REVIEW AND PHOTOS BY KATIE MOULTON
"You're telling me you're not nostalgic," Joan Baez sings on "Diamonds and Rust," "Then give me another word for it." The 1975 piece is Baez at her most personal, a look back on her relationship with Bob Dylan, and was the appropriate close to her set last night at the Pageant, during which her folk purity, political righteousness and cosmic voice took on subdued tones.
During a 90-minute, no opener, no intermission set, Baez employed her famous vocal instrument, huskier and sweeter now in its three octave range, with songs spanning her 50-year career. Starting with "The Lily of the West" from 1961's Joan Baez Vol. 2, released when she was twenty years old, Baez moved gracefully into recent works from 2008's Steve Earle-produced Day After Tomorrow, including the Earle-penned "God Is God" and "Christmas in Washington." The latter Earle piece is an obvious Baez choice for its chorus "So come back, Woody Guthrie/ Come back to us now."
Yet Baez's performance did not wallow in wistful longing for the more fervent and innocent idealism of her "barefoot Madonna" days. The 68-year-old folk icon remains a tender interpreter of other artists' works, referencing and pointing out the genius of the traditions to which she belongs. Back-to-back solo acoustic renditions of "Forever Young" and John Lennon's "Imagine" pushed the crowd beyond the brink; instructed to sing along, all around people were wiping their eyes.
At the same time, Baez draws audience attention to her current political causes. And so yes, there were topical songs about the West Bank and one dedicated to the Iranian people. (A modest table with Amnesty International pamphlets supplanted socially conscious fanfare.) And yes, there was St. Joan alone on stage with only her voice and halo spotlight. But she mostly appeared accompanied by her four-piece backing band, which included multi-instrumentalists (fiddle, banjo, mandolin, piano, guitars) John Doyle and Dirk Powell, upright bassist Todd Phillips and Baez's son, Gabriel Harris, on percussion.
But one would never have thought from all the men pulling at their khakis and women cleaning their reading glasses that it would be such a vocal crowd, nearly to the point of heckling for love of Joan. When Baez stood alone and began "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" a cappella, one woman could hardly handle the shocking joy of it, screaming, "Oh my God, oh my God!" -- causing Baez to break the solemnity with her toothy grin.
Baez's levity is her most surprising saving grace - she doesn't hesitate to address her critics or her past, as demonstrated during the rolling "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," when she physically and audibly transformed, rasping the last lines, "You just kinda wasted my, precious time," in a pitch-perfect impersonation of nasal young Dylan. For a moment, she embodied the memory of that endearing sneer, laughing with youth as only someone who has moved beyond it is able.
Can you talk about Baez without talking about Bob Dylan? Well, Baez dictates the terms, and she's still talking about Bobby. Her covers of Dylan's '60s songs seemed especially significant (especially after I heard Dylan perform a version of "Don't Think Twice" earlier this month under the stars in Sauget). Baez seems now to have found a way to run parallel to the ever-moving Dylan, putting to work the old forms in a different world, replacing high-minded ethereality with earthy vitality.
The Voice can still be otherworldly and high-flying, but gone is the chill of its old altitude. Baez's voice, even when it takes off into the nether-reaches, now possesses roots, dug deep in experience. The voice -- I imagine Joan saying -- is the difference between believing and knowing.
Setlist: (with band): The Lily of the West Scarlet Tide God Is God Silver Dagger Love Song to a Stranger Farewell, Angelina Gospel Ship Christmas in Washington Joe Hill I'm a Wanderer Just the Way You Are (written by band member Dirk Powell) Rose of Sharon (Joan, solo): Swing Low, Sweet Chariot Forever Young Imagine (with band): Long Black Veil Don't Think Twice, It's All Right Jerusalem (encore): The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down [Song Title?] (a capella hymn harmonizing with band members) Diamonds and Rust (solo)