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Back in Black

Janis Ian's lifelong folk-bravery continues with latest release

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Janis Ian has been pushing people's buttons since she began her career in 1966, at the age of 15. Her first single "Society's Child (Baby I've Been Thinking)" was both musically and lyrically daring. The song's ode to interracial love was backed by a then mildly madcap mix of pop, folk and minstrel sounds. Although it was heard on the radio, it was at the peril of some stations that were bombarded with death threats and fire torching.

Ian went on to make some of the most poignant and meticulous folk-pop music of the 1970s. Her huge '75 hit, "At Seventeen," garnered her five Grammy nominations and the respect and attention of the pop-loving world. (Some trivia: Ian performed the song on the inaugural episode of Saturday Night Live that year. Search for it on YouTube.com.)

Over the years, Ian has continued to deliver solid and intricate albums (except for the dance album she made in 1983, which then prompted a 10-year hiatus). But the mainstream lost track of her until she came out of the closet publicly in the mid-90s. Ian then surfaced as an editorial and fiction writer, too.

In 2001, Ian pushed some more buttons with an article in Performing Songwriter magazine where she took on the digital music downloading debate. Ian was pro downloading if used as a marketing tool and pushed that downloading be embraced by musicians and the music industry alike. This time, she only had virtual eggs thrown at her by the likes of the RIAA. Ian practiced what she preached: She offers regular MP3 downloads on her Web site www.janisian.com. Since the article ran, Ian's own sales are up an average of 25 percent.

Earlier this year, Ian released her 20th major-label album, Folk is the New Black. Ever engrossing and always biting, the album showcases Ian's self-deprecating humor ("Folk is the new black/cheaper than crack/and you don't have to cook") and political bent ("While politicians lie and cheat to get to higher ground/we follow them like sheep, and salute them as we drown"). These punchy and alluring pop-folk songs are a fitting next chapter in Ian's brave and dynamic career.

Catch Janis Ian at Rodi's Loft in Gastonia; Oct. 31; 8 p.m.; $25; seating is limited, call 704-864-7634 or visit www.rodiworld.com for tix and reservations.

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