October 6, 2008
Has Joan Baez improved with age?
Certainly, at 67, celebrating half a century in music, she can still
spellbind a crowd within seconds of starting a song. Her current
album, Day After Tomorrow, produced by Steve Earle, rates as one of
her best and, at a packed Albert Hall, her voice was warmer and
sweeter than in her 1960s heyday.
In keeping with the stripped-down sound of the album, Baez was
accompanied by an acoustic trio, who joined her in a line along the
front of the stage, switching between guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin
and accordion. A no-frills set - there was no backdrop or light show,
and the only prop was a little table to which she occasionally turned
to sip peppermint tea - began with Lily of the West, a traditional
folk ballad Baez originally recorded in 1961.
"I have 50 years to cram into one concert," she joked, then began a
run of new songs, including a cover of Elvis Costello's Scarlet Tide
and a sublime God is God, written specifically for her by Earle. If
there was one complaint, it was about the crowd, mainly well-dressed
women who hung on her every word. Their silence during songs, polite
applause and forced laughter whenever Baez half-cracked a joke -
getting her bangle caught in her guitar wasn't actually funny - gave
the concert the rarefied air of a sombre recital.
Still petite, her hair short and grey, in a red robe and matching
scarf over wide, black trousers, Baez looked as classy as she
sounded. Old Gospel Ship, sung partly a cappella, was positively
spiritual and when she dismissed her band and broke into Swing Low,
Sweet Chariot, her pure, high vocals were simply astonishing. When
she turned to sing, unamplified, to the poor souls who were sold
seats behind her, she deserved a riotous cheer, though none was forthcoming.
Towards the end of the set, Baez lost her way a little and making out
her words became increasingly tricky. Still, she did Bob Dylan - Love
is Just a Four Letter Word was superb, With God on Our Side just
so-so - and proved that her retirement remains a long way off.