“I thrive on that stuff,” said Joan Baez of her fans’ applause, launching her second encore solo Friday at The Egg. She claimed it was never about the money, but about the adulation, “and you’re doing very nicely.”
She was, too — her moral and musical force working very nicely, and always about the meaning.
On the first night of her tour, she tried out new songs from an album she’s been recording in Nashville with Steve Earle (who plays The Egg later this spring). She also re-imagined some vintage tunes and re-examined her complex relationship with Bob Dylan. Her voice sounded a bit scratchy on Eliza Gilkyson’s “Rose of Sharon,” first song in her 90-minute set and one of the “new-old folksongs” from the new album. By the second song, the Elvis Costello/T Bone Burnett anti-war anthem “Bring the Boys Home,” she had reclaimed her familiar clarity and strength; which wavered only slightly thereafter. Her trio of drummer Dean Sharenow, bassist Mike Duclos and multi-instrumentalist Erik Della Penna delighted in the country lope of “Peggy-O,” and there were few of the rough spots Baez said she worried about on this opening night.
In Dylan’s “With God on Our Side,” the band dropped out in the Jesus and Judas verse and the crowd roared approval at her hope to “stop the next war.” A Steve Earle song about God in all of us followed nicely, putting God firmly but gently in his place. In “Long Black Veil,” which she said she learned from Johnny Cash, the band followed beautifully as she sped up and slowed down, and they loosened up a samba sung in Spanish that she had learned at 17 with new beats and bounce.
This loosened Baez up, too. She recalled singing frozen at the mic when younger and admitted she’d never learned to move; but then she did, all over the stage, in sensuous and silly steps, before settling into Sam Cooke’s classic “What a Wonderful World.” Turning serious again, she indicted feckless leadership in Earle’s caustic “Christmas in Washington,” dedicated the union-organizing anthem “Joe Hill” to Barack Obama, whose campaign for president she recently endorsed; and as the band left the stage, she chanted his name to the tune of “La Bamba.” Dylan’s “Love is Just a Four Letter Word” flowed from the sublime to the ridiculous as she first forgot the words then imitated Dylan’s dusty whine; but Tom Waits’ “The Day After Tomorrow” about a soldier’s hope of homecoming was simply sublime, and sad. Even better was “Diamonds and Rust,” best song she’s written, tracing the wild trajectory of her connection to Dylan. She changed the words to acknowledge the passage of time and later disputed the notion that age creeps up on you to insist that it comes up from behind and smacks you in the head.
After “Diamonds,” she summoned and conferred with the band, deciding in laughing consensus to rev up with the Carter Family’s sanctified chestnut “Gospel Ship” and staying in this upbeat mood for “Jerusalem” with its pacifist hope for the laying down of swords and harmony of lions and lambs. A group hug and bow onstage and a standing ovation in the seats, then Baez and band were back onstage quickly for John Lennon’s “Imagine,” spiced by a sweet lap slide solo. Baez sang her second encore alone, dipping back into Dylan’s songbook for a wistful “There But for Fortune.”
At 67, Baez is too lively and unpredictable to be just a revered relic, a symbol of political and social and moral movements. To many in the capacity crowd, she was clearly that, too; a voice of conscience and clarity of idealism that inspires by remaining forceful in a changing world. She is also a goof-ball, whose light-hearted enjoyment of the music and her band shows a knowledge of the line between sincerity and self-righteousness.
Reach Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]
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Categories: Life and Arts