or a bad thing. The grand irony of Be More Chill is finding an audience through the Internet."

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On the indie circuit, Buried composer Cordelia O'Driscoll says her offbeat show, about two serial killers who serendipitously meet on a date, has mainly built up an audience through over 70 performances in the U.K. and U.S. over the last two years. It was originally crowdfunded through Indiegogo for its 2017 debut at Scotland's annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Based on a book written by director Tom Williams, the show recently played at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in N.Y.C. Streaming has helped the show's creators find new fans as existing ones share the music, which she says has exceeded 200,000 streams, reaching many fans who do not live near where a current production is happening.

"In terms of what we've found out about our fans, it’s been interesting to see which songs have been streamed more than others, to see what music people are connecting with the most at certain times," says O'Driscoll. "It's an amazing way to start to understand audiences." The fun, irreverent show looks like it will continue to thrive and grow.

Other productions have been aware of streaming potential for musical exposure. Between their 2015 D.C. run and 2016 Broadway debut, the producers of Dear Evan Hansen released the streamable single "Waving Through A Window" which reportedly accumulated over one million streams prior to the show's N.Y.C. premiere. On the Broadway side, fans who have been waiting and clamoring for Hamilton tickets have repeatedly streamed its score and memorized it. They know the show before they have seen it. The full Hamilton soundtrack on YouTube alone has racked up nearly 10 million views.

"The new British musical Six has grown a huge following from the streaming of its album," says O'Driscoll. "The music is brilliant and works very well as a stand-alone album, so people are going to their shows already knowing all the words. It's really cool to see."

"It feels like with more musicians like myself coming to the theater from different angles, and being able to reach supporters by way of musical channels and not just theatrical ones, we all benefit,” says Mitchell. “It makes for more aesthetic diversity, and brings different folks with different tastes to Broadway.”

"When I was a kid, you'd find any musical by like digging through the musical theater section at Sam Goody or your local library, and you were lucky if they had like one Sondheim title," recalls Tracz. "The things you saw were restricted by what was there with physical media. Now with streaming, if you're looking to discover something new, you can find it. Or, even better, it can find you."

"Streaming has huge potential to significantly expand the reach of musical theatre, and remove the perceptions of elitism or exclusivity that some people think it has," says O'Driscoll. "It’s a very exciting time for musical theater."

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André De Shields of Hadestown

André De Shields of Hadestown

Photo: Bruce Glikas/WireImage/Getty Images


The Show Must Go On: "Hadestown" & "Waitress" Casts Take To The Streets Amid NYC Blackout

Even when the lights went out, the Big Apple didn't sleep; the massive Manhattan power outage caused last-minute cancellations on Broadway, but the actors brought the music outside

GRAMMYs/Jul 16, 2019 - 01:03 am

On Saturday night, New York City faced an unexpectedly eventful evening as a massive power outage hit Manhattan's Upper West Side at 6:47 p.m. for five hours. Many events had to be canceled last-minute, including all of the evening's Broadway shows, but that didn't stop many of the actors to take the music to the streets.

The casts of "Hadestown," "Rock Of Ages," "Waitress" and "We Come From Away" all offered impromptu performances for stranded ticket holders and passersby on 42nd Street.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">When the NYC <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#blackout</a> hit the Walter Kerr tonight, André and the company had to take this party to the streets! (: <a href="">@misskimizzo</a>) <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Hadestown</a> <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Broadway</a> <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Hadestown (@hadestown) <a href="">July 14, 2019</a></blockquote><script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

Outside of the Walter Kerr Theater, André De Shields, who plays Hermes in the 2019 Tony-sweeping musical "Hadestown," led his castmates in a blackout-themed version of their opening song, "Road To Hell." Complete with a guy on horns, call-and-response lyrics, dancing crowds and sirens wailing in the background, it was quite the exuberant N.Y.C. moment. New Yorker and Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda even retweeted the video, writing; "André freestyling during the Blackout is everything I love."

The charismatic De Shields earned Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his role in the new Broadway play, which is based on Greek mythology and was created from the GRAMMY-nominated concept album of the same name by singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">How <a href="">@RockOfAges</a> handled the <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NYCblackout</a>, tonight! The show must go on, right?! <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Michael Mahany (@MichaelMahany) <a href="">July 14, 2019</a></blockquote><script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

Just around the corner, Michael Mahany of "Rock Of Ages," the musical powered by classic '80s music, led his castmates in a raucous rendition of one of their numbers/the classic bar anthem, Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." Mahany, who plays the amazingly named roles of Joey Primo/Strip Club DJ/Sleazy Producer in the play, tweeted the video out, writing, "How @RockOfAges handled the #NYCblackout, tonight! The show must go on, right?!"

Car horns pepper the pedestrian-enhanced performance, as good Samaritans take to the roads to direct traffic. And they say New Yorkers don't care about each other?

The Twitterverse shared more videos of joyful moments during the blackout, including actors from "Ain't To Proud: – The Life and Times of The Temptations" singing "Happy Birthday" from out of the windows of their theater. The casts of "Waitress" and "We Come From Away" joins the crowd of fans outside to also bring the music to masses; you can watch these three videos below.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Oops my bad I guess it was <a href="">@AintTooProud</a>  thanks guys!!!</p>&mdash; Antony (@lemonfuzz) <a href="">July 14, 2019</a></blockquote><script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="fr" dir="ltr">Impromptu performance <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#broadwayblackout</a> <a href="">@wecomefromaway</a> <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Chad Kimball (@chadkimball1) <a href="">July 14, 2019</a></blockquote><script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">The cast of <a href="">@WaitressMusical</a> entertaining stalled theatergoers outside during the NYC blackout. (via <a href="">@meganrgaffney</a>) <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Blackout</a> <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NYCBlackout</a> <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Dave Quinn (@NineDaves) <a href="">July 14, 2019</a></blockquote><script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

All of this sounds a lot more fun than the experience of the almost-3,000 subway passengers who had to be rescued by the MTA, and almost as fun as Kulture's first birthday party that Cardi B says stayed lit sans lights.

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Ani DiFranco

Ani DiFranco

Photo: David A. Smith/Getty Images


Biennial Ellnora: The Guitar Festival Sets 2019 Dates

The three-day festival at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts is uniquely guitar-centric

GRAMMYs/Feb 20, 2019 - 06:03 am

The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts announced that its 8th biennial Ellnora: The Guitar Festival will be held this coming Sept. 5–7, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Performers have yet to be announced but past lineups have included GRAMMY winners Ani DiFranco, Jerry Douglas, Bill Frisell, Buddy Guy, Los Lobos, the National, Punch Brothers, Vernon Reid, John Scofield, Derek Trucks, and Jeff Tweedy.

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The fest's name and location both refer to generous philanthropist Ellnora Krannert, who together with her husband helped build many institutions in Illinois and Indiana. Music was her college degree and special affection, so naming the festival after her is a fitting tribute.

The performer lineup will be announced in April. Tickets go on sale at the Center's website on July 13.

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Chaka Kahn

Chaka Khan

Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images


New Orleans Jazz Fest 2019: Rolling Stones, Katy Perry, Chaka Khan, Al Green & More

The lineup for the 50th anniversary of the legendary music festival is a history lesson in itself, featuring a wide range of artists from across decades and genres

GRAMMYs/Jan 16, 2019 - 05:25 am

On Jan. 15, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival announced its lineup for the two weekend event being held on April 25–28 and May 2–5. The top-line headliners are GRAMMY winners the Rolling StonesDave Matthews BandBob Seger and Chris Stapleton, who is also a current nominee, plus past GRAMMY nominees Katy Perry and Jimmy Buffett. The annual Jazz Fest is a celebration of New Orleans musical culture, highlighting local musicans along with national and global acts—for the event's 50th year, the diverse lineup shows they are ready to celebrate. 

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Some other GRAMMY-winning legends playing the festival include Ciara, Shirley Caesar, Gary Clark Jr., Rita Coolidge, Ani DiFranco, Earth, Wind & Fire, John Fogerty, Al Green, Buddy Guy, Herbie Hancock, Indigo Girls, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, the MavericksAlanis Morissette, Van Morrison, Pitbull, Bonnie Raitt, Santana, Mavis Staples and Ziggy Marley. How's that for some heritage worthy of a 50th anniversary?

It doesn't stop there. GRAMMY-nominated artists in the packed lineup include J Balvin, Tom Jones, Logic and Trombone Shorty. There are also, per tradition, an impressive group of less-widely known (yet incredibly talented) acts on the bill. has enjoyed speaking with Hurray For The Riff Raff and Kamasi Washington, but there are many more you won't want to miss getting the chance to discover and know better.

Check out the festival's website for more information and details about tickets, which go on sale Jan. 18 via Ticketmaster.

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