Friday, October 31, 2008
Joan Baez at Town Hall
Her Voice May Be Worn, but Her Passion for the Cause Remains Strong
G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times
Joan Baez in concert at Town Hall on Tuesday night, celebrating 50 years as a performer.
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: October 29, 2008
If anyone ought to recognize a great antiwar song when it comes along, it is Joan Baez, who appeared at Town Hall on Tuesday in a career retrospective celebrating her 50th year in show business. The concert, the first of two over two nights, followed the release of her album “Day After Tomorrow” (Bobolink/Razor and Tie), a bluegrass-flavored collection produced by Steve Earle. Its title song, written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, is a letter from a soldier to his wife in Rockford, Ill., on his 21st birthday. It is one of the album’s several earnest humanitarian reflections.
“I’m not fighting for justice/I am not fighting for freedom/I am just fighting for my life/And another day,” the soldier writes, with the desperation of a man who has lost belief in his leaders and in the cause and just wants to return home safe and sound.
Ms. Baez, who is 67, sang the song in a warm, slightly worn voice that has been chastened by time. All the familiar ingredients of her remarkable instrument were present, but muted. Anthems she used to deliver in long, flowing lines, infused with a ringing certainty, were performed with a reflective, almost halting modesty. St. Joan leading a charge of righteous pacifists into the political fray has softened into a caring, vulnerable everywoman who knows her limitations but still has the courage to stride into battle.
With many of her high notes gone, Ms. Baez’s bread and butter is now her middle range. This is the section of her voice that embodies motherhood more completely than any other folk singer does. You want to rest your head on her lap and be soothed by the sound of the cosmic lullaby emanating from within. Her comforting embrace promises shelter from the storm in a corner of the world where peace and common sense prevail.
Those homespun values were underscored on Tuesday by the old-timey sound of her musicians: Todd Phillips on bass, John Doyle on guitar and Dirk Powell on an array of instruments including banjo, mandolin and fiddle. Ms. Baez’s focus nowadays on a pre-Nashville country-folk style parallels Bob Dylan’s pursuit in his singing and songwriting of a timeless Americana.
Another antiwar song she performed from the album was Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett’s “Scarlet Tide,” which Alison Krauss sang on the soundtrack of “Cold Mountain.” After describing “swindlers who act like kings” and “brokers who break everything,” the lyrics vow, “We’ll rise above the scarlet tide/That trickles down through the mountain/And separates the widow from the bride.”
The album’s best song, Mr. Earle’s “God Is God” — which Ms. Baez described as “a recovery song” — addresses questions of faith from an uncertain point of view: “Whether or not I believe/Doesn’t matter at all/I receive the blessings/That every day on earth’s/Another chance to get it right.”
As Ms. Baez covered the bases of her career on Tuesday, the spirit of Mr. Dylan flickered in songs like “Diamonds and Rust,” her self-effacing memoir of their love affair in the 1960s, and the Dylan ballad “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word,” into which she inserted a very funny Dylan imitation.
Ms. Baez’s sense of humor has always been her saving grace. Just when she has begun to seem intimidatingly high and mighty, her jokes, delivered with a sweet, goofy smile, bring her back to earth, where she is needed as much as ever.
More Articles in Arts » A version of this article appeared in print on October 30, 2008, on page C3 of the New York edition.