Joan Baez's voice has been her blessing and her curse, in a career that has now entered its fifth decade. Her crystalline, near-operatic soprano was startling in its purity and power through most of her career, but it also sometimes overwhelmed the folk material that has been her staple from Day One. Now 61, Baez's voice is no longer the supple instrument it once was. But it actually may serve her material better.
And her material, her passion, her politics haven't changed, which was a relief and a joy to the audience of several thousand who gathered at this grassy amphitheater to hear the original folk diva. After a smart, literate and tuneful opening set by Richard Shindell, Baez came on stage to a standing ovation. She was backed by a mostly young and very hard-working band that included Shindell, guitar whiz David Hamburger (who has played with Tony Trischka and Duke Robillard, among others), Byron Isaacs on bass, Hungarian-born George Javori on drums, and the delightful Rani Aarbo on fiddle and vocals.
She sang a mix of old and new material, ranging from Shindell's lovely "Reunion Hill" and Ryan Adams' "In My Time of Need," to several tracks off her first two albums, including "El Preso Numero Nueve," "Lily of the West," and the first song she wrote, "Sweet Sir Galahad."
One of the most poignant moments came when she introduced a song by the late Dave Carter, the Portland, Oregon-based singer-songwriter with whom she had toured earlier this year, and who died in June in New York. Her rendition of Carter's "The Mountain" was majestic and moving.
As would be expected, the opening chords of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" received applause, but it was the delivery of the song itself that was most notable. Gone was the folk-rock bombast of her 1971 recording that robbed the song of much of its natural power. In its place was a stripped-down acoustic ballad, delivered with plain dignity that befitted the subject matter. Hamburger's dobro and Aarbo's fiddle added beautiful grace-notes, and Baez's simple and effective phrasing echoed Levon Helms' on the original by The Band.
An unexpected treat was Baez's cover of Gillian Welch's "Elvis Presley Blues." Welch's tribute to the King was especially fitting on this night, one night after the 25th anniversary of Presley's death.
But the emotional focus of the performance came with a series of three songs, very near the beginning of the show. She gave a passionate reading of Woody Guthrie's "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees)," which was all the more powerful for the simplicity of its arrangement. She aptly followed this with Steve Earle's radical-themed "Christmas in Washington," with its refrain of "Come back, Woody Guthrie/come back to us now/Tear your eyes from Paradise/and rise again somehow." When Baez delivered the couplet, "To listen to the radio, you'd think that all was well/But you and me and Cisco know it's headin' straight to Hell," much of the crowd stood and applauded spontaneously; if they all hadn't quit smoking in the past 10 years, they'd have raised their lighters. Then, to wrap up the socialist triplet, she sang the moving union ballad, "Joe Hill." We could've all gone home happy at that point, but she still had 90 minutes to go.
The crowd would have kept her singing all night if it could. But with the thermometer dropping below 60 F and a stiff north breeze that was making her nose run, Baez begged off after one encore tune, Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Her two lines delivered in an imitation of Dylan's nasal twang sent us home with a huge collective smile.
Baez is much more than a nostalgia act. She's a generous bandleader and a gracious performer, and she's still the voice of her generation's conscience, still capable of raising a lump in the throats and tears in the eyes of a bunch of aging liberals. It's a first-class act all the way, one well worth catching if you can.
Baez has a well-designed and informative Web site.