Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Kat's Korner: Joan Baez Bringing It All Back Home on Bowery Songs

So there we were at The Fillmore. Sumner, Maggie, Dak-Ho and me. Toni couldn't go because she'd just started a new job and had to be on call. We'd driven to San Francisco so it was just as well because Toni swears the city is out to get her and every other smoker in the country.

It was 2004. March. That much we can agree on.

After that, it gets messy. Maggie's convinced it was the 21st of March. Sumner says it was the 12th. Dak-Ho can't remember. My ticket stub says March 13th. You might think my ticket stub would settle it. If so, you don't know my crowd. All the ticket stub led to was debates of "What if the stub had the wrong date on it?"

All four of us agree that we were at The Fillmore in 2004. Except for Dak-Ho, we can agree it was in March. Maggie can remember her exact outfit. You might be thinking, "But Kat, she's got the date wrong!" (Because, Maggie, you do have the date wrong. And I'm still waiting for you to return that Judy Collins CD.) Maggie can remember her exact outfit on any day, any event.

"Maggie, remember that time we saw Dylan?"

"We never saw Dylan."

"Maggie, remember that time we saw Dylan and you wore the black mini-skirt?"

"Oh, the leather one!" she'll squeal. "I remember I had on the cameo and when he performed 'Just Like A Woman' . . ."

Point is, there's never a great deal of agreement. But on one thing we do agree. Joan Baez was phenomenal. We're disputing the opening act. (I'm sure it was a female with an acoustic guitar and I'll put money on that.) We're disputing where we ate after the show. We were too nervous to eat before because when you're seeing the Queen, you don't want to show up stuffed -- the music will feed you.

Dark Chords On A Big Guitar was the album she was touring behind and we were all agreed that it was one of her finest. We tried to remember that Baez had been hitting the road for four decades now and that what could be accomplished in the studio might not be replicated live.

Point is, we were concerned about the voice. Forget Mel Gibson, Joan Baez is the road warrior. What, you thought it was Dylan? You obviously missed his periodic retirements.

After four decades plus of touring, what was the voice going to sound like? Sumner said it didn't matter what she sounded like, that it was important to support real music in an age of plastique. He's French so he can travel down the high minded road. Dak-Ho said as long as she sang "Amazing Grace," he didn't care about anything else. Maggie was swearing she'd cry and worse if Joan Baez's voice was anything "less than better than okay."

Maggie cried. She ended up crying nonstop. I think I first noticed it when Baez was singing "Rosemary Moore." But here's the thing, she wasn't crying because Baez had lost it, she was crying because Baez seemed to have gained so much more than any of us expected.

That voice was more powerful than any of us remembered or realized. She could still hit those high notes she first gained fame for. Still take you back. But there was this force and body behind the voice that we weren't used to.

We've pretty much seen everyone. Stones? Check. McCartney? Check. Dave Matthews Band? Check. Tori Amos? Check, check, check. Nirvana? Check. Aretha Franklin? Check. Ryan Adams? Check. We even saw the Return to Love tour that teamed Diana Ross with two Supremes she'd never seemed to have met before they took the stage. But this was our first time seeing Joan Baez.

We're used to a ragged voice and an off night. We're used to a lot of things.

We weren't prepared for that concert.

Now comes Bowery Songs which captures
Joan Baez on that tour, eight months later.

I was nervous when I finally got the plastic nightmare wrapping and the mocking sticker off-off the case. I was nervous when I put the CD in the stereo. Sumner called and I used that as an excuse not to listen. Told myself I wanted to give it my full attention.

Truth is, I was afraid I'd be disappointed.

After twenty minutes of chatting with Sumner about the nightmare that is John Roberts Jr., I hung up and felt like the stereo and I were headed for a huge confrontation.

Too early in the day for conflict, so I made myself some toast and intended to read the paper.

But since I'd be in the kitchen, what harm could it do to have the stereo in the living room playing in the background?

Sort of ease myself into it.

Seemed like a good idea.

I turn on the stereo and arrive back in the kitchen just as the toast bounces up from the slots.

I'm buttering and realizing Baez's starting off sans instruments.

Forget the toast, I'm back in the living room. Song's called "Finlandia."

I am, not by nature, a worry wart. I'm pretty laid back. Except when it comes to musical expectations. By the time Baez was holding the "I" in "holy shrine," my worries were gone.

It was a brave choice to open the concert (and the album) with. It instantly answers everyone's worries about the voice (which should actually be "The Voice"). Having laid the doubts to rest, we're all ready for the gentle sway and jangle that is "Rexroth's Daughter."

Here's the thing about the CD that was true of the concert as well, Baez is so vested in the songs, all of them, that you're not sitting there thinking, "Where's 'Diamonds & Rust?' Hey, we want 'Diamonds & Rust!'" That's the power of a singer, a real one. You don't feel cheated if they don't immediately launch into the catalogue.

I have From Every Stage and love the album. But I really think Baez has found the best band she's ever recorded with. The music accents the voice instead of competing with it. (For an example of that, listen to Baez's Blowing Away.) The voice has always had warmth.

That instrument was so stunning from the start. Maybe because the songs were mournful ballads the warmth of Baez's voice didn't get the attention it should have? That's part of what moves you when you listen to those Vanguard CDs now. The sadness is all the more tragic because it's coming from a voice that like. What's been added now is wisdom and experience. You notice it in her phrasing, in the way she accents a line or goes soft where you don't expect it but where it perfectly serves the song.

"Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" is the perfect example. Listen to it on Blessed Are from the end of her tenure with Vanguard and listen to the live version. How many singers can sing a song over thirty year later that improves on their original recording? I count one.

Baez was The Voice and I don't mean to take away anything from those recordings that she made her name with. But when you listen to her sing "Deportee" on Bowery Songs, you wonder, "Where did she learn to caress the lyric like that?" That's wisdom and experience.
It's not melodrama.

It could be. It could very easily be. Put her in a long wig, hand her the acoustic guitar and let her turn in some gross caricature of her 60s self. Nancy Sinatra does that and a lot of people are pleased by it. "It's like she hasn't changed a bit!" you can hear people say.

Forty years passed and the artist is exactly the same? That may comfort on some level but on another level, it's frightening. Makes you wonder what they've done with the last forty years?
Baez's life is as famous as her music, sometimes more famous.

Bowery Songs should go a long away in evening the balance on that score because she's working a winning streak these days. This is the perfect follow up to 2003 Dark Chords On A Big Guitar. In fact, "follow up" doesn't really capture it because that strikes me as implying she's "coasting." This is a further progression. So much so, that I'll need a pot of green tea and a handful of something stronger when the next album comes out. Joan Baez will give me hyper tension at this rate.

Take "Christmas In Washington," Steve Earle's meditation on the state of humanity. Baez nailed that song, for the first time, in 2003. How does she find new layers -- trust me, she finds them -- in a song she only been performing on the road for a year?

"Okay, Kat, she's on a hot streak. She does a great job with the new and newer material and maybe with that Woody Guthrie song, but come on, the album can't be that amazing. Can it?"

It can. It is.

If you grew up listening to her, or if you saw the Lili Taylor & River Phoenix film Dogfight, you're probably familiar with "Silver Daggers." It's a hallmark. Listen to the line "She says that I can't be your bride" and contrast it with the original. Baez nailed it the first time and if she went for the same notes, same tone, same phrasing, we'd all applaud the jukebox quality of the performance. But she's living that song, living that line. You're hearing the song anew and noting moments that weren't there before. Note the band here as well. They're giving the song room to breathe and adding additional textures. The band, by the way, is George Javori, Erik Della Penna, Graham Maby and Duke McVinnie. Note how their accents are like gentle drops of rain and how much that brings to the mood of "Silver Daggers."

That may be part of the reason this live CD works so well. There's a tendency for a lot of acts to rush the songs, especially the well known ones. "Okay, they all want to hear '____' so let's just toss that one out and get it over with." The tempo on Dylan's last tour, for instance, seemed to have been thought up while he was snorting crushed Ritalin.

Joan Baez was never a studio rat. She was a live performer before she stepped into a studio. Bowery Songs will remind you just how much of a live performer she is.

Back in March of 2004, at The Fillmore, the song that gave me goosebumps was "Rosemary Moore." As her voice echoed, rose and fell, climbed the highs and bottomed out so perfectly, I looked over and there was Maggie crying. Baez performed the song that beautifully. It's a sign of how perfectly this album captures Baez that I haven't lamented the fact that "Rosemary Moore" doesn't appear on the album.

This is a new classic for Baez. There are three months left in 2005 and there's not been a great deal of new material that you had to have or you were missing out on something great, but this album is something you need to hear. I can tell you we saw Joan Baez on March 13th. I can tell you Maggie wore a suede dress. (On the dress, Maggie agrees.) But with
Bowery Songs, there's not a whole lot more I can tell you. I can tell you to check it out. I can tell you it will delight you, amaze you. But I can't bring home how wonderful it is. You have to hear it for yourself.