The post-partisan politics advocated by President Obama might have trouble taking root in Washington, but Joan Baez (an Obama supporter who performed at the pre-inaugural concert) appears to have signed on. At her Royce Hall concert Thursday night, the often-vocal political activist largely avoided politics. Instead, backed by a four piece band, including the wonderfully versatile Dirk Powell on banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, Baez used the 90-minute concert to present herself as part of the deep American tradition of balladeers.
A celebration of a five decade career — from “Silver Dagger,” the opening track on her debut album, to nearly half of “Day After Tomorrow,” last year’s Steve Earle-produced collection of a socially conscious ballads — the set list concentrated on songs of family and relationships.
There were songs of love that survives over time, even beyond the grave: the 19th century folk song “Lily of the West,” (she joked that early in her career, every song she sang ended with a death), Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett’s mournful “Scarlet Tide,” Dylan’s “Farewell, Angelina.” In a personal touch, she performed “Diamonds and Rust,” her unsparing look back at her affair with Dylan, filled with nostalgia bitterness (“you were so good with words,” she sneers) and might cut too close to the bone. She pointedly followed it with “Long Black Veil,” another song about love and murder, and Dylan’s lacerating “Love is Just a Four Letter Word,” in which she launched into a very funny imitation of Bob for one verse.
No matter what the provenance of the song, her voice has lost its strident purity and turned warm and maternal (she even dedicated “Honest Lullaby” to her son, Gabriel Harris, who plays percussion). It’s still a stunning instrument, but without her astonishing, youthful high end. It’s lower and more giving; it pulls in the listener and envelops with a hug. It takes the sharp edges off Earle’s “Christmas In Washington,” brings a modesty to his “God is God,” and turns the “white gospel” of the Carter Family’s “Gospel Ship,” into a call for tolerance.
Even the few political stories were softer and more accepting than in the past. She joked that President Bush was good for business because he made times so bad it sent people back to her albums and she noted her favorite moment at the inauguration was a crowd of strangers in a D.C. Metro train embracing and high-fiving each other as they approached the Capitol.